The MTA’s internal projections forecasting a $2.5 billion deficit in 2025 may actually underestimate the agency's dire financial future, according to a new analysis by the state comptroller.
With ridership levels still far below pre-pandemic levels and inflation on the rise, the MTA could have an operating deficit of $4.6 billion by 2026 unless the agency finds a new way to bring in money, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli wrote.
“The MTA needs to come up with billions of dollars to pay for operations in the coming years and that puts greater strain on its capital plan to update and repair the transit system. This has to be achieved against broad economic challenges that are increasing costs and threaten a recession,” DiNapoli said in a statement.
The agency already plans to bring back its biennial fare increase next year. But the MTA also needs more riders. The agency has celebrated recent pandemic-era peaks in ridership. Last week, 3.7 million people rode the subway in one day — but that’s still only 63% of pre-pandemic levels.
“Over the last year, the fiscal position of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has deteriorated, as the trajectory of ridership has ebbed closer to the low end of the agency’s forecasted range,” the comptroller’s report notes.
The comptroller report notes that if only 73% of pre-pandemic riders return by 2026, the MTA could be down $350 million annually.
“The focus and celebrations of the ‘pandemic high’ ridership days feeds into NYC boosterism that can undermine the message that MTA is in deep financial trouble,” said Rachael Fauss, a policy adviser with the good government group Reinvent Albany.
The MTA expects to bring in $1 billion a year through congestion pricing fees, which it would use to sell bonds and generate $15 billion in revenue. But by law, that money is only supposed to be used for capital improvements. The comptroller wrote that if some of that money was used to plug gaps in the budget, it could do more long-term harm by not funding improvements like new signals, train cars, and elevators.
MTA Chairman Janno Lieber has for months called for a “new revenue stream” from Albany. But it’s unclear what form that might take and whether elected officials would be willing to send the agency more money – presumably through a new tax.
The MTA said it agrees with the comptroller’s findings.
“The MTA has begun working with decision-makers to develop a plan that assures [SIC] continued strong mass transit service in the post-COVID era,” MTA spokesman John McCarthy wrote in a statement. “We are also aggressively pursuing long-term savings and efficiencies while providing transit services to millions of riders that power the region’s economy.”
Neal Zuckerman, an MTA board member, said he appreciated the comptroller's analysis.
“As I often say in the board and committee meetings, ‘someone will have to pay’ as New York must have the MTA; the city and the region does not work without a vibrant, well-functioning, multimodal transit system,” Zuckerman wrote in an email. “We all agree on the problem and its magnitude. The issue is not what is the exact number. This issue is: how do we solve the fiscal gap in time?”
While the federal government has already provided the MTA with $15 billion in relief aid since the pandemic began, some believe the feds should keep the agency afloat going forward. The comptroller notes the MTA hasn’t received federal funding to cover operating expenses since 1997.
“The MTA makes up nearly 40% of the nation’s transit riders, but receives 16% of federal transit operating funds,” said Lisa Daglian with the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “It’s time for that to change. Our transit system moves the entire region and country's economy, and riders need their federal and state governments to drastically increase funding for transit operations in the next budget, if not sooner.”