December 2020 could have been the month the MTA embarked on a congestion pricing plan that would generate $15 billion, reduce carbon emissions and pollution, and shore up the future of subway and bus service in New York City.
Instead, with subway and bus ridership at historic lows, the transit agency is reeling from a devastating, $12 billion pandemic-induced deficit, and beginning the process of raising subway and bus fares in a series of public meetings.
“The reason that we increase tolls and fares every two years is to provide customer service and be able to deliver service,” MTA CEO and chairman Pat Foye said of the biannual fare hiking ritual. “We are acutely aware that lots of our neighbors in New York City are suffering."
The MTA's suffering is unique: the agency has promised to lay off more than 9,000 employees and cut service by 40% if Congress doesn't provide $12 billion in emergency pandemic relief by the end of 2020. The agency is also borrowing $3 billion from an emergency federal government fund that will incur interest, adding to the MTA's arrears—16% of the budget currently goes to servicing debt.
"There's just no fucking money," explained Richard Ravitch, a former MTA Chairman, who’s credited with rescuing the subway system during the 1980s. "You can quote me on that."
The 87-year-old former lieutenant governor said that he thought Foye was doing "a herculean job. He's telling the public the truth. Senator Chuck Schumer is doing what he can to get us money, but the Republicans don't want to pass anything."
Congestion pricing was supposed to inject $1 billion a year into the MTA—which could then be used to raise $15 billion in bonds—by tolling drivers into Manhattan below 60th Street. When the proposal finally passed in the spring of 2019, New York lawmakers thought they had given themselves enough political cushion by decreeing that the details on the actual tolls could not be announced until after election day 2020, or "no later than December thirty-first, two thousand twenty, or no later than 30 days before a central business district tolling program is initiated, whichever is later."
The plan itself would be announced after the election, by a "Traffic Mobility Review Board" appointed by the governor and the mayor, and the tolling would start up in January of 2021.
But for over a year, the Trump administration has blocked the project, by refusing to tell the MTA what kind of environmental review they need to perform. The review itself could take up to a year, and would come before any formal federal approval of the project.
Even with a much friendlier Biden administration—which could waive the environmental review altogether, something Foye has suggested—the tolling scheme seems mired in bureaucracy. A recent MTA disclosure form states that the implementation of congestion pricing "could be delayed until 2023."
MTA executives said that they had spoken to their counterparts at the Federal Highway Administration several times this fall, and that the FHA actually asked whether the pandemic reduced the need for congestion pricing. The MTA said they responded that the data showed that bridge and tunnel traffic was returning close to normal in New York City, and that yes, they still needed congestion pricing.
A spokesperson for the FHA said they had "no new updates to share."
Asked why their disclosure form estimated 2023 as a start date, the MTA insisted that they were trying to be conservative.
“The MTA is still pushing for the $12 billion we need in additional emergency federal funding to avoid having to enact a series of draconian service and employee cuts, toll and fare hikes, and a continued freeze of our capital plan," said Ken Lovett, the MTA spokesperson. "While we’re more hopeful the Central Business District Tolling Program will move forward under a Biden administration, we continue to await clarity from the feds on what type of environmental review will be required that will help determine when the program will be enacted.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo has publicly lobbied both the incoming and outgoing administrations for New York transit projects, including the Gateway tunnel, the continuation of the Second Avenue Subway, and his LaGuardia Air Train, but he has said little about congestion pricing. Asked about it last week, Cuomo said it was "one of a long list of issues."
Rachael Fauss, who studies the MTA for the good government group Reinvent Albany, said that congestion pricing represented "way too much money to leave on the table," and that the agency should be doing what they can now: appointing their members of the Traffic Mobility Review Board, and presenting the tolling plan.
"Obviously they can't control when the federal government gives their approval, but they can control as much as they can, and the MTA needs to check every single box to move things forward, so that everything can move as quickly as possible once they get that federal signoff," Fauss said.
As bad as the MTA's finances are, that hasn't stopped the state from redirecting dedicated tax revenue from the agency to the state's general fund, a common practice during Cuomo's three terms as governor. The MTA said this summer that they expect to lose $600 million from the state this way; by comparison, the fare and toll hikes the MTA wants to implement are expected to raise around $329 million a year.
"This would be the biggest raid of MTA dedicated funds in recent memory," Fauss said.
In a statement, Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for Cuomo's budget division, said, "This is a temporary withholding, we are monitoring the MTA’s financing closely, and we will reevaluate all temporary withholdings in the fourth quarter of the state’s fiscal year as we work with federal government and the state legislature to close the COVID-19 related budget gaps generated by a nearly $63 billion revenue loss over four years caused entirely by the pandemic."
In the meantime, the fare hike meetings will continue through December. The proposals include increasing all types of fares, charging $3 per replacement MetroCard, and eliminating 7 and 30-day passes. The MTA board will vote on the proposals next month.
Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director with Riders Alliance, said it was "totally outrageous to make riders in the current moment and transit workers, bear the full brunt of federal austerity," and that fare hikes and service cuts must be the "absolute last resort."
"The fare hikes are always regressive because the average transit rider is a lower income person. That's truer now than ever, because the people who are taking transit are by and large essential workers," Pearlstein said. "To hit them with a fare hike is particularly unfair at the moment, especially given the gratitude we owe these essential workers to get us through the pandemic."