No excuses, Mr. Mayor – support Fair Fares

Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office

All it took was a new battleground for the long-running pissing match between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the mayor to become a newly visible ally in the fight for a more functional subway system.

Welcome to the party, Mr. Mayor. Grab a seat or a pole and get comfortable; there are signal problems ahead and we should be moving shortly.

De Blasio, who in June dismissed the idea of riding the subway more frequently as “cheap symbolism” – a laughable contention given his 12-mile daily commute via SUV caravan from Gracie Mansion to the Park Slope YMCA to “stay connected” to his old neighborhood – has finally figured out that his responsibility to the subway system isn’t just to merely throw up his hands and say, “Not my problem.”

Of course, straphangers may have noticed that’s exactly what de Blasio did for several months this year as he and the City Council tangoed during municipal budget negotiations over Fair Fares – a proposal to earmark about $200 million to subsidize discounted MetroCards for New Yorkers living below the federal poverty line.

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The same mayor who, once upon a time, spoke eloquently about bridging the city’s equality gap; whose 2013 electoral victory was buoyed by strong support from low-income neighborhoods; whose budgets have risen every year he’s been in office to a whopping $85 billion as he throws money at new social programs – yet balked at funding Fair Fares that would’ve appreciably changed the lives of nearly 800,000 of his constituents.

Norma Ginez, 41, a first-generation Peruvian immigrant whose parents brought her to New York City when she was 6 years old, is a single, unemployed mother of three children living in the Concourse section of the Bronx. She is unemployed out of necessity rather than an inability to work. All three of her children have special needs and require extra attention that keeps her from working.

Sitting in a booth at a hole-in-the-wall diner on 170th Street in the Bronx with her daughter, Ginez describes how she’s forced to ration what little money she has for bare necessities, which means that even a $2.75 single subway ride is often a luxury she can’t afford.

As a result, Ginez hoards MetroCards with any amount of money on them, including free ones she gets as a member of Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group that is pushing the Fair Fares proposal with the Community Service Society of New York.

“If (de Blasio’s) not going to do it, we’re going to start to find another mayor that can do it.” – Norma Ginez, single, unemployed mother of three

More frequently, Ginez is forced to commute by foot, sometimes as many as 20 or 30 blocks to and from various doctors’ appointments and errands. While the walking is great cardiovascular exercise – she jokes that her jeans fit a lot looser than they used to – it’s not a sustainable mode of transportation during the winter months or when the weather is nasty.

“I go to my counselor, my medical doctor and I keep every MetroCard so that I have them for the winter time, rainy days or times that I feel like it’s too far to walk,” Ginez said. “Other times we will walk – if I’m at 149th (Street) and Third (Avenue) I’ll walk to 169th Street to get home with my kids. We make a field trip out of it. ‘Look at the pretty building! We’ll go to the park! Play for a little bit and then we’ll walk back home so you’ll get real tired and go to sleep!’”

Despite the full-time job of being a mother, Ginez has carved out time to work with the Riders Alliance on the Fair Fares campaign. She was drawn to the campaign after an impromptu conversation with a Riders Alliance member, a college student, on the platform of the 161st Street subway station. They bonded over their struggle to afford a subway fare, and when he explained the proposal for a discounted MetroCard, Ginez was immediately sold. Ginez wasted no time, joining the Riders Alliance for a day of action in the Bronx, canvassing for petition signatures with her three kids in tow.

Ginez has since become a vocal advocate for Fair Fares, even convincing Vanessa Gibson, her councilwoman, to sign on to the campaign. So far, 40 council members – well beyond a majority – support the proposal, as well as city Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James.

De Blasio has repeatedly called the Fair Fares proposal “noble” in spirit, but has insisted that the responsibility for such a subsidy should fall to the state, which controls the MTA, displaying willful ignorance to the fact that the city already subsidizes MetroCards for seniors and public school students. The mayor also declined to fund a compromise proposal that would have established a $50 million pilot program for a discounted MetroCard.

“If (de Blasio’s) not going to do it, we’re going to start to find another mayor that can do it,” Ginez said. “It’s something very important. Families are depriving themselves from other necessities that they need, sometimes even empty stomachs, to get to and from work because they have to pay for that fare.”

What makes de Blasio’s resistance to Fair Fares even more inexplicable is that he is well aware of the challenges low-income New Yorkers like Ginez are facing.

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In May, the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity released its annual poverty report, which showed commuting costs raise the poverty rate by 2.2 percentage points, and have a greater impact on pushing people into poverty than payroll taxes or anything else except out-of-pocket medical expenses.

As a single mother, Ginez is part of a unique demographic that is disproportionately affected by increasingly unaffordable subway fares. The poverty rate for single mothers in New York City is staggeringly high – 41 percent live below the poverty line, twice the poverty rate for New Yorkers overall.

Indeed, even as Ginez looks for work – she was recently certified as a medical biller – she confronts the grim reality that the jobs available to her are simply insufficient to sustain her family financially. Ginez recounts a recent experience, in which she used one of her saved MetroCards to travel to Queens to interview for a position as a telephone operator at a hospital. The job paid a pittance – $8 an hour – so Ginez declined. A precious $5.50 round-trip subway fare wasted.

“I told them upfront, I said, ‘Take this (wage), think about how much I pay for child care, add my subway fare, $120 automatically or so I have to pay for my monthly MetroCard so I can make sure I can get to work. Then lunch, maybe I can’t bring food from home and I’m hungry. It’s not going to compensate.’

“Listen, even 10 years back, (with a job paying) $19 an hour, I had a vehicle and I had two kids, I still didn’t make it. You’re going to tell me with $8 an hour I’m going to make it but with three children? No way.”

While Ginez makes a compelling economic argument for a proposal like Fair Fares, de Blasio can’t get beyond the politics, instead content to be an unwitting pawn in Cuomo’s ridiculous game of “Whose Subway Is It Anyway?”

Yes, Cuomo is being utterly disingenuous in pushing the false narrative that the city should be doing more to fund the MTA, but it’s no less frustrating that de Blasio does not seem to understand the difference between managing subway operations and being responsible to his constituents. His skepticism about the MTA’s ability to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of city money is fine. So why not take matters into his own hands and provide some measure of relief for low-income New Yorkers suffering from a snarled subway system? Subway fares will be hiked once again in 2019 and 2021, putting an affordable commute even further out of reach for de Blasio’s most vulnerable constituents.

If de Blasio were half the political operative he thinks he is, he might recognize that funding Fair Fares is a terrific opportunity to go beyond the “cheap symbolism” of having his press secretary tweet photos of him riding the subway. After all, the roughly 800,000 impoverished New Yorkers that would benefit from discounted MetroCards is more than the total number of people who voted for de Blasio in 2013 general election.

Alas, de Blasio has clearly made the political calculation that he can easily win re-election without lifting a finger on subway fares, which is probably true. There is no Democrat on the ballot that comes close to making the mayor sweat, and Nicole Malliotakis, the presumptive Republican nominee, is widely considered to be a long shot.

In the meantime, voters like Ginez will continue advocating for Fair Fares. The issue is not going away.

“Mayor de Blasio says that he really loves the lower-income class and he’s for us, but he’s not really showing he’s for us if he’s not (funding) lower fares for lower-income families,” Ginez said. “We are going to round up more council members. We’re going to round up more people that are in the same situation like us. We’re going to prepare for next year.”