When yesterday’s news broke that the state would reduce its funding commitments to the MTA by $140 million, the F word emerged. Two MTA Board Members mentioned fare hikes as a way to meet any potential budget gaps brought on by the latest round of state cuts. Jay Walder, the MTA’s CEO and chairman, downplayed those fears.
Walder, talking after a hearing on the MTA’s ambitious 2010-2014 capital plan, stressed the agency’s commitment to its current plan. He did, however, hedge his bets. “It is my intent to stay with the schedule of fare hikes that was agreed with the Legislature in May, which does not call for a fare hike in 2010,” Walder said to reporters. “It is my intent to stay with that.”
By using “intent,” Walder is certainly keeping the option to raise fares on the table, but he stressed the MTA’s need to streamline their internal operations. “We have a responsibility now to be able to try to show how we can tighten our belt and how we can do things more efficiently and productively,” he said.
If the agency begins to run low on cash, as Michael Grynbaum and Colin Moynihan noted, the MTA will have few options. The decision to eliminate station agents system-wide saved just a few million dollars. To find $140 million worth of service cuts would result in a death blow to efficient subway service. Hopefully, the economy will hold, and we will be saved a small fare hike before a larger one arrives, as scheduled, in 2011.
Meanwhile, as the bad news from Albany overshadowed Walder’s appearance in front of the State Senate on Thursday, the MTA head tried to forge ahead with his vision to bring technological innovations to an agency sorely lacking in that field. “I have to tell you, when I first arrived at the MTA, people kept telling me the MTA doesn’t do technology,” Walder said. “Well, that’s simply not acceptable.”
The State Senators were far more skeptical and questioned the need for basic transit technologies such as train and bus arrival boards. Sen. Craig Johnson, a Democrat from North Hempstead called these clocks “a very nice idea” but was otherwise dismissive. “New Yorkers, whether you’re a suburbanite commuter or you live in the five boroughs, have been living without time clocks for a number of years,” Thompson said. “It seems a little bit like a luxury.”
According to our elected officials, then, a modern transit network and up-to-date infrastructure technology is a luxury. No wonder it has become a struggle to secure sensible funding for public transportation in New York.
More ominous, though, were Senate warnings about the MTA’s proposed $28.8 billion five-year capital plan. For the first time since these capital investments dragged the MTA out of the mire of the 1970s, the Senate does not know how it will fund a proposed five-year plan. The agency has secured money for all but $10 billion, but that gap represents a third of the planned spending. “Do you have a way to come up with the $10 billion? I don’t think Albany is coming up with $10 billion,” Johnson said.
For the MTA, a less-than-fully funded plan will lead to some serious capital soul searching. The next five-year plan includes money for the East Side Access project and another $1.5 billion for Phase I of the Second Ave. Subway. The MTA simply cannot cut those projects. The Second Ave. Subway, in particular, has burned through too much money, has taken too much time and has disrupted too many lives for the MTA to yet again seal up Second Ave. without a subway underneath it.
So we are left with another sorry reflection on the state of politics and economics in New York City: no money for transit; no will to explore modern-day technological innovations; and no respect for the future development of the city. The cuts may come; the fare hikes will definitely come; and because the state will not adequately fund the underground engine that drives New York’s economy, the MTA is left spinning its wheels and begging, time after time, for more money.