Gov. Cuomo Leaves the MTA Board No Choice — So You’re Getting a Fare Hike

Realizing their dire financial situation, MTA board members vowed to take action — just not yet.

Photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit
Photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

SB Donation NYC header 2Talk about a rock and a hard place.

With no guarantee of other revenue from Governor Cuomo or elsewhere, MTA board members had no choice on Wednesday but to pass budget that assumes fare and toll increases — which happened to be opposed by the governor himself.

“We have a responsibility to balance this budget right now, and that’s what we’ve provided,” Interim MTA Chairman Fernando Ferrer told reporters following the vote. “If something falls through, then we’ve got to find additional revenue — or make very deep service cuts.”

The vote on the 2019 fare and toll increase is expected to take place next month. For the past decade, biennial fare hikes have been standard practice at the agency — part of a commitment the board made during a past fiscal crisis.

But with deteriorated service driving bus and subway riders away in droves, Cuomo has come out swinging against the fare hike, forcing the board to choose between that and service cuts, since without fares the agency will be $244 million in the red.

“It would be very painful,” MTA Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran said of the potential service cuts.

At Wednesday’s meeting, board members were vocally uncomfortable with that predicament, even as they voted almost unanimously to move forward with a budget that assumes increased fares.

“What we have today, and we have to be realistic about this here, is an operation here that cannot last,” Westchester rep Andrew Saul said. “Whether we approve this budget or don’t approve this budget, I’m not so sure that’s material.”

“I, too, am going to vote for this budget, but I’m not happy about it,” added Hotel Trades Council President Peter Ward, a Cuomo appointee. “There are some things about the fare increases that I think need to be addressed. I personally find it offensive that we’re going to increase fares for Access-A-Ride.”

Of the board’s 14 members, only Carl Weisbrod and Veronica Vanterpool —both appointees of Mayor de Blasio — declined to vote in favor of the budget. Both abstained.

Throughout the discussion, board members harped on the need to cut costs and root out “waste” and “inefficiency” in the agency, echoing comments by the governor last month. Finance chair Larry Schwartz, a Cuomo ally, committed to spending 2019 “aggressively and proactively changing the structure of the MTA.”

Schwartz and his colleagues did not, however, specify what exactly needed to be done to the MTA’s structure. Cutting labor and healthcare costs, addressing the agency’s growing debt costs, and merging Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Roads all came up, but the board seemed wholly unprepared to do any of those things.

Instead, it promised to take action … eventually.

Only one board member — Ira Greenberg, who does not have a vote — called out the need for the governor and city to follow through on their financial commitments to the agency’s capital plan. In 2015, Cuomo pledged $8.3 billion, but accompanying language in the subsequent state budget required the MTA to exhaust all other funding sources, including borrowing, before the state puts in a penny. As a result, the MTA’s annual debt service payments, which come out of the operating budget, are expected to continue to grow in the coming years.

It’s unclear why the MTA board is only realizing its dire financial situation now.

“We’ve known for months that the agency doesn’t just need an infusion of capital money, but that there’s a huge crater in the operating budget,” said Jon Orcutt, advocacy & communication director  of TransitCenter. “The board’s job is to run the place. You don’t get to make dissociative comments if you’re a board member of an agency. It’s you and it’s your budget.”

It’s just the latest example of a board hamstrung by systemic and political factors far out of its control.

Board members, the majority appointed by Cuomo, are loathe to go against his wishes — even when they know it’s the right thing to do. That was the case earlier this year when they raised a stink about his so-called Enhanced Stations Initiative, which did not include accessibility upgrades, only to pass it the following month. And when it comes to finding new revenue, the board is wholly dependent on Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and the state legislature — whose big talk has produced little in terms of results, even as the reality of the transit crisis has come into clearer view.

And now, with no new revenue to speak of, board members will likely have no choice but to pass an unpopular — and in the view of many riders and advocates, undeserving — fare hike.

  • Daphna

    As fares go up people will continue to explore and adopt other transit options. Bicycles, bike share, e-bikes, scooters, e-scooters, scooter-share, etc will become more widely used. Lyft, Uber, Uber Pool, Via and others will continue to be used for trips that are not well served by the subway. Buses will continue to loose ridership. People might become willing to pay more to live closer to where they work. This means less people taking mass transit.

