Commuters who use the MTA’s paratransit service resumed paying $2.75 cash for rides Tuesday for the first time since last spring — spurring concerns among medically vulnerable riders with COVID-19 infection rates rising.
The fare collection returned even as Access-A-Ride customers, who tap the service for doctors visits and other appointments, have been getting rides to vaccination centers.
“At this moment, I’d rather not get close to the driver or swap hands,” said Valerie Joseph, a motorized wheelchair user who travels to physical therapy twice a week by Access-A-Ride from Queens Village to Fresh Meadows. “People are still getting sick, people are still getting exposed to the virus.”
The MTA took an approximately $10 million hit in lost Access-A-Ride revenue, a spokesperson said, after suspending fare collection in April in an effort to limit contact between drivers and passengers during the pandemic.
In contrast, the MTA missed out on $159 million from not collecting fares on buses between March 23 and Aug. 31, when riders were restricted from front-door boarding.
The return of Access-A-Rise fees came a day after the agency delayed a planned fare increase for the buses, subways and commuter railroads.
“It was great when I didn’t have to pay,” said Evelyn Gigante, 65, who was waiting to catch an Access-A-Ride bus to the Lower East Side from Mount Sinai Downtown in Union Square. “That was $5.50 extra in my pocket.”
Collection of the $2.75 fare, via exact change, resumed as a coalition of advocates pressed the MTA to wait until the COVID-19 crisis ends before reinstating fares on the small buses and other vehicles that carry riders with limited mobility.
MTA figures show that 483,000 paratransit trips were taken in November — the last month for which figures are available — up from a low point of 170,000 trips in April. Last February, there were 724,000 trips, according to the agency.
“It’s just bizarre to come down on riders who take this beleaguered service when you’re sensibly doing the right thing for subway and bus customers,” said Joseph Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled. “Why would you start collecting fares now when the pandemic continues?”
New Payment System Coming
MTA spokesperson Meredith Daniels said the agency and its paratransit service providers have taken steps to protect customers and drivers, citing mask requirements, passenger limits per vehicle, plexiglass barriers and cleaning and disinfecting.
She also said Access-A-Ride customers, who now pay by cash, will this year be able to use the MTA’s new fare-payment system.
“We can ensure a safe ride that includes fare resumption as the MTA continues to implement innovative ways to protect the riding public,” Daniels said. “We are also working on OMNY integration on paratransit in 2021 so that customers have a contactless option.”
In a letter to interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, the Access-A-Ride Reform Group credited the MTA for ending shared rides on paratransit vehicles soon after the pandemic started. But the group questioned the return of fare collection as positive COVID cases have increased in the city.
“We have not been able to fathom the reasoning behind this unwarranted and untimely decision, given that it jeopardizes the health of both riders and drivers,” wrote Ruth Lowenkron of the Access-A-Ride Reform Group.
The MTA resumed accepting cash for fares on commuter rail trains and in stations over the summer, but does not permit cash transactions at subway station booths.
Citing the suffering of riders because of the pandemic, as well as the MTA’s battered finances, the agency postponed “for several months” a planned fare increase that would have taken effect this spring. The agency has also expressed hope in securing an additional $8 billion in emergency federal funding.
Rappaport said the approximately $10 million loss over from non-collection of paratransit fares over several months amounts to “decimal dust” for the MTA.
“It’s just so miniscule that its bottom line is in no way dramatically affected,” he said. “It’s not the problem with the MTA’s finances that they haven’t been collecting fares for months.”