Ever since the coronavirus pandemic decimated subway ridership in New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has resisted raising the price of rides out of fear that even more people would abandon mass transit.
But after years of financial uncertainty, the authority now intends to balance its budget, and to do that, it wants to raise the base fare for subway and bus trips for the first time in eight years, to $2.90 from $2.75 by late August. On Wednesday, the MTA board is widely expected to vote to approve the proposed rate increase.
The decision will almost certainly reverberate across the United States, where transit systems of all sizes have experienced steep and prolonged losses as many white-collar commuters continue to work from home at least part of the time.
May 2023 survey by the American Public Transportation Association found that larger cities were especially hard hit — 71 percent of transit agencies with budgets over $200 million predict shortfalls in their operating budgets.
In New York, weekday ridership rebounded significantly but still hovers at about 65 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
Lower-income workers who depend on the system to get to their jobs would bear the brunt of a rate hike, advocates said, especially as the cost of essentials like housing, food and health care continue to rise.
Janno Lieber, the MTA chairman, defended the expected increase in a June interview with WABC-TV, describing it as a return to biennial fare increases intended to keep up with inflation.
“New Yorkers understand that the cost of everything has gone up 6 percent, 7 percent,” Mr. Lieber said. “We have to give our workforce proper raises. You know that’s part of the reality.”
The $2.75 base fare has been in place since 2015. The most recent fare increase came in 2019, when the price of unlimited weekly and monthly MetroCards went up.
Along the United Way of New Yorkabout half of working-age New Yorkers struggle to cover basic needs this year, up from 36 percent of households in 2021.
Elizabeth Angeles, who helps oversee lobbying efforts for the organization, said that when people struggle to make ends meet, they tend to skip meals to pay for what are usually fixed costs, such as transportation.
“Or they rely on our emergency food supplies, which are already strapped,” Ms. Angeles said. “And so what it’s going to do is it’s going to aggravate a system that’s already on its knees.”
But the MTA and even some of its usual critics said a fare increase was a crucial step to ensure the survival of the transit system, which continues to rely heavily on ridership fees.
Earlier this year, the authority faced a budget gap of nearly $3 billion by 2025. A bailout from Gov. Kathy Hochul and lawmakers in Albany helped significantly shore up the transit system’s finances by providing new and recurring funding for the authority, but no. sufficient to avoid a fare increase.
“The fare increases will ensure that there is sufficient funding to continue the transit,” said Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the transit authority’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, a watchdog group. “The budget would be balanced not only because of the incredible generosity of the governor and efficiencies of the MTA, but because riders are investing.”
The state’s funding package includes a $65 million payment designed to prevent a larger rate increase that would help make up for the one that was skipped in 2021.
Many in the city have urged Mayor Eric Adams to expand eligibility requirements for the Just Fares program, which subsidizes public transit fares for New Yorkers whose income falls below the federal poverty line — roughly. $30,000 a year for a family of four.
The MTA has raised fares about 4 percent every two years since 2009, through a mix of increases to the base fare and to the price of MetroCards.
It has struggled financially since at least the 1970s, when a municipal fiscal crisis exacerbated problems caused by the system’s crumbling infrastructure.