    With the NY Attorney General declining to prosecute fare evasion and Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD (uneasily) following this policy, more people will steal their rides. Large numbers of Bronx and Staten Island bus riders do not pay, and a variety of other subway and bus riders citywide do not pay, and a new policy of signage without any actual change in the prosecution and ticketing policy, will not deter the systemic cheating.

    However, even with declining ridership and more fare beating, a bigger problem is the state not being willing to put in the committed money and hiding behind a loophole that says the MTA must be virtually broke first before they get the committed money.
    The debt that the MTA has taken on and will continue to take on is very shortsighted and a massive drain. Overly generous pension and health care benefits to MTA retirees is also a problem. The city has realized those pension guarantees were not sustainable and scaled them back for anyone who started working for the city after 2012, but prior to that the pensions system asked employees to contribute relatively little but promised huge benefits paid out.

  • Larry Littlefield

    They need to put in a “Generation Greed” surcharge, as I’ve described, to show how much money is going to past debts and retirement benefits not being earned by workers today, but the result of past funding and pension increases for those cashing in and moving out.

    Put it in front of riders’ and toll payers’ faces every day. Then maybe, finally, the pols and board members will have nowhere to hide.

    BTW, I’ve just put up an analysis of 1972 to 2016 debt and infrastructure capital construction (i.e. not buying rail cars and buses and not building stadia and convention centers) for all states and NYC and the rest of NY State separately.

    NYC — debt high, infrastructure construction low.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2018/12/12/sold-out-futures-by-state-in-2016-debt-and-infrastructure/

    Read it and weep — or rage. Read the next one on public employee pensions and weep or rage more.

    Hey, but at least for now, Rhode Island is worse off.

  • All allusions to “waste” and “inefficiency” are nothing but anti-labour propoganda. If workers were a protected group, then such talk would qualify as hate speech, the equivalent of using “globalists” as stand-in for “Jews”, or of your racist uncle’s practice of citing “crime” in order to express a hatred of black people.

    The underfunding of the subway is our collective responsibility to solve. But our top Statewide elected official — the person who runs the transit agency — is busy playing games and deflecting blame, when he should be explaining to the public the fact that the subway fare has been too low for too long, and making the case, in the most clear-eyed fashion, for significant and immediate fare hikes.

    Cuomo’s unethical and self-serving behaviour during this crisis amounts to a dereliction of duty on a collossal scale.

  • Fool

    It would be close to $1 Billion a year in savings if MTA wide the conductors were laid off. That is a position that would not result in any service loss and provide some real savings.

    I would classify that as waste and inefficiency.

    Then there are 1000 cuts scattered throughout work rules, some of which are 100+ years old. Such as the LIRR double pay required for yard movements, if a engineer moved a Diesel engine then goes onto a electric engine.

    Management has had layers and layers of administration bolted onto it, similar to how higher education costs have skyrocketed because of administrative creep.

    The labor waste on the Capital Construction side is well documented.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Those NYCT conductors are a smaller share of the workforce than you think. And while more should be done, NYCT titles were “broadbanded” the last time it became this much of a ripoff. There is more “waste and inefficiency” elsewhere.

    But as for Ferdinand, he’s seems to believe the biggest transit problem is that the OTHER workers aren’t paying $5.00 a ride for service that is worse than it is now. Because thought it is worse than it used to be, it’s still better than the serfs deserve.

    Entitlement tends to build up over time, especially in organized self interest groups, as I explained here.

    http://r8ny.com/2006/07/15/spitzer-suozzi-and-reinhold-niebuhr/

    The check on this is voluntariness. If I don’t think you are treating me fairly, I can take my time, money or concern elsewhere. It would appear that those who can are doing so with regard to NYCT, leaving those who can’t trapped — until a million leave the city as the poor are left to die in the streets, as after the union victory of the 1970s..

    Ferdinand, you are making the same argument the executive/financial class did in 2009. Any objections from the serfs are envy, class warfare, etc. Don’t worry, the serfs are going to be made even worse off. But saying anyone who objects engages in hate speech?

  • Fool

    I specifically wrote MTA wide, not limiting the scope to NYCT, which is approximately $280 million per year.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Those pensions would have been expensive, but not devastating, if they were just left alone and funded. It is all the retroactive increases, not paid for at the time because they were asserted to be free, that have been devastating.

