NYC Straphangers Could Lose Last Bit Of Bonus On A Multi-Ride Metrocard

The value of a Metrocard would shrink if the NY MTA eliminates a bonus on multi-ride cards of $10 or more. (photo by ultrahi / Flickr)

(New York, NY - WNYC) NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota wants to either take away or reduce the bonus money from subway and bus riders who use pay-per-ride Metrocards. Right now, riders get a 7 percent bonus when they put $10 or more on a Metrocard. Lhota says he’ll propose cutting the bonus as part of the transit agency’s effort to raise the $450 million needed to balance its budget next year.

"The stated fare price is $2.25 cents, and the average revenue we receive per rider is $1.63," he said. "It shows the depth of our discount system that goes on, and I think we really need to have a discussion of, 'Do we need a discount that deep?'"

Lhota says he'll formally propose the change next month. If the NY MTA Board approves the plan, which would be subject to public hearings in November, the bonus could be gone by March. That's also when fare and toll hikes of about 7 percent are scheduled to kick in.

For every $10 a rider adds to a Metrocard, the card comes out with $10.70, which brings down the cost of a subway or bus ride from $2.25 per trip to $2.10.

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, a transit watchdog group, said he opposes the idea of cutting the bonus because they're designed to help those with lower incomes. "It's accessible to poor people," he said. "You don't have to have $104 in your pocket the way you do with a 30-day pass, or $29 a week with the seven-day pass."

It was not hard to find riders at the Spring Street stop of the C / E train who frowned on the proposal. A.T. Miller, a temp worker and photographer from Brooklyn, claimed the bonuses have helped him. "If I'm going to do a gig for somebody and I'm shooting somewhere else, I usually end up using two and three rides and that becomes very expensive," he said. "And that helps out with the little bonuses that they give us for buying a $10 Metrocard."

Lower East Side resident Jasmine Villanueva was more direct: "I think that sucks, 'cause I'm already broke."

NY MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg countered that there's only three ways to raise the $450 million needed by the authority next year:

  • Raise the base fare in increments of a quarter. (Raising fares by nickels or dimes adds too much to the cost of collecting fares.)
  • Raise weekly and monthly pass prices in dollar increments.
  • Reduce or eliminate the bonus for buying multiple rides on a Metrocard.

“It's going to be some combination of those three,” he said, adding an assurance that cutting the bonus will not allow the authority to take in more than an additional $450 million next year.

Lhota unveiled the initiative on Wednesday in a Crain's New York Business talk in Midtown Manhattan. Talking to reporters afterward, he portrayed the bonus as an odd vestige of New York's retail culture.

"It's like this unique New York concept of, you buy 12 bagels, you get 13," he said. "I can't figure out when that started. But we had that same theory going on when you bought tokens. You buy 10, you got one free. So the thought was, if you buy $10, you gotta get something additional for it."

In fact, the NY MTA used a 20 percent bonus in the late 1990s to help entice riders to give up their brass tokens and switch to the then-novel concept of a Metrocard.  Over time, the authority reduced that bonus to 15 percent and then the current 7 percent.

Subway ridership dipped after the last bonus reduction and fare hike in 2010--but then rose past previous levels. That's part of why MTA Chairman Joe Lhota doesn't seem worried about reducing the discount, or eliminating it all together.

"There are some people who are basically saying, 'Look, if you don't give the discount, they won't buy a ten dollar card, they'll buy it individually.' I don't buy that, I don't buy it at all," he said. "New Yorkers love convenience."

Pay-per-rides with discounts are the most popular type of fare cards, accounting for more than a third of all Metrocards sold, and more than monthly or weekly passes.