As the MTA financial staff is hard at work readying its budget proposal for Monday’s Finance Committee meeting, transit advocates are trying to come to terms with the latest MTA budget deficit. Although politicians are wrongly blaming the MTA, this latest gap is due to problems in Albany, problems the MTA shouldn’t have been facing if more sensible funding solutions had been implemented in the first place.
To that end, two groups — the Straphangers Campaign and Streetsblog — have proposed two different mechanisms for covering the gap. The Straphangers’ suggestion is a stop-gap aimed at filling this year’s hole while the Streetsblog plan is one with which we are familiar. There’s would be a more long-term solution.
First, the Straphangers plan: In an e-mail yesterday to the MTA Board members, Gene Russianoff expressed his concerns about the looming threat of service cuts. Citing “the harm to riders of service cuts in an already overcrowded system; the new blow to the MTA’s credibility if the agency institutes cuts that the riding public (paying a higher fare since June) were told would not happen; and cuts undermining MTA Chairman Jay Walder’s sensible plans to improve bus service,” he urged the MTA to take some of the uncommitted stimulus money at its disposal to cover the current gap. He wrote:
Use $91 million in federal stimulus funds for service in 2010. The money is there. “The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) received $915 million in stimulus funds. Contracts have been signed for work covering 89 percent of the total,” according to a December 2009 report issued by Gov. Paterson. Federal law permits 10% of the stimulus funds to be spent on operations. Transit systems like the one in St. Louis pressed for this option to maintain service and jobs.
Reprogram for service $50 million in 2010 in “pay-as-you-go” funds. The MTA is planning to spend $50 million in 2010 in operating funds on capital projects. Pay-as-you-go for capital needs is a good goal, but it should not come at the expense of service cuts.
These two sources total $141 million and would be enough to cover all the subway, bus and commuter cuts originally proposed by the MTA earlier this year.
As short-term solutions go, it’s hard to disagree with Russianoff’s plan. I hate to see money used to maintain and expand the system be taken away from that end, but the MTA is legally allowed to use stimulus funds for operating deficits. Right now, avoiding service cuts should be a paramount concern.
For a long-term fix, Streetsblog’s John Kaehny turned his attention to East River Bridge tolls. His warnings are dire:
The net result is that without a new source of funding, the MTA will soon run out of money and options. Let’s take it for granted the MTA will be forced by Albany to engage in desperate new financial sleight-of-hand and “seed corn eating” (capital money going to operating expenses, borrowing against future fare hikes). Let’s further assume the MTA will have to accelerate the fare hikes planned for 2011. If this comes to pass, in about a year the MTA will be out of options and have to cut service so harshly that even Albany will be forced to care.
It will be a political slug fest worth watching. How deep will service have to be cut before the East and Harlem River bridges are tolled? Are tolls dead, or are they actually inevitable?
I’ve long supported tolling the bridges as the most equitable and environmentally friendly approach to MTA funding. The tolls would provide the agency with a dedicated source of revenue and would cut down on driving through areas choked with cars and pollution. I fear the answer to Kaehny’s question. Only when the MTA is on the brink of a financial disaster would New York’s politicians begin to debate bridge tolls. Then, it might be too late to truly save the system.