    The TWU went on strike in 2003 for retirement at age 50 after 20 years of work instead of 55 and 25. They didn’t get it. But those who did retire with the 20/50 deal were given a huge increase in their pensions in 2000.

    And lots of other unions did get massive pension increases. That drains money from the MTA, because “money is fungible.” So the pension issue is not really about transit worker pensions, as the pension plan the NYCT workers are in — though severely underfunded — less underfunded than the plans for teachers, firefighters, police officers despite taxpayers kicking far more in.

  • For my wife and I to go out to dinner, we usually have to travel about a mile or so, to the east village or union square. The two of us taking MTA costs $5.50, and involves considerable walking, waiting, and frustration. In contrast a Lyft costs us under $9 and that’s for an on-demand, door-to-door ride. From a consumer-economical perspective there is no choice. Time is money, Jack. Yes I understand that Lyft prices are subsidized and do not reflect the real costs but I also don’t care. As a lowly individual consumer it is not my job to rectify the market. Offer me a bargain I am going to take it. We go out to dinner maybe 2x a week. It’s just not worth putting up with MTA to save a few measly bucks. I know most people cannot just decide to take car rides everywhere but my point is that I can verify that MTA has lost regular revenue from at least two people. I moved here in 2001 and back then a weekly unlimited Metrocard cost what, $17? I would buy one every week and take subway and buses everywhere. It was the thing to do. However in 2018 there are a lot more options. MTA is fucked IMO.

  • Rider

    You’re taking a cab to go a mile? Most able-bodied people in this city could and would walk that distance if they were going out to dinner. You and your wife may not be able to do so, but that doesn’t mean you need to be in a full-size car or a transit vehicle. What the city will have to do, ultimately, is pedestrianize the streets in that area and give people who need it low-profile, powered mobility options, like scooters and e-bikes.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t have a smartphone, and doesn’t use the apps at least some of the time. Bustime doesn’t help the MTA, because it helps the rider. My wife used to take the bus from the Y and supermarket back to our house. If it was late, she waited. Now, she can see that the next bus is 20 minutes away, and then check Lyft. Or she can Citibike.

    I shifted to bicycle travel more than a decade ago. It’s too far from my house to Midtown for me to do it every day. But my employer has been bought, and we’ll be moving downtown. Riding every day will become 60 miles a week, if I can get over the Brooklyn Bridge both ways, whereas today riding three days is 54 miles and four days, like this week, is 72 miles.

    I hope those who cashed in the MTA are happy. They got what they wanted, and I didn’t, so now I have to adjust.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/preparing-for-institutional-collapse/

    And they didn’t just cash in the MTA.

  • What is this commitment that the board made that required biennial fare hikes?

  • We both commute by bike, we are on the bike all the freakin time. We bike to dinner in warm weather. But certain times, especially on a winter night, after a long work day, its just nice to get a ride. Don’t start nitpicking one person’s habits. The point I was attempting to make, the one that flew over your head, is that MTA’s fare is no longer much of a bargain, for those of us whose trips are not that long distance, at least. Also, don’t try to shame me for not walking, you dipshit.

  • AMH

    That’s a great photo of Cuomo trying to sneak into the subway. He sure looks like he’s hoping that no one will notice him.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Don’t knock it. The play used to be to “save the fare” by slashing maintenance, and then, with collapse looming, increase it by 33 percent, 50 percent, even 100 percent.

    They agreed to little increases every two years instead, and that is absolutely the right thing to do.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Perhaps someone could try to get the commuter railroads to match the productivity gains NYCT already has.

  • Joe R.

    Honestly, for any trip less than about 3 miles I don’t even consider any option but walking. In the rare event there happens to be a safe place to put my bike at the destination I’ll start to think about biking if the trip is over about 2 miles (i.e. not worth it to bring my bike out for trips shorter than that).

  • Three miles — or an hour’s walk — is a bit much. I will take the train or bus. But for a one-mile distance I am going to walk every time (unless the bus comes right at that moment, without my having to wait for it).

    And there’s no way that I am going to take my bike for a trip of just a mile or two. It would take me longer to get dressed than to take such a ride.

  • Joe R.

    You’re right about the bike. I don’t wear anything much different when riding as opposed to walking, but it takes me time to give the bike a quick mechanical check and bring it up from the basement. Not worth doing that just to go a mile or two.

