Beyond the Headlines: The Story of NYC #FairFares

Community Service Society and Riders Alliance have been working since 2015 to win Fair Fares, or discounted transit fares for low income New Yorkers. They were victorious earlier this month, when Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson put the program in the City budget. Regional Plan Association endorsed the idea.

Recently, our Senior Vice President for State Programs & Advocacy Kate Slevin spoke to Nancy Rankin, Vice President for Policy, Research and Advocacy at Community Service Society and Rebecca Bailin, Campaign Manager at Riders Alliance about their success with Fair Fares, and what it means for other campaigns across the region.

Kate Slevin: How did this all start? What was the genesis of this idea?

Nancy Rankin: It started with Community Service Society. One of our board members raised it and asked about the effect of transit fares on low-income New Yorkers. We have our annual Unheard Third survey which documents the hardships of low-income New Yorkers. Things like rent, hunger, access to jobs. In 2014, we added a new question:  do you often have trouble affording subway and bus fares? We found transit fares were increasingly a hardship.

In NYC, this was new. People took it for granted that transit was affordable. But over time, transit fares continued to rise faster than incomes, and we found too many low-income New Yorkers were struggling to afford fares.

David Jones and I did an op-ed in the Daily News in 2014 proposing half-price fares for low income residents. As it started to get traction, we reached out to other groups and then we teamed up with Riders Alliance and started to build support.

Rebecca Bailin: When CSS approached us, we were finishing up a campaign on pre-tax transit benefits so it was a perfect segue for us into the Fair Fares campaign.    

Nancy Rankin: Once we floated the idea, we went back and did the research that laid the foundation for the campaign. We had to be able to answer all the hard questions that elected officials would have. What’s the scope of the problem and consequences? How is this affecting people’s chances of upward mobility? How much would it cost? Is it feasible? In April 2016, we released the transit affordability report and launched the Fair Fares campaign.

Rebecca Bailin: Yeah, and behind the scenes there was a lot of prep work and identification of targets. We had regular meetings and strategy conversations.

KS: So it was about two years of prep work before your launch?

NR: More like a year and a half. We did a trial balloon and then we went back and did research to refine the policy proposal and strategy.

KS: You clearly focused on the Mayor as a target, but the Governor is in charge of the transit system. Why did you choose this approach?

RB: We made the calculation that the city plays a role and this was an anti-poverty campaign, not about transit infrastructure, but about eliminating a barrier about getting around the city. It was important framing – we did not want this to be associated with any fare hike. It made sense administratively as well.

NR: A big reason was we found the City had the legal authority. Under the MTA Public Authorities Law, the Mayor can request reduced fares for a class of transit users as long as the city makes up the forgone fare revenue. So this wouldn’t require approval in Albany, this was just a city budget ask. It was also so aligned with the Mayor’s goals of addressing income inequality.

KS: What was the initial reaction of elected officials?

RB: Very positive from the start. Very quickly we were able to build a list of supporters. There were some that were concerned about the cost, but we signed up many people early on.

NR: The first political support was from the Public Advocate Tish James, then the Comptroller Scott Stringer, then City Council members and four out of five Borough Presidents.  

KS: What kind of activities did you undertake to convince people this was a good idea?

RC: We had meetings with City Council members, did community organizing, and brought constituents to meetings to explain how this would affect their lives. We got media attention and ensured pressure stayed on the Mayor. We released reports, placed op-eds, and we got editorial support from nearly all the major papers: New York Times, Daily News, El Diario, AMNY, and City and State (where it was listed one of Best Ideas of 2016).

NR: We also engaged various constituencies. This was an anti-poverty issue, a transit issue, a criminal justice issue..  Public defender organizations across the city were engaged, transit advocates were engaged. It was a women’s issue because single moms have the highest poverty rates. We got labor involved and union support because low income workers with multiple jobs had trouble paying transit fares.   

KS: Do you have any lessons learned?

RB: Early on, I talked to a lot of people and got a lot of advice, and many said make sure this is in the media. Make sure it’s constantly present and the accountability is very clear. There are times in campaigns when accountability gets muddy.

The Council was supportive – Ydanis Rodriguez was a big champion but we really needed the Speaker, so when Speaker Johnson became a champion that was a big moment. What I’m saying is you get lucky if you find someone or multiple people on the inside that are willing to champion and carry an idea through.

NR: What helped us win? We had a good idea and rock solid research, diverse support, persistence, and then had a strong, terrific champion in the CityCouncil Speaker, Corey Johnson.   

RB: Also strong grassroots leaders.

NR: Yes. Also, in every campaign you have some people who are engaged but some who worry about it day in and day out. Rebecca and I were those people.

RB: I agree. We made it everyone else’s problem!

NR: We’re not shy!

KS: What advice do you have for others working on campaigns across the region?

NR: Getting anything done in NYC is a challenge. Rebecca has talked about media. It’s very hard in NYC to do that. Much of our media is national or even international. It’s such a loud and complicated city.  It is hard to elevate an issue so it rises to the top! In the end we had four editorials in the New York Times, so that was very important.

RB: Keep message clear, make sure political targets are clear, and don’t let other people muddle the waters for you, and make sure you have grassroots constituents. Grassroots constituents aren’t props. They are playing a critical role in helping decide how the stories should be told and when. That’s how democracy works and how you build power.

NR: We also seized opportunities, like the MTA fare increase hearings and City Council hearings. Rebecca gave a good description of the quality of the grassroots organizing. It was a great team effort. The idea struck a chord in people. People immediately got it. Seniors get half fare, why don’t poor people?   

KS: That’s a great overview. Congratulations again and thank you for your time.

NR: Thank you! It was so important to have RPA as a supporter. Groups like yours that have stature in the community help advance these ideas and make them happen.

Fair Fares will be implemented starting in January. To watch the press announcement and learn more about how it would work, see here.


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