The pandemic had already wrecked the MTA’s finances and indefinitely delayed plans to buy new trains and buses, install more elevators and upgrade signals — all with congestion pricing, a potential money-raiser, stuck in neutral.

This week brought City Hall’s $65 million anticipated reduction to the “Fair Fares” program that offers half-priced fares to low-income New Yorkers. It marked the latest setback for a transit system that, prior to the coronavirus crisis, had been on the rebound.

“Mass transit drives the city and the reason this program came to be is because there is a need,” said Clementine James, a 47-year-old Queens security guard who last year qualified for the benefit. “It’s made a big difference for me.”

But in short order, the MTA’s coffers have taken a huge hit from the drop in revenue from fares, tolls and income generated by dedicated taxes and subsidies, jeopardizing projects that transit advocates and elected officials have pressed for years.

“If you’re an advocate, you have to take this as a temporary setback,” said Ben Fried, communications director at TransitCenter, an advocacy and research organization. “You can’t give up because we’re going through this pandemic.”

‘An Important Program’

After years of prodding, the city-funded “Fair Fares” program launched in 2019. A City Hall spokesperson said close to 193,000 low-income New Yorkers have qualified for the transit discounts, which Mayor Bill de Blasio called “an effective, important program.”

A City Council spokesperson said the budget cut was meant to “rightsize the spending because of under-enrollment during the pandemic,” adding that any eligible person who applies for the discount can still get it.

But Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance, an advocacy group, called it “undeniably a cut.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces his Fair Fares program in Harlem, Jan. 4, 2019. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city budget maneuver follows a stream of bad news for mass transit. The MTA last week put more than $50 billion in planned upgrades to the transit system on hold.

MTA Chairperson Patrick Foye also conceded that starting congestion pricing by next January is now a “virtual impossibility” both because of roadblocks from the federal government over environmental reviews of the toll plan and the pandemic.

Subway ridership has started to rebound from the lowest point of the pandemic in mid-April, when it fell by more than 93% from the previous year. Still, the MTA is hoping for another nearly $4 billion round of emergency federal funding to escape what Foye has repeatedly called a “financial calamity.”

‘A Rough Stretch’

“This has been a rough stretch,” said Jaqi Cohen, campaign director for the Straphangers Campaign, another advocacy organization. “When we have a system that has suffered from years of underinvestment and something like this hits, it’s going to devastate the system and the riders. On so many levels.”

Fried said he remains optimistic that congestion pricing will become a reality because it “has the most momentum behind it.” Charging vehicles to enter Manhattan’s most traffic-heavy areas was expected to bring in billions of dollars for the transit system.

“It’s really hard to see the MTA clawing back out of the hole it’s in without that money,” Fried said.

An essential worker rides a near-empty 6 train in Manhattan, July 1, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As he waited Wednesday for someone to swipe him past the turnstiles at the Third Avenue-149th Street station in the South Bronx, Sammy Torres, 25, said riders are feeling the pressures of the economy.

“You may just see more people like me now, who can’t pay the fare,” Torres told THE CITY. “People need to get to work, they need the subway, so none of this is good.”