The MTA is using fare evasion as an excuse for its failures

If the subways don't improve, the talk won’t be about evading fares. It will be about people evading New York City altogether.

A sign in the subway station in New York warns of the consequences of fare evasion.

A sign in the subway station in New York warns of the consequences of fare evasion. rblfmr/Shutterstock

There’s new attention on the issue of fare evasion. That isn’t because journalists, politicians, or even regular people developed a particular interest in the issue; it’s simply because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to talk about it again. But that conversation is a distraction from the MTA’s real problems and the needed solutions.

Given the New York City Transit Authority’s catastrophic financial situation, declining service and ridership numbers, they could use a smokescreen to blur the public’s perception – and they’ve found one in Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who in September stopped prosecuting most fare beating cases. It started in November when MTA board member Larry Schwartz said turnstile jumpers was one reason the authority was planning to hike fares again. “The problem is people are not paying,” Schwartz said. “And that is not fair to the people that are paying.”

Last week, following up on Schwartz, the MTA delivered a much anticipated report on this supposed problem. According to the MTA, $215 million in revenue has been “lost” to fare evasion this year, double the amount lost in 2015.

As Signal Problem’s Aaron Gordon pointed out, the short PowerPoint presentation never made clear how the MTA arrived at such a figure. We don’t know how the MTA can know everyone caught entering a gate without paying is a fare evader and we don’t know how many of those who fail to pay on buses, where fare evasion is a bigger problem, are not simply there on a free transfer or waved along by a bus driver.

According to Eric Goldwyn, a research scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute, the MTA could collect more accurate data if it chose to, as every subway turnstile has a camera monitoring it. It’s also worth noting that, while arrests for fare beating are way down from last year, summonses are actually up.

Goldwyn argues that the number of people paying for rides is probably down because the number of riders is down, rather than that they’re all just skipping out on paying now that they can assume they’ll only get a fine instead of being hauled off to jail. “Fewer people will use subways and buses year-over-year if there are no subway connections on the 2/3 trains between Manhattan and Brooklyn every weekend for a year, or if traffic becomes so congested that the bus travels at 3.5 miles per hour, as the B41 does on Tillary Street,” said Goldwyn, referring to some of the service disruptions and shortcomings that are likely to blame for the ridership slump. “The literature on bus ridership is very clear that only ‘captive’ bus passengers,” meaning those with no other transportation options, “will wait more than 15 minutes for a bus and that ridership declines as service is cut or becomes unpredictable.”

Vance took direct issue with Byford’s groundless assertion that such criminal justice practices were costing the MTA money. A spokesman for Vance said “the MTA is running out of people to blame for its monumental failures.”

More importantly, if we are to take the MTA’s numbers at face value, what is to be done? Surely Andy Byford, the transit whiz who runs the NYCTA, understands $215 million is 1.2 percent of the MTA’s proposed 2019 budget.

It’s rare the MTA has fretted so much over such an infinitesimal amount of money. A transit authority that spends a billion dollars to replace tiles and add USB charging ports to a select number of stations in the system can’t truly call a loss of $215 million a major problem.

Should police be posted at every single turnstile and bus? Should district attorneys start cracking down on the primarily poor people who actually don’t pay to ride the bus and rails?

Why should we even discuss these questions right now? Fare evasion has nothing to do with the MTA’s catastrophic budget woes or its poor spending practices.

That’s the real trouble of Byford and Schwartz even hammering the issue in the first place, and driving news reports about a supposed problem the MTA confronts today. Since fare evasion—if the MTA’s thinly-sourced numbers are to be taken at face value—is not a serious threat to the transit authority’s finances, regular New Yorkers who don’t have time to sift through spin are left to grapple with misinformation and false impressions.

As with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign to mislead New Yorkers into thinking he isn’t responsible for the state-controlled MTA, this latest attempt to underscore fare evasion is a pernicious distraction. Not only does it lend credence to the view that poverty should be criminalized, it allows the MTA and politicians to avoid hard truths.

The MTA may be the most inefficient transportation agency in the world. It cost $2.5 billion to build out a mile of subway track for the Second Avenue Subway. In other countries, it costs a fraction of that. The contracting process for transit construction projects is quasi-corrupt, bloated by a lack of competition, incestuous back-scratching, and archaic work rules.

Ridership may be down from years of declining service, or the proliferation of for-hire vehicle apps like Uber. A budget gap of $634 million looms for the MTA, even if fare hikes were to take effect, according to a recent report from the state Comptroller’s office. The report blames rising health insurance costs for employees and retirees, rising borrowing costs for capital projects, and declining ridership. Fare evasion is never mentioned. Tom DiNapoli, the state comptroller, said the MTA is facing its “greatest challenge in decades.”

Given these unsolved problems and the coming fare increases, perhaps it’s not so surprising Byford and Schwartz want to cry out about a few riders not paying. It’s an easy talking point to digest and it obscures a terrifying reality: if the MTA doesn’t cut costs and the state doesn’t create new revenue streams to pay for service improvements – the city itself, which wholly relies on a functioning transit system – will really go off the rails.

At that point, the talk won’t be about evading fares. It will be about people evading New York City altogether.