    Three miles is generally at the high end of what I consider “walkable”. I’ll do it if there are no viable alternatives (i.e. no safe place to park the bike), but in a perfect world I’d probably bike trips ~2.5 miles or over, and walk the rest.

  • AMH

    Those are where Citibike really comes in handy. I used to avoid trips that were a lengthy walk but not worth getting out my bike (especially if they would involve carrying anything). Unfortunately I only recently enjoyed this option, and most of the city still does not have it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The one-to-three mile distance is the sweet spot for bikes as far as I’m concerned.

    There is no need to get dressed, because you won’t be riding long enough to work up a sweat. Just wear whatever you are wearing.

    Over 1/2 mile, the time savings from a bike outweighs the time spent getting it out, locking it, and putting it back. And up to 3 miles avoiding walks, waits and transfers means the bike always beats mass transit.

  • Joe R.

    Right, that’s the problem, lack of coverage. Citibike could work great for me for trips like going to downtown Flushing (3.1 miles), or going from the Forest Hills subway station (2.7 miles) late nights if I just miss the bus and need to wait 20 minutes for the next one. Unfortunately, places like mid or eastern Queens don’t seem to be on the radar of bike share. In lieu of that, I’d be happy to settle for a lot more safe bike parking, meaning I know my bike will be there when I want to go home.

  • I’m dressing to keep warm! If I am going to ride at any time other than the beautiful life-giving summer months, then I need to put on a significant amount of layers. And doing that takes more time than a one-to-three-mile ride does.

    For me the sweet spot for a utility ride (as opposed to a pleasure ride) is five to ten miles. More than that and it exceeds an hour and starts to run into a significant expenditure of time; less than that and it’s really not worth the effort to get dressed. I am lucky that my ride to work is ten miles, which for me constitutes the ideal length for a commute.

  • Joe R.

    A lot of that depends on walking speed and whether or not you’ll be carrying too much to put on your bike. A typical shopping errand for me will involve about 2 miles total of walking, and probably stopping in 3 or 4 stores. If I figure a minute to find a place to park and chain the bike, plus 30 seconds to unchain it, that’s about 6 minutes if I make 4 stops. Add about two minutes to give the bike a quick mechanical check and bring it up from the basement. Riding time to go those 2 miles will be maybe 10 minutes given that I’m not going to have much chance to book along if stopping that often. So that’s about 18 minutes once you account for everything. You might even add a minute or two because you sometimes need to tie bags to the handlebars and so forth (and untie them when you park so they don’t get stolen. 20 minutes then isn’t entirely unreasonable if I’m using the bike.

    Walking involves just going out the front door. Time to walk 2 miles at my walking speed is roughly 28 to 30 minutes. On the high end I’m saving 10 minutes. If I do the same calculus for a 1 mile trip with just one stop maybe I’m saving all of 5 minutes. Not worth it to me, plus there’s a finite chance of my bike getting stolen every time I chain it up outside.

  • Joe R.

    I tend to under dress a bit for my rides on the theory I’ll be cold at first, but will warm up after about 10 minutes. The only “extra” clothing I might wear would be gloves if the temperature is under about 50, even though I don’t wear them just for walking unless it’s very cold, like in the teens or 20s.

    Most of my rides tend to be 1.5 hours. That’s the sweet spot for me as far as getting a decent work out, but not feeling totally exhausted at the end of the ride. I’ll cover anywhere from 20 to 25 miles, depending upon how I feel, and whether or not I’m riding enough to be in good shape.

  • Joe R.

    I actually got a smart phone a few years ago when my friend upgraded. I got it mainly as a gadget to play with. I don’t have phone service and don’t plan to get it. However, I can use the Internet anywhere there’s wifi. Not sure if that would be possible while waiting for a bus unless the MTA has wifi installed at bus stops.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ve got layers, but I can’t wear a coat. I’ll get hot, sweat, and then when I stop riding, I’ll freeze.

  • Rider

    Obviously, you’re feeling a little defensive about your habits. As even Polly Trottenberg said, if you’re in traffic, you are traffic. Maybe you can remind your Uber driver not to cut me off the next time I’m trying to cross the street.

  • running_bond

    Eh, still cheaper than a monthly pass in Toronto (Andy’s former stop), where a pass sets you back an astonishing 49 trips.

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