N.Y.C. School Kids Face Paying to Ride to School

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The cash-strapped agency that runs New York City subways and buses has reluctantly approved a 2010 budget that includes service cuts and could leave New York City children without free rides to their public schools.

Wednesday’s vote by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, which is facing a $383 million budget shortfall, would end the more than 60-year-old practice of giving free rides for schoolchildren, a move that could cost half a million students nearly $1,000 per year in transportation fees.

Yet several Metropolitan Transportation Authority board members characterized the vote as merely the beginning of the budget process. They were required to pass a budget by the end of the year.

Adam Ufret, a concierge at a Manhattan apartment building whose three daughters use student passes, said, "I would cut my home phone and just use my cell phone, or instead of steak we'd have corned beef."

The MTA board, facing a $383 million budget shortfall, will vote Wednesday on a proposed 2010 budget that would eliminate several bus and subway lines and scale back services for the disabled, as well as phasing out student Metrocards.

Charging students full fare would end a policy of free or discounted rides that has been in place since 1948.

Some 417,243 students now receive free Metrocards and another 167,912 get half-fare cards.

The cards can be used on schooldays between 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. and are good for three rides a day — to school, to one after-school activity and then home.

They are distributed, not on need, but based on the distance a student must travel to school. High school students and many middle school students in New York City do not attend the school closest to them but are expected to apply to schools that match their interests and abilities.

Clara Hemphill, a scholar at the New School who founded a school-rating Web site, said New York City high school students typically travel 45 minutes to an hour to get to school.

If forced to pay full fare, Hemphill said, "some parents would swallow hard and pay. Some parents would not or could not. I think you'd see higher levels of truancy."

The single-ride fare is $2.25 and a 30-day unlimited pass is $89 — and the fares are expected to rise in 2011 and again in 2013.

The costs would be significant in a city where 80 percent of public school students have family incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

"No one is prepared for this," said City Councilman Charles Barron, who heads the council's education committee. "No one is prepared to pay another thousand dollars for transit fare for their children."

There is no federal mandate that school districts provide free transportation.

In other large U.S. cities where thousands of students ride public transportation, their rides are subsidized.

Frank Shuftan, a spokesman for Chicago Public Schools, said 90,000 Chicago students ride city buses and trains to school at about 85 cents a ride — a steep discount.

Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for Boston Public Schools, said Boston students who live more than two miles from school get free passes and others get half-fare passes.

Under the plan before the MTA board, New York City students who get free rides now would start paying half fare in September 2010 and full fare in September 2011.

The board would hold public hearings and vote again before the fares actually went into effect, leaving an opening for an 11th-hour rescue by the city or the state.

Elected officials last wrestled over the student Metrocards in 1995 and came up with a deal that had New York City and New York State each kicking in $45 million a year and the MTA paying the rest. The city and state contributions remained flat until the state recently cut its contribution to $6 million.

Transit advocate Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, whose two daughters use student Metrocards, said he hopes someone can save the program once again.

"The mayor and the MTA and the governor have to figure out a way to solve the problem the way they did back in 1995," he said.

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