Home MTA EconomicsDoomsday Budget Beyond this Doomsday, more bad news

Beyond this Doomsday, more bad news

by Benjamin Kabak

With word early this morning that Senate talks have all but broken down, transit advocates in New York are feeling the sting of rebuke. They’re also well aware that New York is sitting on the precipice of an transit abyss, the likes of which the city is ill-equipped to face.

The real problem is that, while this 2009 Doomsday plan looks bad, the MTA will have to enact something like this every year until their debt payments are gone. Many New Yorkers believe that if the Senate fails to act this year and fares go up while service gets scaled back, it will be a one-year cut. Next year, the MTA will operate with reduced schedules, but we’ll adjust. Life will go on, right?

Wrong.

Over the next three years, as the MTA budget documents available here show, dept service payments are going to balloon to a projected $2.2 billion by 2012. As other costs increase, the MTA will have to continue to cut service and raise fares to cover this gap. This is the real reason why transit advocates have been urging permanent action.

Eliot Brown, writing for Politicker NY yesterday, explored the MTA’s downward spiral. He does not paint a positive picture:

Should no new money come from the Legislature in Albany, entire lines would be cut, stations would grow dirtier and fewer booth operators would be around to help. The train cars and tracks would deteriorate rather quickly, giving rise to even more “signal problems” that so often hold up trains, boosting the number of “slow zones”—which are pretty much what they sound like—and increasing the number of derailments.

It wouldn’t exactly be New York in the 1970s, but a decaying transit system, if it gets bad enough, actually begins to undermine New York’s status as a vibrant urban center, interrupting the flow of a system that gives over 2.6 billion rides a year, doing damage to a central feature of the city’s business position and general quality of life.

Workers won’t be able to get to work on time. Business areas — transportation hubs — will be underserved. Up and coming neighborhoods will stagnant, and capital projects will remain half-finished and going nowhere fast.

The city, meanwhile, will suffer. Employers will find disgruntled workers who can’t work the hours they need to be putting in and will begin to turn elsewhere for employee bases. As Hope Cohen from the Manhattan Institute said to Brown, “It’s a vicious spiral—if there’s less and less service, and less and less people want to use it. That’s when it becomes more derelict and crime-ridden and all those things.”

This bleak picture is really what it’s all about. Transit advocates have to start pushing the reality that, barring state action, the MTA will be left with no choice but to cut, cut, cut until New York suffers from a barebones subway system that is in a state of disrepair. That is a reality no one wants to confront and no one can afford, but if Albany does not act, if New Yorkers do not demand a solution, this dystopic transit future will arrive sometime around 2012. It’s that close to reality.

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7 comments

epc April 1, 2009 - 12:43 pm

I know it’s April 1st but I’m not joking when I ask this: what would fares be if the MTA were to attempt to fund all operations and debt service out of the fare box? $5 one way? More? What if the MTA were to do this instead: raise fares to the point where service and debt service could be guaranteed. If the city & state want to lower the fares: fine, provide a subsidy. Right now there’s this weird game of chicken where people keep claiming the MTA is hiding money, or somehow forcing the state to impose taxes and other fees (instead of blaming the Parking Lot Industry 4, the head of the alleged Taxi Driver’s alliance was blaming the MTA for the proposed 50¢ taxi surcharge).

Right now the MTA is being forced to subsidize employers in the city who won’t pay a reasonable wage and rely on low commuting costs to keep their staff and have customers in their businesses. The GOP with the complicity of the Assembly Democrats gutted the state funding of the MTA in the 90s. Everybody wants the service, no one wants to pay for it. Instead of allowing all of the various political constituencies holding it at gunpoint, the MTA should turn the gun around and become self–funding.

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Benjamin Kabak April 1, 2009 - 12:57 pm

Don’t even get me started on the Bhairavi Desai comments. She is the head of the Taxi Workers Alliance, and she angered me this morning. I saw her on NY1 at 8 a.m. this morning and started cursing at her through my TV when she blamed the MTA for suggesting this taxi surcharge. I’ll write up her exact quote later tonight or tomorrow, but for her to blame the MTA for the Senate-inspired surcharge suggestion is not only outrageous but a clear derogation of her job at a public advocate.

To answer your first question: Right now, the MTA, through this Doomsday proposal, is basically doing just that. Real estate tax contributions are very, very low this year, and they need to balance the operation budget through cuts, fares and payroll reductions. The problem is that they’re going to have to cover deficits every year for the foreseeable future. How they do that without implementing more cuts and fare hikes is unknown.

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Ariel April 1, 2009 - 2:30 pm

Malcom Smith should put the Ravitch/Silver plan up for a vote in the Senate, even if it won’t pass. That way, when the system starts to deteriorate, we can have documented the Senators who were against saving the MTA. The public can then have specific people to point to after their frustrations with the system builds and the guilty senators can be replaced with candidates that are pro-transit.

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Jason April 1, 2009 - 3:27 pm

I say lets be done with this annual song and dance. Raise the fare to $5 and lets watch and see if the system becomes not only sustainable, but ever improving. If not, then we’ll know for a fact that it truly is the MTA who is running bad accounting.

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zgori April 1, 2009 - 4:16 pm

How about if the MTA threatens to raise the tolls on the bridges/tunnels that they already control to something crazy, like $20? They could say that riders have paid more than their fair share and Albany has left them with no other options. Then, when drivers avoid them and cause crazy traffic jams at the free bridges, maybe there will be enough pressure on Malcolm Smith and his cronies from drivers to find some funding for the MTA.

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The Secret Conductor April 3, 2009 - 7:29 am

I don’t see the MTA getting this money. Not this year at least. Eventually people will start getting laid off. I heard (but not sure of) that some people started o get notices already. I do no this, the trains will get dirtier (station cleaners and train cleaners are the first to go), stations will have one person at any given time working at the token booth (station agents are the second to go), bus lines will have either less buses or the line eliminated 9bus drivers laid off is 3rd) and finally the trains running longer intervals and eventualy 40 minute wait times at night (conductor and train operator hiring freeze possible lay off of train operators).

We are going to nd up with the same congestion lan that was originally proposed, just without the federal money (I guess) and tolls on the harlem River bridges (of which would not have worked out well at all).

The funny thing is, by the time all of this actually comes to pass, we will be so in debt that no one will see ANY impovements.

I am going to call it: we are going to implement the VERY same congestion plan sometime next year or the year afterward. Lets hope its not too late.

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Debts that no honest man can pay :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog April 10, 2009 - 2:03 pm

[…] me, this revelation is nothing new. I’ve warned about the MTA’s precarious debt situation before, and I’ve spent the last few months urging for a properly funded MTA. The DMI study […]

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