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Subway Riders to Fifteen-Cent Fare Hike: Drop Dead!

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In October, 1904, a middle-aged woman from Brooklyn, as one story goes, bought the first subway ticket in New York City. The train ran from City Hall to Harlem—nine miles, twenty-eight stations. The green paper pass cost five cents, just a penny less than a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. Ticket prices didn’t increase until after the Second World War, in 1948, when the cost of a one-way trip rose to a dime, which was the going rate for most things around town, including soup. The price of taking the train has inched ever upward. Two dimes for a subway token, in the late sixties, became a buck twenty-five for a single-ride MetroCard, in 1993. Nowadays, the going rate for an Apple Pay iPhone tap is two dollars and seventy-five cents. Last week, the M.T.A.—which is responsible for the subway system (four hundred and seventy-two stations, six hundred and sixty-five miles of track), two tunnels, fifty-eight hundred buses, seven bridges, twelve hundred transit cops, more than thirteen thousand personal-injury claims and lawsuits, a debt so big (forty-eight billion dollars and counting) that it’s roughly equivalent to New Jersey’s annual budget, and a much contested plan to toll drivers between five and twenty-three bucks for entering the area below Sixtieth Street in Manhattan—voted to raise subway and bus fares by five per cent.

“A fifteen-cent fare hike! Unbelievable!” Howard Birnbaum said, on a morning in June, before taking a seat at one of several town halls that were convened downtown, at the M.T.A.’s headquarters, to discuss the increase. He had bags under his eyes, stains on his jeans, a pen in his shirt pocket, and, like hundreds of others who attended, concerns about change: “Two-ninety? Why can’t you make it an even three dollars? Fifteen cents? It makes no sense!”

Down the hall, in a huge room adorned with American flags and CCTV cameras, a couple of regular town-hall attendees cracked jokes about the M.T.A. (“More Tolls Ahead,” “Money Thrown Away,” “Missing Trains’ A.C.,” “Motherfucking Transit Authority.”) A few cops, who were there to make sure that nothing got out of hand, stood around, shifting their weight from one leg to the other. Sitting next to Birnbaum, in the front row, was a wispy, gray-haired man wearing yellow wooden clogs and a charcoal suit. He turned to his neighbor and quietly said, “I eat five to ten pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables a day.”

Attendees took turns speaking. A State Assembly member said, “We could have increased revenue and avoided this by taxing the rich!” A state senator said, “I ask you to reconsider your decisions!” A college student said, “Fifteen cents can determine our future!”

Near the restrooms, on the twentieth floor, someone asked Richard Davey, who oversees subways and buses for the M.T.A., what he thought about the complaints. He responded like a politician: “The Legislature and the governor gave us the resources to keep the cost below three dollars, and we’re grateful to do that.” Of the subway fare, he said, “It’s still a bargain!”

The meetings went on for three days. Democracy in action: M.T.A. officials yawned, drank deli coffee, listened, pretended to listen, laughed, checked their phones.

Andrew Rein, of the Citizens Budget Commission, said, “We support the proposed fare and toll increase, since it is essential for the M.T.A.’s fiscal health.” Adrian Horczak, who wore a retroreflective vest, asked, “The fare is going to increase, but is the service going to be any better?” A guy who gave his name as Mr. X said, “What you’re doing is confusing, annoying, disturbing—and confusing.”

At one point, a man named Gregory Thomas approached the microphone and went off topic. “I’m just asking the M.T.A. to help me,” he said. “I’ve got a big toll bill, and I’m disabled from Ground Zero. I have the lungs of an eighty-year-old man, and I’m sixty years old. Two heart attacks! I’ve got a new job starting Monday, at J.F.K., but they’re taking the car from me because I haven’t paid the tolls. I can’t re-register my vehicle. I’m only asking for help.” The room went quiet; everyone was actually listening. “I don’t want to sit home and watch soap operas. I don’t want to do none of that. I just want to get to work. I’ve made numerous phone calls to the M.T.A., but no one can help me, so that’s why I’m here tonight. I just need help. I need a payment plan. You will get your money! I just need my vehicle to get to work.” Then he sat down, and listened for a while before taking the subway home. ♦

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