The price of a New York City subway ride could rise to just over $3 in less than three years as transit leaders consider raising fares for the first time since before the pandemic began, presenting a potential hardship for those who rely most heavily on the depleted system.
Ridership has yet to return to its prepandemic levels, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs the city’s subway and buses, has said it could face a budget gap of nearly $3 billion by 2025.
As authority officials draft a financial plan for the next four years, they have presented fare increases as one option for helping to offset the loss of riders. If the authority board approves such a move, the current $2.75 base fare could rise to $2.90 by next year and to $3.02 in 2025. Any fare changes would be preceded by public hearings and a board vote.
Kevin Willens, the authority’s chief financial officer, emphasized in an interview that no decision had been made about raising fares. “Clearly,” he said, “there can be discussion on what’s the right mix between fares and other new government support and so forth.”
The authority’s financial struggles are shared by mass transit systems across the United States and in Europe, which, like New York’s, have not recovered from ridership and revenue losses that have lingered far longer and more severely than had been expected.
Any fare increases are sure to upset those who ride New York City’s subway and buses. Many of them are already displeased with subway service: A customer survey conducted by the authority this past spring showed more than half were unsatisfied with it. Others are abandoning the system altogether, with weekday passenger levels remaining stubbornly low at about 60 percent of prepandemic levels.
Many people have stayed away because of continuing fears over the coronavirus and a shift to remote work. The safety of the system is also a source of rising anxiety after a series of high-profile attacks on platforms and trains.
The authority has raised fares about 4 percent every two years since 2009, but it put off a planned round in 2021 as it sought to lure riders back amid the pandemic. An infusion of more than $14 billion infederal aid has helped to ease the authority’s budget gap, but that money is expected to dry up within three years. The potential fare increases would push the cost of a ride up 5.5 percent next year and 4 percent in 2025.
Even if it imposes higher fares, the authority anticipates a $600 million deficit next year, which it wants the city, state or federal government — or some combination of the three — to pay for.
The $2.75 base fare has been in place since 2015; the most recent increase came in 2019, when the price of unlimited weekly and monthly MetroCards rose.
Through a spokesman, Mayor Eric Adams said the city was already paying its fair share of the cost of operating the system and that the state would have to close the deficit.
A representative of Gov. Kathy Hochul declined to comment on whether Ms. Hochul would commit to a higher contribution but pointed to last year’s reprieve from Washington and said the governor would “continue working with federal partners and state legislators on how to best support public transit.” (No additional federal aid has been announced).
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The state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, said in a report last week that the authority would need to raise fares at least 23 percent every two years to match the fare revenue it was taking in before the pandemic. Such increases would put the base fare at $3.38 next year and $4.16 in 2025.
Transit advocates have urged Ms. Hochul to earmark more money for the system in the state budget, which will be hashed out early next year.
“By design, the governor controls the M.T.A. and dominates the state budget process,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, which represents passengers’ interests. “She is positioned far better than anyone else to rescue riders from the fiscal cliff.”
Turner Collins, a lawyer who lives in Manhattan and commutes to work on the subway, said that a fare increase would not hurt him financially but that the possibility of one was coming at a bad time.
“People have been upset with safety and timeliness and things in general on the subway,” Mr. Collins, 27, said. “I don’t think it’s going to increase ridership.”
Beyond raising costs for riders, the limited options available to New York transit leaders include laying off workers and cutting service. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic and before the federal aid arrived, the authority proposed slashing subway service by 40 percent, eliminating some bus routes and cutting service on the remaining ones by a third.
Some experts fear any changes that make the subway less enticing could plunge the system into a so-called transit death spiral, with falling ridership causing revenue to shrink further until the network collapses. The authority got a glimpse of that scenario in 2010, when officials cut their way out of a fiscal crisis touched off by the Great Recession, inconveniencing 15 percent of riders and driving some away entirely.
“It feels not great that the onus is going on New Yorkers who depend on the subways,” said Molly Greenberg, 33, who lives in Brooklyn and was commuting on Monday morning to her job as a transportation planner in Manhattan. “I guess riding my bike or something like that could be an option.”
Some government watchdogs say that fare increases, along with more efficient financial practices, are necessary to keep the authority in good fiscal health. Critics of the authority have accused it of spending excessively and employing too many people.
“Costs continue to increase, and having fare increases to cover some of those increased costs makes a lot of sense,” Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, said. “It keeps the M.T.A. stable and strong.”
“What it needs to do,” he added, “is figure out both how to reduce its costs and make sure it gets the revenue it needs to operate.”
The authority is pursuing new sources of revenue. Officials are moving closer to adopting a congestion-pricing program that would charge drivers who enter Manhattan below 60th Street a toll as high as $23. The proceeds would finance improvements to the transit network. In August, the authority released an environmental assessment of the pricing plan that officials are now considering.
Transit systems around the country have continued to experience steep losses since 2020 as white-collar commuters abandoned mass transit and worked from home. Trips on public transportation fell 40 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Ridership has rebounded partially, but it remained well below prepandemic levels through last year.
In New York, the transit authority lost nearly half of its annual operating revenue in that period, but its budget problems long predate the pandemic. The system was saved from decay in the early 1980s when lawmakers allowed it to issue bonds. The authority’s debt load, however, subsequently ballooned.
Expenses have outpaced income, and the authority has borrowed heavily to keep up. Its outstanding long-term debt rose 55 percent from 2010 to 2021, to $40.1 billion from $25.8 billion.
Although the federal aid helped stabilize the authority’s budget, the transit system’s long-term financial health depends heavily on the return of riders. Before the pandemic, nearly 40 percent of operating revenue came from fares, a higher percentage than at most other major public transit systems, which are more reliant on government subsidies. Today, that share has dropped to 23 percent.
Any new service reductions or increased costs in New York risk deepening work force inequities laid bare by the pandemic and worsened by unrelenting inflation. White-collar workers often have the option of working at home, but many low-wage workers, who tend to be people of color with longer commutes, have no choice but to travel to their jobs.
For Michelle Francis, 56, higher transit fares could mean the difference between a well- stocked pantry and a frugal one.
Ms. Francis, who works as a nanny in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn, said she was on a tight budget and that every penny counted, especially with inflation sending the price of groceries soaring. She rides the subway seven days a week and already struggles to pay the current fare, so her son helps when she comes up short.
“It’s difficult,” she said. “Imagine going to the supermarket and you only come out with two bags that’s $60, $70. You have to cut from what you really need.”