New York City’s transit agency has warned for months of a fare hike that would take effect this spring, part of a regularly scheduled increase that would help fill a multibillion dollar budget hole after the pandemic drained the system of riders and starved it of nearly all its revenues.
But in a reflection of the agency’s stark reversal of fortune now that Democrats will be in control of the White House and Congress, transit officials announced on Sunday night that they would postpone the 4 percent fare increase for at least several months, anticipating significantly more federal aid.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subway, buses and two commuter rails, had come under mounting pressure from elected officials and transit advocates to postpone the hike because they said it would hurt the essential and low-wage workers who make up the backbone of ridership today.
At the same time, the impending leadership of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the Democrats’ retaking of the Senate — Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is poised to become the majority leader — have bolstered transit officials’ hopes that the M.T.A. will receive funds to alleviate its staggering financial woes.
Officials said they would delay fare increases until the local economy showed signs of a recovery and there was greater clarity about how much federal aid the agency could expect. Officials are hoping for an additional $8 billion in relief, which is the size of the agency’s budget deficit through 2024.
The pandemic has brought revenues to “levels far worse than the Great Depression,” Patrick J. Foye, the M.T.A. chairman, said in a statement. “It has also hit people of color and low-income communities hardest, many of whom are the very same essential workers that have been on the front lines of this crisis and who are also most dependent on mass transit.
“People are suffering and cannot shoulder even a modest fare increase right now,” Mr. Foye added in explaining the postponement of the fare hike.
M.T.A. officials last year laid out a variety of options for how a hike could be applied, including raising the base fare from $2.75 to $2.85, increasing the surcharge for buying a new MetroCard from $1 to $3, and eliminating seven- and 30-day unlimited passes or raising their prices.
On commuter rails, the possibilities included raising the price for single-ride and 10-trip tickets by more than 4 percent while keeping the price of monthly and weekly passes the same, or overhauling ticket prices entirely to reflect where trips begin and end.
But in recent weeks, transit advocates and a growing number of state and city elected officials warned that raising fares would strain the essential workers who tend to be lower-income people of color, would do little to raise revenue with ridership at record lows, and could discourage riders from returning to the system as city life rebounds.
“A fare hike is at best a flat tax, but at the moment it’s highly regressive because it’s essential workers and low-income New Yorkers without cars who are still taking transit while white-collar workers stay home and tourists say away,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group.
The M.T.A. board — which is effectively controlled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who appoints a majority of its full voting members — was scheduled to vote on the hike at its monthly meeting on Thursday.
But ahead of the vote, some board members had also raised concerns about the changes. Two members, Robert W. Linn and Victor Calise, called for a delay in fare increases until 2022 in an email to the board and M.T.A. officials on Friday.
Both Mr. Linn and Mr. Calise are part of the minority of board members appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who have questioned Mr. Cuomo’s total control of the agency and criticized its lack of transparency.
On Monday morning, riders welcomed the news of the delay. Roger Windley, 37, a private trash collector who lives and works in Brooklyn, said he was frustrated by the prospect of a fare hike.
“Every time it goes up, people don’t get more money,” Mr. Windley said at the Broadway Junction station in Brooklyn. “It’s crazy, especially now.”
When asked how he would personally be affected if forced to pay more for the five days a week he rides, he replied, “I’ll be broke.”
James Carvell, 29, who lives in Brooklyn and is out of work, said any increase in fares would discourage people who are looking for a job.
“If they really sit there and raise it, people will use the pandemic as an excuse to stay home,” he said.
Despite postponing the fare hike, transit officials will move forward with plans to raise tolls on bridges and tunnels controlled by the M.T.A. The board is expected to approve those increases next month, and they would go into effect this spring.
Tolls have historically subsidized public transit ridership, and the possibility of raising them has received far less public backlash than increasing fares. But some drivers have warned that they, too, are financially strapped.
Prince Jamas, 56, has been driving for a car service and for Uber since losing a construction job at the start of the pandemic. He worries that toll increases, the cost of which his customers typically absorb, could discourage people from using ride-share services and deplete his meager profits.
“You have to feed your family, you have to pay your bills, you have to pay your landlord,” Mr. Jamas said. “The landlord does not care about the E-ZPass; they only want their money.”
Still, transit officials say raising tolls would yield more revenue than raising subway fares, while affecting travelers who tend to have higher incomes than most subway and bus riders. Unlike subway ridership, which has plateaued at around 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels, traffic on M.T.A.-controlled bridges and tunnels has rebounded to about 84 percent of normal.
New York officials have also been encouraged by the ambitious $1.9 trillion stimulus plan Mr. Biden has laid out, which includes $20 billion for the country’s “hardest hit public transit agencies.”
Mr. Schumer’s new role as Senate majority leader places the state in a position to reap the benefits as well. A Brooklyn native, Mr. Schumer has been a staunch supporter of public transit and has played a crucial role in securing funding for transit agencies during last year’s stimulus negotiations.
The M.T.A. received around $8 billion total in federal aid last year, which covered its shortfall through the end of 2021. But the agency still faces a roughly $8 billion deficit between 2022 and 2024.
“We were able to successfully get the money mass transit needed in the last two Covid packages, and I’m very optimistic that we can do it again,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview on Monday. “Money for mass transit is going to be one of my top priorities in the next budget.”
Still, advocates have warned of the risks involved in relying solely on federal aid to rescue the subway system from financial calamity. They have urged Mr. Cuomo and state lawmakers to identify new revenue streams, including raising the gas tax or imposing a surcharge on nonessential online purchases, to support the M.T.A.’s long-term recovery.
A report released on Tuesday by the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University and Appleseed, an economic analysis firm, suggests using tax revenues from the sale of recreational marijuana — which Mr. Cuomo is seeking to legalize — to stave off fare hikes.
“The federal government is not a bank,” Mitchell Moss, the director of the Rudin Center, said. “It’s vital to help the M.T.A. through tough times, but the recovery of ridership is going to take a long time. It won’t be done in one year or even two years.”
He added: “We need to make sure that we do everything possible to encourage ridership to return. That means keeping fares low and service high.”
Nate Schweber contributed reporting.