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Half-fare Metrocards become a reality, but could the program get cut when needed most?

FULTON ST. RAIL TERMINAL, Manhattan — It could mean hundreds more dollars a year to low income families, but some city budget watchdogs are expressing some caution when it comes to the new Fair Fares program.

The $106 million city initiative would provide half-fare MetroCards to the poorest one-fifth of New Yorkers. It was met with widespread praise when it was officially unveiled Tuesday afternoon, amid promises from city leaders to fund the program in perpetuity. However, an expert says, Fair Fares is the type of program that could end up on rocky ground in leaner economic times.

The program was born out of a palpable need.

“It was an every day thing for me,” Danna Dennis, a former home health aide and student who’s now a public transit advocate with the Riders Alliance, said. “It was like, ‘Do I want to spend this $2.75, or do I want to get lunch later on today at work?'”

Her personal experience dealing with her own low income partially fueled work that she did with fellow activists that led to the ceremony here. Amid cheers and applause, Mayor Bill De Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson joined dozens of community activists to formally announce the program they had hammered into the new city budget.

Specifically, the Fair Fares program will provide half price Metrocards to residents who make less than $25,000 a year for a family of four. That figure makes some 800,000 New Yorkers eligible. Their estimated savings would be about $726 a year, according the city and public advocate groups.

“I could see that coming back into my household in the form of groceries,” said Dennis.

Very limited resources, such as those Dennis had had when she’d been a home health aide, will increase significantly, according to Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin.

“Public transportation is supposed to provide access to jobs and app and education, but that’s only true if people can afford the fare,” Raskin said. “In New York, you can’t get ahead if you can’t get around.”

Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, takes a different view. She pointed out that the city government is in the middle of a healthy economy that’s keeping budgets thick and healthy. The budget to which Fair Fares has been added is the largest in New York City history.

“If we do have a recession, which is inevitable at some point, [Fair Fares] is one of those things where the city has to decide, as it always does, does it want to cut back on a program like this,” Gelinas warned.

For now, though, the creation and funding of Fair Fares leaves one more immediate question: how does someone sign up?

“Stay tuned,” Community Service Society Vice President Nancy Rankin said.

Research that she organized led directly to the creation of the Fair Fares program.

“It’s going to take the city a few months to work out all the details,” Rankin told PIX11 News. “It doesn’t go into effect until January 1st.”

Before that happens, however, the New York City Council has to vote on the program as part of the city’s new budget. It’s expected to pass by a wide margin when it comes up for a vote on Thursday.
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