As news got around of the MTA’s new plan to cut services yesterday, New Yorkers acted with predictable outrage. Many were sympathetic to the plight of the MTA while others wondered how the authority could target two vulnerable groups — students and the disabled — with the bulk of their cuts.
The truth is that yesterday’s announcement was the first in an intricate six-month political game the MTA will now play with the city and state. On Monday, the MTA Board’s Finance Committee approved these service cuts with an eye toward closing a $383-million budget gap. Tomorrow, the full MTA Board, under a legal mandate to pass a balanced budget before the end of the 2009 calendar year, will listen to MTA CFO Gary Dellaverson’s proposal and will debate it. The mayor’s appointees to the MTA Board probably won’t approve it, but in the end, the Board will pass this plan.
From there, everything slows down. The bulk of the cuts — those involving subway and bus service — will not be implemented until mid year. Right now, June 2010 is the target date for the elimination of the W and Z as well as the cut backs to buses. After that, the student Metrocard program will be reduced from a free ride to a half-price scheme in September with a full elimination of the subsidies the following year.
Those representing the MTA are well aware that these cuts are far from certain. “If this budget were to get passed, it’s nothing but a plan,” Jeffrey A. Kay, one of Bloomberg’s MTA Board appointees, said to The Times. “There are many, many other steps and changes that will be made before things get implemented.”
Despite Kay’s seemingly optimistic approach, Jay Walder, MTA CEO and Chairman, was more pessimistic. Outside of a politically unpalatable fare hike, the cuts are all the MTA can do to fulfill its legal budgetary obligations. “I don’t want to leave you with the sense that this isn’t very real,” he said. “There are few other ways to look at balancing a budget hole of the magnitude that it is right now.”
Still, there is an element of politics here, and Michael Grynbaum of The Times explored that today:
There appeared to be a bit of political brinkmanship at play. Leaders at the transportation authority were quick to point out that the [Student MetroCard] program used to be fully financed by the city and state, which have reduced or limited their contributions in recent years. An authority spokesman, Jeremy Soffin, said that it was uncommon for transit systems to shoulder the costs of student travel.
Charles Brecher, research director at the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal monitor, said that while cutting student discounts underscored the pressures facing the authority, it could also be used as an effective negotiating tool.
“It helps create the notion that other parties share some of the responsibility,” he said. “It’s not just a general holding out of the cup. It says, ‘If you, the city, would increase your share, we wouldn’t have to do this.’”
I disagree with Brecher here in one sense. It isn’t about creating the notion of shared responsibility; rather, it is about educating the public about the city’s and state’s neglect of their responsibilities toward the MTA. It is politics because the politicians are the one who can deliver. The politicians are the one who told the MTA not to institute drastic fare hikes and service cuts last year because Albany would deliver an appropriate bailout package, and the politicians are the ones who refuse to implement an East River Bridge tolling plan or congestion pricing scheme that would equitably fund transit.
In the end, these cuts are simply on the table. It will be six months until they go into effect, and that gives New Yorkers six months to urge their representatives to find solutions for the MTA’s funding problems — problems which Albany created. Six months seems to be a good amount of time, but it’s not. If ever there were a time to pressure New York’s politicians, it is now. The city’s transit network depends on it.