The financial uncertainty facing the MTA could mean disrepair for its subways and other transit systems if it doesn’t ensure critical upgrades are underway by the end of 2024, according to a new report from a prominent fiscal watchdog.
The report, authored by the Citizens Budget Commission, details pressing quality of life issues for New Yorkers who rely on public transit to traverse the five boroughs and beyond. As the MTA tries to climb out of the budgetary malaise brought on by the pandemic — and faces political pressure over its congestion pricing plan — the CBC warns infrastructure issues could drive down quality of service.
“Even with improvements in contracting speed, the MTA is highly unlikely to complete its planned projects in a timely fashion, and there is a risk that the system will not be brought to a state of good repair in the foreseeable future,” the report reads.
This could have palpable consequences for commuters throughout the city.
“If there is deterioration in the subway cars or the buses, if the signals aren’t well-functioning, that can cause delays in service, more crowded trains, longer wait times between trains,” said Ana Champeny, the group’s vice president of research and one of the authors of the report. “So it’s all about how effectively the system can get us around to the places we need to be.”
Roughly $53 billion earmarked for capital plans through 2024 remains in limbo, with those funds remaining uncommitted, according to the analysis. That money has been designated for plans that could bring critical improvements to the system, Champeny notes.
The MTA has been banking on the rollout of congestion pricing to boost revenue, to the tune of $1 billion a year, per agency estimates. But the process has been drawn out and politically complicated. Fees may begin as soon as late 2023, but the plan has faced criticism from elected officials in New York and New Jersey for charging drivers as much as $23 to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street, and potentially causing more traffic on already overburdened areas.
In the meantime, ridership across transit systems has not improved to the levels some had hoped. Still, Champeny said structural improvements should remain front of mind.
“Increasing ridership will help financially, but if you aren’t executing and maintaining the system and there start to be service concerns and reliability concerns, that can have the opposite effect of reducing ridership,” Champeny said.
Low ridership levels brought by the coronavirus pandemic — and a persistent shift to remote working — have deepened a fiscal quagmire for an already financially troubled public transit system on which millions of people rely.
The report warns that “at least $12 billion, or 20%, of future planned capital financing is at risk or unaffordable … due to the MTA’s structural deficit.”
The report adds, “ultimately these resources, including all planned congestion pricing revenue, are essential to bring the system to a state of good repair and modernization.”
The group put forward a slate of recommendations, including determining which projects will get contracting priority through 2024 and comprehensive planning for the next round of capital projects.
“Thus far, the MTA has not laid out a detailed, prospective multiyear project plan that would allow the public to know which remaining projects are prioritized through 2024, when they are expected to be completed, the impact on the system’s state of good repair, and the likelihood that the system’s service would be able to be maintained and not deteriorate,” the report reads.
Following the initial publication of this story, MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan said by email that the report "does not accurately portray" the agency's fiscal situation in regards to its capital plan.
"After an 18-month pause due to COVID-19 – i.e., in approximately 13 months – the MTA has already awarded $9.5 billion in capital projects," Donovan said. "This puts us in the range of a $50 billion pace over a normal five-year award period. Further, 75% of the awarded work is for projects that maintain the system in a state of good repair – evidencing the MTA’s prioritization of this type of capital investments. If CBC wants further information about future-going projects, they should look at MTA’s website, which lays out all projects scheduled for award through 2023.”
This story has been updated with a statement from the MTA.