No Free Pass

During his reelection campaign, Mayor Bloomberg talked a lot about allowing bus riders to board crosstown buses for free. Now that the voters have spoken and the campaign is over, the newly reelected mayor is counseling patience as would-be riders begin to demand their free transportation from east to west and west to east.

Mr. Bloomberg is right to suggest that this lovely sounding plan cannot be implemented right away. In fact, given the fiscal emergency that faces Albany and the M.T.A., it’s a plan that should be put aside and forgotten.

It’s never a good idea to give away something for nothing, as so many media companies can tell you. In 1997, Rudolph Giuliani gave Staten Islanders a gift by abolishing the 50-cent fare on the Staten Island Ferry. That lost cash could come in handy today.

Likewise, it’s a bad idea to abolish a revenue stream unless you have a plan to make up the lost income stream. The city still feels the consequences of Albany’s politically motivated abolition of the commuter tax in 1999, an unforgivable mistake that cost the city $450 million a year in lost revenue. Albany will never have the will to restore the commuter tax, no matter how much it was justified and needed.

Mr. Bloomberg no doubt had good intentions in mind when he pushed the idea of free crosstown bus fares during his reelection campaign. Crosstown traffic is a nightmare, and buses only impede progress: Customers board slowly while they pay their fares. Eliminating the fare would speed up the boarding process, or so goes the theory, and would allow traffic to move just a little faster, reducing the amount of idling on crosstown streets.

That’s nice, but there is no end of nice things that government can do. The question is whether the M.T.A. can afford to swallow the fares of hundreds of thousands of bus passengers. Actually, it’s not a question at all. The M.T.A. simply can’t afford it, not at a time when Governor David Paterson is warning of a historic fiscal emergency in the state.

Mr. Bloomberg’s plan clearly deserves further study. Lots of study. So much study that by the time the deliberations are done, the campaign promises of 2009 will be long forgotten.


No Free Pass