For months, the MTA has been beating the drum of fiscal ruin, warning of a “fiscal tsunami” and warning that the end of mass transit as we know it was nigh. On Wednesday, the MTA board changed its tune.
The board passed a non-controversial $17 billion budget that included no major cuts to service, nor major job losses. This, for an agency that has said it’s losing $200 million a week from pandemic related customer losses, and additional cleaning expenses.
But there is a catch.
MTA executives presented the budget on the assumption that “soon” Congress will pass a relief package that includes $4.5 billion for the MTA, the exact amount it needs for a balanced 2021 budget.
And still, the MTA isn’t done cranking the handle on the doom and gloom machine. The agency is working under the assumption that ridership won’t return to near pre-pandemic levels until 2024. So it’s also hoping for an additional $8 billion in federal relief to avoid a projected 40% cut in subway and bus service, a 50% cut to commuter rail service, and nearly 9,000 job cuts.
“This isn’t a bluff, this is real,” MTA Chairman Pat Foye said Wednesday.
The MTA wouldn’t say when it needed the $4.5 billion for 2021 by, and said the other funding could come at various intervals over the next three years.
In another sign of how desperate the MTA’s finances have become, this week it expects to receive a $2.9 billion loan from the Federal Reserve, which it will use to cover operating losses this year, as well as apply $1.8 billion of it to operating expenses for 2021. While the interest rates are low, the agency already uses 16% of its budget for debt payments. Taking a loan for operating expenses is like borrowing money to pay a mortgage: the money doesn’t go to improving anything or adding value, it’s simply to keep the lights on.
And the agency is still planning on fare and toll hikes this spring, although the exact increases will be presented in January.
"Even assuming $4.5 billion in federal aid, the MTA remains billions in the red. Governor Cuomo runs our transit system and needs a Plan B for frequent, reliable, and safe subway and bus service for years to come,” Danny Pearlstein, Policy and Communications Director at Riders Alliance, said in a statement. "Hiking fares with offices closed, ridership low, and subways shut overnight unfairly asks essential workers and low-income riders to pay more for less. Governor Cuomo must find new, progressive funding sources rather than balance his budget on riders' backs.”
New York City’s interim Vice President Sarah Feinberg also lamented the prospect of cutting service for essential workers, and letting go of MTA workers, hundreds of whom have contracted COVID, and more than a hundred have died.
“This city and this workforce have paid such a high price already for COVID,” Feinberg said. “Inevitably, if we have to do significant service reductions, even if they’re just 20% service reductions versus the 40% reductions we’ve talked about, the communities hit hardest by COVD will inevitably be hit hardest by our service reductions too.”
There’s concern among fiscal watchdogs that the current congressional relief bill won’t include funding for states, and that Governor Cuomo, who’s already siphoned $600 million in dedicated revenue for the MTA, to pay for other state expenses, will continue to take MTA funding going forward.
Asked whether the state should keep doing this, MTA Chairman Pat Foye refused to answer, instead (dutifully) blamed the Trump administration for slowing down congestion pricing, which was originally expected to go into effect in January.
Foye expects the Biden administration will allow the agency to move forward with the process for getting congestion pricing up and running, but it could take as long as three years before the money starts rolling in. Foye hopes the money generated from congestion pricing could be used to start funding the $51.5 billion capital plan. Remember that?