Of 800,000 Poor New Yorkers, Only 30,000 Can Get the New Half-Priced MetroCards

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The first phase of what was to be a sweeping plan to provide half-priced subway and bus rides to the poorest New Yorkers arrived on Friday, a few days late and many people short.

If the plan had been presented last year as a major change in the lives of those struggling to make ends meet in New York City, the reality, announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, is far less than anticipated: Only 30,000 New Yorkers — those who already receive cash assistance from the city and are employed — will be eligible for the cards starting this month.

The pool of eligible New Yorkers would expand in April to about 130,000 people who receive federal food stamps and are working, Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Johnson said — still a far cry from the 800,000 New Yorkers estimated by advocates to live below the federal poverty line of $25,000 a year for a family of four.

The city has no mechanism for people to apply for the discounts; only those who receive cash benefits or food stamps can get the half-priced MetroCards.

A sticking point had been both logistical and ideological: Could the city, which would administer the program, provide the discount for pay-per-ride MetroCards, or just for those that provide unlimited use for a week or 30 days? Antipoverty advocates argued that the program would be much more useful to low-income riders if the pay-per-ride card was included.

A spokesman for the Community Service Society of New York said the antipoverty group was pleased the mayor was finally taking the first step toward providing half priced MetroCards for all New Yorkers below poverty. “But talk doesn’t get you through the turnstiles,” the spokesman, Jeffrey N. Maclin, said. “We’re concerned about who is left out of this initial rollout. Most importantly, we want to see the timeline for the full program that was promised last June.”

The initial launch will include only the half-priced unlimited cards, priced at $16 for a week, or $60.50 for the 30 days. City officials were working with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to add the pay-per-ride option in April, Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Johnson said.

Originally planned for a start date of Jan. 1, the program officially began on Friday, a blown deadline that Mr. de Blasio seemed to casually dismiss in a radio interview earlier in the day.

“It’s January 4th today. I am precisely three days late. I apologize for that three-day delay,” the mayor said. “We had to have the facts right,” he added, observing that the program was a new one for the city and also that “some new, noble ideals” are not “completely baked” before they are unveiled.

But advocates for the plan, who cheered its adoption into the city budget last year, criticized what they characterized as a too-slow rollout and a lack of any public messaging by the city about the program, saying it reflected a lack of seriousness on the issue on the part of City Hall.

For eligible New Yorkers, getting the discounted MetroCards will be a two-step process: They must go to designated offices to pick up the special cards. Then, they must add money to them at MetroCard vending machines, which will be programmed to charge half-price.

The city budgeted $106 million to cover the expense of the first fiscal year of the program, though Mr. de Blasio has promised to fully fund the program to meet demand. Any leftover funds would be rolled over to cover costs next year, he said.

Mr. de Blasio originally did not support using city funds to pay for the subsidized rides, saying he preferred instead a dedicated tax on high-income earners to fund the program. Such a tax would need to be approved by the state, which controls the subway and bus system. Ultimately, he came around to the idea after being pressed by Mr. Johnson and others on the City Council.

Mr. de Blasio, in a news conference announcing the plan, called it “a major step to a fair and just society.”

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