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MTA Saves Free Student MetroCards

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The MTA is abandoning its plan to revoke free MetroCards for students to get to school.

MTA Chairman Jay Walder had threatened to start charging students half-fare starting in September unless the city and the state contributed more money. But aides say Gov. David Paterson has refused to do that, and will be proposing a bill today that offers just $25 million for the program--a far cry from the $214 million the MTA says the cards costs them.

The MTA said in an e-mail early this morning that the authority realized "charging students would have a life-changing impact on the ability of New Yorkers to receive a quality education."

The authority had banked on receiving about $30 million through the end of this year and $62 million next year as a result by charging students. The change was supposed to be a small but important part of plugging a $750 million deficit for this calendar year.

"The budget deficit that we are facing will increase," the MTA said in its statement about continuing the free cards. "But the alternative is far worse."

About 300,000 public and private school students receive the cards. Eligibility is determined by age and how far students live from school. Those in grades 7 through 12 get free cards if they live a mile and a half away. About 200,000 students already pay half-fare for their MetroCards because they live closer to school.

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky says the threat to start charging was a tactical mistake. He says it was never clear how much more it cost the MTA to issue the cards since it would be running the trains and buses anyway.

"We are not giving the MTA as much as we should; but we're broke," Brodsky said. "On the other hand, it was a mistake to leverage the student MetroCard program against an attempt to get more cash in the budget."

The city will continue to contribute $45 million for the cards. Starting in 1994, the state and the city each contributed $45 million but last year the state lowered its contribution to just $6 million because of the budget crisis. Paterson raised the state's contribution to $25 million in a budget he proposed in January.

In recent days, the legislature has offered other benefits to help convince the MTA to restore its program, legislators said. One measure would raise the amount of money that the authority can borrow for its long-term capital budget. Brodsky says a bill permitting the city to install cameras to monitor bus-only lanes is also "on the table." The MTA supports the bill because it will deter drivers from using the lanes and speed up its Select Bus Service routes on Fordham Road in the Bronx and, starting later this year, First and Second Avenues in Manhattan.

The MTA says it will outline other plans to address its budget deficit next month.