NYC Subway price hikes: fare or unfare?

We all know how difficult it can be to get across the city without the subway: nearly impossible. It’s the fastest way to get uptown, downtown, or across town at any time of the day, especially during rush hour when traffic is stopped.  Although we all have complaints about the NYC subway, and wonder how the fare could be going up again even though the system hasn’t visibly improved, I think we all agree we would be lost without it.

The first train was built in the late 1800s above ground along Greenwich Street. Soon after, construction began for a subterranean line that was finished in 1904, charging riders 5 cents per ride to connect riders, while connecting most of Manhattan using what are now the 1 and 4 lines.

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The original NYC subway map (1904). Photo Credit:

Today, the subway has approximately 660 miles of customer service tracks, 468 stations, over 6 million riders on some days, and about 1.7 billion riders per year.  NYC ranks eighth in the world in terms of number of annual subway riders.  Tokyo has 3.3B riders annually, almost twice the amount of riders that NYC has. Paris has about 1.5B.

The cost per ride has been steadily increasing since the fare first went up from five to ten cents 44 years after the original fare was established.  You may wonder, “What do these fare increases pay for?” Despite all the increases, I still can’t understand the conductor when he speaks on the loudspeaker, the trains are still overpacked, and there are still constant delays.  According to this Gothamist article, the MTA is $34.1M in debt (more money than some countries owe!) due to subway improvements and a $15B budget shortfall, so the rate increases go largely to paying off the interest on the debts and keeping up with maintenance on the train systems.  Thomas F. Prendergast, the MTA’s chairman and CEO, called the upcoming (Mar 22) increase “modest” in a New York Times article earlier this year. Even with the fare increase, fare and toll revenue only covers about 52% of the cost to maintain the existing MTA’s operating budget which is about $13B annually.

Future projects that are already underway for the MTA lines include connecting Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Station and Penn Station, giving riders access to both sides of Manhattan. This is a $3.1 billion project that isn’t scheduled to finish until 2019. The Second Avenue train is also getting work, with the construction of another line to alleviate the existing rush hour riders who currently crowd existing lines. The Q line was currently extended from 63rd to 96th Street, and will continue to build 8.5 miles to extend the line all the way to 125th Street. This is a $4.4 billion project that will be complete in 2019.  Plans to eliminate the Metrocard by 2022 include an electronic reader that will read smartphones or credit cards with one tap.   All of these upgrades, as well as the MTA debt, come at a price: $2.75 per ride starting March 22nd.

What improvements do you hope to see the MTA make in the coming years?


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