New York City’s Poor Were Promised Half-Priced MetroCards. They’re Still Waiting

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The proposal was intended to help poor New Yorkers by offering them discount MetroCards for the subway and buses and put the city at the forefront of national efforts to find ways to address inequality.

But the launch of the program has turned into a mess for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on improving the lives of those struggling in an increasingly expensive city.

It did not start on time. No one knows how to apply. It is unclear who will qualify or even which subway and bus passes will be offered at half-price.

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, had initially failed to embrace the idea — he agreed to pay for it only after being pushed by the City Council — and is now under fire for his handling of the rollout.

On Thursday, Scott M. Stringer, the New York City comptroller, stood outside City Hall with transit advocates to call on Mr. de Blasio to release details about the program.

“Now we have to make sure that the people who are not left behind are the people that this program is supposed to serve — struggling New Yorkers, New Yorkers living below the poverty line,” Mr. Stringer said.

Mr. de Blasio had initially resisted calls to have the city pay for the program. But Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, convinced him last summer to include funding in the city’s budget. The two men even held a rally at the Fulton Street subway station in Lower Manhattan to celebrate the agreement.

In June, Mr. de Blasio said the discount program, known as Fair Fares, would start on Jan. 1. Looking ahead six months, Mr. de Blasio said, “I’m confident we can work out the details in that time frame.”

But as 2018 came to a close, transit advocates became alarmed that his administration had not released any details. On Dec. 12, they sent Mr. de Blasio a letter raising concerns about the timing of the rollout and reports that the discount would apply to only weekly and monthly passes. They did not receive a response.

On Wednesday, Mr. de Blasio told reporters that he would announce the details “in a few days” and that New Yorkers would understand if it “takes a few extra days.” Mr. de Blasio said the city was considering how it could include pay-per-ride MetroCards, which are often favored by New Yorkers who are living paycheck to paycheck.

The city agreed to pay $106 million for the first six months of the program. Under the agreement, it would apply to New Yorkers below the federal poverty line — a household income of about $25,000 for a family of four.

[Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo canceled the full shutdown of the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan.]

For transit advocates who aggressively pushed Mr. de Blasio to support the idea, his failure to start the program on time or to publicize it has been frustrating.

“To see people not taking this as incredibly seriously as they should be, it is disappointing to say the least,” said David R. Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York, an antipoverty nonprofit. “This is not just any ordinary mayor, this is a mayor who guaranteed he’d make this the most equitable city in the nation.”

Mr. de Blasio has struggled at times to prove he is skilled at managing a sprawling city government. And he has recently received criticism for spending less time at City Hall and for his hands-off management style.

Mr. Johnson, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of Fair Fares, has not yet joined in the chorus of criticism over the start of the program. His office said in a statement on Wednesday that Mr. Johnson was “working to make sure that Fair Fares is a success.”

“The Council has always believed that this program is for all New Yorkers living at or below the federal poverty line, and is committed to making sure that vision becomes a reality,” said Breeana Mulligan, a Council spokeswoman.

Mr. Jones, who was appointed to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board by Mr. de Blasio, said the discount program was urgently needed, especially since fares are expected to rise again in March. The base fare for subways and buses could jump to $3.

“This starts to become serious money for people,” Mr. Jones said.

As many as 800,000 people could qualify for the program, according to a report by the Community Service Society. The program could eventually cost $250 million each year.

Mr. de Blasio had liked the idea of a discounted fare, but he did not want the city to be responsible for its costs. Instead, he wanted to pay for it by resurrecting one of his favorite ideas, a new tax on millionaires. But that would have to be passed by the state legislature, an unrealistic scenario last year given that the Senate was controlled by Republicans until Democrats retook the chamber in November.

The concept of offering transit discounts for low-income riders is gaining momentum in other cities. Seattle started a program in 2015 that has served as a model for other cities. Toronto is implementing a similar plan.

In New York, the lack of information this week sowed confusion. When someone asked an M.T.A. Twitter account how to get an application for the Fair Fare program, the subway account said to contact 311, the number for information about city services.

A spokesman for the mayor, Eric Phillips, had to clarify. He said the program had not started yet, but when it did, services like 311 would have the details.

“But we aren’t there yet,” he said on Twitter. “Stay tuned!”

J. David Goodman contributed reporting.

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