Subway riders board a train in Grand Central station in New York City.
Subway riders board a train in Grand Central station in New York City. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: You know, in a lot of places, kids take school buses to get to school. In New York City, they get free rides on the subway or city buses instead. Today the city's public transportation system approved huge budget cuts though, including getting rid of those free rides. The decision has caused an uproar, which -- as Marketplace's Alisa Roth tells us -- might be the point.

Alisa Roth: Every day, more than half a million students ride the subways and buses in New York City for free.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, says it could save $170 million a year by making those kids pay. It also wants to cut service and eliminate subway lines to balance its budget.

Emily Gold runs an after-school program at a public defenders office in Harlem. She says if the budget cuts pass, a lot of families wouldn't be able to send their kids to school, or to after-school programs like hers.

EMILY GOLD: Probably there will be increased turnstile jumping, you know that's misdemeanor crimes that kids can get charged with let alone truancy issues.

But a lot of people say the MTA's just playing a big game of chicken.

Robert Paaswell is the interim president of City College in New York. He's also an expert in public transportation. He says the MTA is trying to make the city and state fork over more money.

ROBERT PAASWELL: They're saying we're in big trouble here, you haven't lived up to your responsibility state and city and unless you do, we're all going to suffer for it. The long-run impact of transit cuts is not just that it's going to hurt children, but it's going to really hurt the overall economy of the city.

Before that happens, though, New Yorkers will have a chance to comment at a series of public hearings on the budget. Then the MTA's board will vote again to enact the cuts.

Paaswell guesses in the end the MTA won't make the students pay. He's seen situations like this play out before. When he ran Chicago's public-transit system years ago, he always threatened to cut the most popular subway lines first.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.