The team at the MTA's that watches the budget and makes recommendations suggested Wednesday that raising fares in mid-2022, 2023, and 2025 could be a way to ensure the agency remains financially viable going forward. But Governor Kathy Hochul, who pledged earlier this week there would be no fare or toll increases at the MTA, doubled down on her promise.
Speaking to a group of business leaders on Thursday morning, Hochul made it clear she intends to freeze fare and toll increases until 2023. “We have promised no service interruptions, and no fare increase for the rest of this year and next year, let’s get that done,” Hochul said.
Then she added a message to MTA acting chairman Janno Lieber: “Don’t worry, Janno, I’ll find the money somewhere.”
During its monthly board meeting Wednesday, the agency outlined its financial plan for the next five years, and what it will take to balance its budget each year. Ridership, the single largest source of revenue, remains low, about half of the pre-pandemic levels across its divisions.
The MTA estimated that even if ridership returned to 85% of what it was, that would still be a loss of $1 billion a year in fares.
Thanks to funding from the CARES Act and several other federal relief programs, the agency appears to have secured enough money to balance its budget through 2025. But after that, “there remains a very substantial structural deficit in our budget, lurking just over the horizon,” Lieber said Wednesday.
The MTA’s deputy financial officer presented the board with several options for raising enough revenue to balance the budget after the federal funds run out. It includes raising fares in mid-2022, and again in 2023 and 2025 at the typical rate of 4%.
This could put a single subway ride at about $3 by 2025 (compared to $2.75 now).
MTA leadership insisted Wednesday that holding off six months before deciding whether to raise fares was a “business decision,” about bringing back more riders, and was not driven by politics. The gubernatorial primary—which already features Hochul, NY Attorney General Letitia James, and NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams vying for the Democratic nomination—is next June.
“When there’s $90 million at stake, and the scale of the MTA’s budget, it is not worth it to us to take chances with the motivations for riders to come back, and that’s our priority,” Lieber said.
When it was unclear earlier this year whether the MTA would get the federal funding it needed, it borrowed $2.9 billion, money that will have to be paid back. The agency will continue to draw from this revenue stream.
“That funding indeed came through, yet the MTA is still counting on the deficit financing, just later on. It shows you how big their operating budget hole really is, and the continued impact of COVID over a multi-year period: Absent service cuts and fare hikes, the federal emergency packages still weren't enough to avoid any deficit borrowing,” Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst for the watchdog group Reinvent Albany, said.
The MTA is making efforts toward finding other ways to bring low income riders back to the system. Several MTA board members are supposed to be discussing a new fare structure that would include possibly capping fares, or giving riders an unlimited ride after purchasing a certain number of single rides. This would benefit people who can’t pay the full cost of an unlimited card up front.
The agency has also been trying to enroll more people in the Fair Fares program, or half-priced MetroCards, which only has about 30% of eligible riders enrolled. The MTA is also talking with the city about possibly tweaking the eligibility requirement. Currently, to apply for Fair Fares, someone must have an income at or below the federal poverty rate.
This article has been updated to include Governor Hochul's remarks about a fare hike freeze for all of 2022.