Doomsday Redux? MTA and Transit Riders Squeezed on All Sides

Yesterday word surfaced that the MTA will receive $200 million less from the recently enacted payroll tax than the state of New York originally projected. The news came less than a week after Albany legislators slashed $143 million from the MTA so the state can keep paying its bills. Add it up, and the agency has about $340 million less than it expected to have just a few days ago. To put that in perspective, the "doomsday plan" that Albany supposedly averted back in the spring contained about $25 million in annual subway service cuts and $88 million in annual cuts to New York City bus service.

For transit riders, the stunning shortfall is the latest addition to a
heap of bad news that’s been piling up for months. The full picture is
still hazy, but suddenly the prospect of service cuts equal to the
so-called doomsday reductions is very real.

Imposing a fare hike or widespread service cuts — remember, we’re talking about the potential elimination of entire routes, as well as longer waits and more crowded conditions all over the city — would amount to a betrayal of trust by state leaders, transit advocates say. "Governor Paterson and the legislature made a promise that they would provide
$1.8 billion in annual state aid and not raise fares until 2011," said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign. "It’s an
incredible outrage to say, ‘We didn’t mean it.’"

The picture would be much brighter today if Carl Kruger, Pedro Espada, convicted abuser Hiram Monserrate, and the rest of the Albany gang had simply agreed to put a price on car commuting over New York City’s traffic-swamped bridges. As things stand, the MTA basically has four options: raise fares, secure more funding from Albany, secure a new revenue source like congestion pricing (Albany action also needed), or cut service.

MTA Chair Jay Walder hasn’t budged from his commitment to avoid fare hikes ahead of the next scheduled increase in 2011. Albany is still in budget crisis mode and seems extremely unlikely to reverse the MTA cuts it just approved. Congestion pricing or bridge tolls are, as ever, the solutions that make the most sense, promising a slew of benefits including speedier buses and major reductions in traffic and pollution. The advocates I’ve spoken to don’t hold out much hope for a revival, but if Albany refuses to consider road pricing, that leaves severe service cuts as the likely scenario. Everyone in Albany is up for re-election in 2010. Are service cuts any more politically palatable than putting a fair price on free bridges?

We’ll know more next week, when the MTA Board meets to adopt a 2010 budget. But it’s hard to see how Albany can avoid these four options without mortgaging the future of the transit system even further. Remember, back in April, state legislators only put in place enough funding for two years of the MTA’s five-year capital program, the projects that keep the system in working order and expand its reach. As Tri-State Transportation Campaign director Kate Slevin told me recently, "That’s not a plan, it’s a wish list."

(Long Island State Senator Craig Johnson drove home the tentative nature of the capital program when he questioned why transit riders need real-time arrival displays, a basic service in many other cities. As a member of the Capital Program Review Board, Johnson can veto the whole shebang.)

On top of the MTA’s escalating funding woes, the TWU just elected new leaders who ran on a hard-line platform, criticizing the regime that led the 2005 strike as too soft. The pressures on transit funding keep mounting from all sides.

Back to the immediate crisis: New York now finds itself in a position familiar to other American cities. Battered by the recession, we can’t keep our buses and trains running. As much as Albany bears responsibility, this is a national problem too. Transit systems are essential to regional economies — nowhere more so than in New York — but federal stimulus efforts have done far too little to help maintain service. As Congress takes up a second stimulus bill, it’s past time to start saving the nation’s transit jobs.

  • Larry Littlefield

    They won and it’s done. You wonder why I’m in such a bad mood — this has been coming for 15 years, as I’ve become at first miffed then outraged then frantic then resigned. Consequences can be shifted or deferred but not avoided at this point.

    Among the items that won’t be considered — taxing pension benefits, which is what I proposed in combination of congestion pricing. Some are discussing it in Michigan, one of the few states where (like New York) there are similar exemptions.

    http://www.freep.com/article/20091206/NEWS06/912060446/1318/Should-Michigan-tax-pensions

    But even with 16.0% unemployment, the average age heading for 65 as younger residents flee, no one opening new businesses, soaring tax rates as those who actually pay depart, collapsing services, and the gutting of aid to the needy even as their numbers soar, this is considered unlikely there.

    Which is why I’ve come to believe an institutional collapse followed (perhaps) by a gradual rehabilitation after many difficult years is more likely than reform. They’ll keep grabbing until there is nothing left.

  • jsd

    “Are service cuts any more politically palatable than putting a fair price on free bridges?”

    For upstaters? Sure. We want it all, but don’t want to pay for it. This is very sad.

  • Jason A

    “They’ll keep grabbing until there is nothing left.”

    This is why so many of the road pricing schemes make me uneasy – all the plans involve bonding the money to simply borrrow more.

    Lets dig the hole deeper!

    Congestion pricing or bridge tolls (at the rates discussed…) alone can not balance the MTA’s abysmal balance sheet. The legacy costs are too insurmountable, and the public (along with a complicit media…) is too stupid to understand any funding issues beyond “TEH MTA SUX!!!”

    The system is being run into the ground. It’s over. It’ll be death by a thousand (service) cuts.

  • Galls

    In 1940, on a city controlled fair set in 1913 of $0.05 ($0.45 cents when adjusted for inflation), the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company still made a profit before finally being forced to sell to the city. They took no subsidies and where a taxed entity. I repeat they made a profit at a modern day fare of $0.45 while we are paying 5 times as much.

    Now for the life of me I cannot figure out why we don’t go back to the form of privatization we used when the subway was at its finest? It is clear that the MTA as a supposedly politically independent entity is not capable of controlling its labor cost or any retaining any efficiencies. Also it is evidenced by our own history that privatizing the operations of the MTA would be the best option.

    Ongoing operations of every form of transit should not be subsidized, capital costs sure, but operations should be covered by fare. I would gladly apply that philosophy to road users as well. By getting rid of the gas tax and making all limited access highways toll roads, with a toll based on (distance traveled) x (vehicle class) x (special infrastructure used).

  • Cheer up, Larry. At least we’ll all be able to drive to a shiny new Brooklyn basketball arena subsidized by the MTA (read: us). There’ll be plenty of surface parking.

  • The cold weather and various travels have made me get lazy with bicycle commuting and rely on the subway more to get around. This news has sobered me up. I’ll be getting a new commuter bike in a few days.

    Frankly I don’t understand why service cuts are more palatable than fare hikes. I’d rather see the fare go up and maintain the same level of service (or, better yet, improve it).

  • MTA Punching Bag

    Transit Know Nothing State Senator Craig Johnson was just named Democrats for Education Reform’s “reformer of the month”. The group’s board is a who’s who of big city mayors and urbanites. It’s a reminder of the total disconnect between “progressive” politics and support for public transit.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Cheer up, Larry. At least we’ll all be able to drive to a shiny new Brooklyn basketball arena subsidized by the MTA (read: us). There’ll be plenty of surface parking.)

    What cheers me up is riding a bicycle. I’ll ride it to the arena too, if it is ever built.

    Now if only I could find a similar substitute for public education, the police, parks, libraries, Social Security, Medicare, etc. I’d be fine. But I’m not sure about anyone else.

  • Larry Littlefield

    BTW, when I said the so-called “doomsday” plan discussed earlier wasn’t a real doomsday, I meant it. Even whatever the MTA does in June won’t be the real doomsday. ETA some time between November 2010 (after the state election) and November 2011, unless the U.S. is hit with a dollar collapse first.

  • Emily Litella

    Throw the bums out, we need some new (bum) blood.

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