The MTA unviled its four-year budget plan last week, and inside of this document are a series of somewhat rosier projections than we’d expect. Despite a crushing deficit this year, if CEO and Chairman Jay Walder can realize all of his cost savings plans, the authority will run net cash balances in the black for 2010, 2011 and 2013 with significant but not too costly deficits in 2012 and 2014. To make these projections, the MTA had to rely on economic assumptions from the city and state, but in the past, these numbers haven’t been too far from reality.
In the consolidated statement which features a line-by-line breakdown of MTA costs, one item jumps out at me. That is the authority’s dept service payments. Last year, the MTA made $1.4 billion in debt service payments and is on pace this year to see that number reach $1.8 billion before jumping up over $2 billion in subsequent years. By 2014, debt service will reach $2.555 billion, and it will consist of approximately 13 percent of the MTA’s annual expenses.
Meanwhile, as debt service remains a significant annual cost on the operations ledger, the MTA is moving ahead with another five-year capital plan that will see the authority issues more revenue and construction bonds. Thus, these debt totals will not lessen or disappear from the ledger any time soon, and MTA Board members are growing leery of the capital spending. Every time we spend money on this capital plan, we’re increasing the debt, increasing the debt service, and this is like a time bomb here,” Andrew Saul, the authority’s vice chairman, said last week.
Saul wasn’t the only board member to question the wisdom of maintaining debt-producing programs as the MTA struggles to close a budget gap. “We’re paying interest during the construction periods of projects in part from the fare box, so we are paying for capital with the fare box,” board member Doreen Frasca said. “That means that less money is dropping down to pay maintenance expenses. We’ve cut 20 percent out of many of the agency budgets. We certainly haven’t cut the capital budget by 20 percent.”
For its part, the MTA defended its capital budget and noted that it had reduced its five-year plan by approximately $2 billion. “A series of five-year capital programs have revitalized our transit system,” the authority said in a statement. “While the more than $64 billion spent in that time has helped turn around our regional economy, maintaining and improving the 100-year-old transportation system is an ongoing need and we cannot afford to disinvest. The current $26.3 billion program reflects a nearly $2 billion reduction as the result of a comprehensive review of projects.”
All of this begs an important question: What should the MTA do about its capital spending and the need to take on debt? Once upon a time, the state contributed more money annually to the MTA’s capital plan, and the authority didn’t have to take on the debt. But as New York’s finances went south, successive governors have pulled more funding and have urged the MTA to bond their projects instead. Some of those — such as new subway lines — can be bonded because the revenue from the increase in ridership will cover the debt service payments in the future. But other programs — such as State of Good Repair initiatives and other routine maintenance, upgrade and rolling stock proposals — are funded without that guarantee of future returns. People stop using the subways as the system breaks down but spending billions to maintain it doesn’t lead to an incremental jump in ridership.
What the MTA can’t do is halt its capital program. It would be far too costly to cut back on maintenance and capital repairs while moving forward only on ambitious (and often delayed) expansion efforts only because the economics of bond issuances work out that way. The authority must make sure the system doesn’t slide into a state of unreliability because that would exert a huge cost on the city’s economy.
So for now, the debt system stays as it is. Unless the government can find more money for capital investment, the authority will have to take on more debt, and we’ll be paying tomorrow for upgrades today. It’s not an ideal situation by any means, but when it comes to funding transit, what is these days?