Days after Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged to find additional funding for the MTA in order to improve subway service, the MTA Board on Wednesday approved a capital plan amendment that calls for an additional $1.6 billion in bonds. Several board members criticized the authority, accusing it of pushing through a bloated plan that relies too heavily on debt, and prioritizes some of Governor Cuomo's pet infrastructure projects over critical maintenance of aging infrastructure.
"We're all for a big capital program, but we should have more say in what's in it," Andrew Albert, chair of the New York City Transit Riders Council and a nonvoting member of the MTA Board, told Gothamist on Thursday. "Taking care of signals, tracks, station modernization, there could be more of that in there."
The new $32.5 billion capital plan is projected to increase the MTA's overall debt by $5 billion over the next five-to-seven years, according to the MTA: from $38 billion to roughly $43 billion. It includes $1.5 billion for a Long Island Railroad track expansion, as well as $400 million for electronic electronic bridge and tunnel tolls, $700 million for the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway, and additional funding for new clean-energy buses and subway cars.
Robert Foran, the MTA's Chief Financial Officer, pledged Wednesday that the additional debt will not put upward pressure on subway fares, beyond regular biannual increases. "I emphasize that this is not putting any additional pressure on fares and tolls," he said.
But Board members accused Foran of taking a myopic view, and predicted fare increases will be inevitable beyond the years covered by the 2015-19 capital plan.
"It's almost never a short term issue," said Ira Greenberg, a nonvoting member appointed by the LIRR Commuters Council. "Three years from now, when we're looking to fund a new capital program, the answer is here and now as to why we won't have any money."
Veronica Vanterpool, appointed to the board by Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that the increase in debt is troubling considering Governor Cuomo's decision to release the remainder of New York State's full $8.3 billion capital contribution only after all other funding sources are exhausted—bonds included.
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"What we are hearing today is that the MTA is at a point where it is indeed exhausting its resources," Vanterpool said. "That additional debt has to be serviced, and that service comes from revenue, savings, or additional funding from the state and city. And in the absence of that funding, it does indeed put pressure [on fares]... it is a crushing amount of debt and business has to change."
Board member Andrew Saul also cautioned that rising interest rates will likely increase the rate of debt accumulation year over year. "You've got a ticking time bomb here," he said.
Polly Trottenberg, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation and a Mayoral appointee to the board, abstained from voting on Wednesday, citing "not enough time to understand" the capital plan amendment.
David Jones, another Mayoral appointee, said he envisions a public transit system increasingly burdensome for its patrons, particularly those living in poverty. "It will leave more and more people behind," he predicted. "This debt service will make it impossible for the system to even consider taking care of those riders."
Mayor de Blasio has said repeatedly that New York City cannot afford a reduced fare program for New Yorkers living below the poverty line, and has urged the MTA to take on that project.
John Raskin, a spokesperson for the Riders Alliance, said Thursday that he believes some of the MTA's new projects are very necessary. "The truth is that we've under-invested in the MTA for so long that we need to play catch up," he said.
"The concern is that if we keep giving the MTA more projects, but we don't give them the funds to complete them, that results in the MTA taking on more debt," he added. "And spending more money on debt service instead of on running trains and buses."
The capital plan as amended this week could be adjusted further still, the NY Times reports. Board Member Lawrence Schwartz called it an "evolving document" Wednesday and said the Board could vote for more changes to accommodate Cuomo's just-revealed "genius" competition to improve day-to-day subway service.
Last week, the MTA announced a $20 million six point plan to address subway delays in the short term.