New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and its director Joe Lhota received broad (and largely deserved) praise for the speed with which the city’s transit system was brought back online after Sandy. One of the things that made that recovery remarkable was how expensive it was, with the agency tallying $5 billion in expenses linked to the storm. That cost came on top of the MTA’s ongoing budget problems.

An empty, dry tunnel under the East River
MTAPhotos
An empty, dry tunnel under the East River.

Unsurprisingly, then, the MTA today announced plans to increase fares. As reported by The New York Times:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted unanimously on Wednesday to raise the base fare on subways and buses by a quarter, to $2.50, and increase the cost of a 30-day MetroCard by $8, to $112. …

The cost of a seven-day subway or bus pass will also rise by $1, to $30. And the bonus on pay-per-ride MetroCards will decrease to 5 percent, from 7 percent, but will be available to anyone who places at least $5 on a card. Currently, the bonus applies only to purchases of at least $10.

Those increases are 11 percent for a single ride, 8 percent for a 30-day card, and 3 percent for a 7-day pass. Sounds steep — particularly when you consider that fares have consistently increased faster than the rate of inflation. Then again, so has the number of bus routes and subway lines.

Click to embiggen.
Wikipedia
Click to embiggen.

Given that we’re talking public transit, it’s tempting to label the hikes regressive, disproportionately affecting lower-income users. But it isn’t that simple. According to the most recent subway and bus rider data, the demographics of public transit users in the region are probably not what you’d expect.

In each of these charts, the data presented is the percentage of ridership meeting a particular criterion, or, in the case of the yellow columns in each, the percentage of all New Yorkers.

mta income

mta class

mta ethnicity
While the bus (as one would expect) has more lower-income riders and riders of color, the plurality of riders of both the bus and the subway earn over $75,000 a year. The MTA does have a reduced fare structure, but it is predicated on age and disability, not ability to pay. And what’s not depicted in the graphs above is how much of the riders’ income goes to transit. So, yes, the fare increase is regressive — but perhaps less than it may at first seem.

This is the challenge of an institution that is dependent on flat-rate public financing. At some point, the cost of maintaining or expanding service outpaces the revenue that is coming in. (See also: the federal government.) Hikes are unpopular and often unduly burdensome to lower income levels. But they’re also necessary.

Earlier today, Chair Lhota announced that he was leaving the agency. Many expect that he’ll announce a (doomed) bid for mayor of New York. It’s a weird note to go out on: After receiving praise for handling Sandy, he’ll certainly be remembered for this fare hike, even though it doesn’t go into effect until March.

Then again, championing unpopular causes to preserve public priorities is ideally what politics is all about. The problem for Lhota is that you have to get elected first.