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MTA May Expand Free Student MetroCard Program: Gothamist

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A NYC student MetroCard. (Shumita Basu / WNYC)

The MTA is moving forward with a plan to offer free full-fare MetroCards to students in K-12 who live more than a half mile from school. Under the current policy, students who live within a certain radius are eligible for half-fare MetroCards that can only be used on city buses. The proposal will replace those half-fare cards with full-fare ones that can also be used on subways.

The agency, which has pinned a loss of $225 million a year on fare evasion, also admits the current rigmarole in which kids with half-fare MetroCards are expected to cough up $1.35 in change for buses results in students mostly not paying anything on buses.

It also results in what the agency calls “bad optics” like when kids head to gym class off site and evade the fare.

The plan, which the full board is expected to approve on Wednesday, would cost $200,000 a year and provide three free rides a day for students.

But Chair of the Finance Committee Larry Schwartz and self-admitted person who doesn’t know how express buses work, also admitted Monday he doesn’t know how student MetroCards work—though he is very sure fare evasion is the reason the MTA is in such dire financial health—wanted to be reassured these three free rides a day won’t result in a “fare evasion act 2 scenario.”

“Are we able to track if student passes are being used at two o’clock in the morning, midnight, Saturday and Sundays we’re going to be able to track this stuff so if there’s abuse going on that’s costing the MTA money we can identify it in real time and try to do something to rectify it?” Schwartz asked.

Chief customer officer Sarah Meyer said they’re mostly programmed to only be active Monday-Friday, and sometimes on the weekends, if students have weekend classes, but the three rides could be used by anyone.

“The changes in an investment that the MTA is making top help make students’ commutes to school easier,” Meyer said.

Schwartz been on the board since 2015, and chair of finance since 2016, and held an “emergency board meeting” this month after a series of embarrassing articles about excessive overtime costs at the Long Island Railroad. He seemed caught off guard by the amount of overtime the MTA approved for large MTA projects, like East Side Access, and the Subway Action Plan, which accounted for much of the costs.

Gothamist caught up with a number of students just as school let out on the Upper West Side, to ask how they felt about the possible change in policy.

One seventh grader at Booker T. Washington Middle School told Gothamist it’s her responsibility to remember to bring coins to pay the remainder of the fare, and she usually forgets.

“Sometimes I have to get on the bus without paying, because, like, it’s hard to carry coins,” the middle schooler said. “I usually use [buses] 3 times a day, so I don’t have enough coins for all of that. It’s annoying.”

Most students said something similar: they occasionally remember to carry “emergency coins” with them to pay the remainder of their fare, but often they forget, and they’re rarely asked for it by bus drivers.

One bus driver told WNYC, “If I had to say a percentage that they don’t put [coins] in, I’d probably say like 90 percent of the time.”

He shrugged. “What am I gonna do, put a student off the bus?”

Most students were glad to hear that the MTA board is planning to swap out their half-fare cards for full-fare ones, not because they’ll save the coins (most said they haven’t been paying anyway) but because it’ll allow them to take the subway.

Assembly Member Harvey Epstein represents the east side of Manhattan, from the United Nations down to the Williamsburg Bridge. He says a group of teenage constituents brought the issue of half-priced student MetroCards to his attention last year.

“The more I dug into the problem, the more I realized this is a social and economic justice issue for so many New Yorkers,” said Epstein.

He said he hopes this change in policy will allow students to take the subway without the need to jump a turnstile. His office estimates it will impact about 130,000 New York City students if it goes into effect in September.

The MTA expects to launch its new fare payment system OMNY by October 2020, in which riders can use a smartphone, tap card or a credit card, and students will be able to activate their three free rides a day with this system as well.

Additional reporting by Shumita Basu.

Stephen Nessen is the transportation reporter for WNYC. You can follow him on Twitter @s_nessen.

Shumita Basu is a host, producer and reporter in the newsroom. You can follow her on Twitter @shubasu.

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