December is always a harsh mistress for the MTA. As the authority gears up to cope with inclimate weather and all of the challenges feet of snow can bring, up in Albany, the New York state legislature tries to pretend it isn’t totally inept as it rushes to wrap up end-of-year work. Included in that work are appropriations measures that usually mean a raid on MTA funds and of course, new tax measures.
This year has been a particularly tough one for the MTA. The authority is losing $320 million annually in a cut to the payroll mobility tax with only a vague promise from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that he will somehow find a steady or not-so-steady source of replacement funds. The state reappropriated another $100 million that was supposed to fill the MTA coffers while the governor stripped the transit lockbox legislation of any teeth. Now, we find out that the New York State beancounters once again over-estimated the MTA’s tax haul.
As Pete Donohue reported, the New York’s Mass Transportation Operating Assistance account, a key MTA funding mechanism, will be $87 million short of initial estimates as tax revenue was less than expected. For an MTA that was, a few weeks ago, looking forward to a semblance of financial stability in 2012, the news comes at the end of a few long weeks.
To make matters worse, as Donohue relates, this drop comes after two MTA Board members had lobbied hard to set some money aside next year to restore buses lost to the 2010 service cuts. Now, those plans are off the table. Donohue reports:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s financial outlook has worsened since just last month, when two board members proposed setting aside money to bring back some of the axed service – which included 36 bus routes — sources said. The state Division of Budget has told the MTA to expect an $87 million drop in projected subsidies from the Metropolitan Mass Transportation Operating Assistance account next year because certain tax revenues are coming in lower than anticipated.
MTA subsidies from the account also are likely to be lower than previously projected for the following three years – 2013, 2014 and 2015 – by $58 million, $45 million and $47 million, the state has told the MTA. “We’ve been saying all along how fragile the budget is, and you can see we’re nowhere near out of the woods,” one source at MTA headquarters said. “Now is not the appropriate time to be talking about restoring service,” the source said.
The MTA budget going before the board next week for a vote will include tapping some of the MTA’s small reserve and finding other savings to make up for the shortfall. Additional service cuts won’t be in the mix, sources said.
That last bit of news, at least, is a welcome development, but it’s a small consolation for a cash-starved MTA that is also facing some tough labor negotiations. (Their current contract with the TWU ends on January 15, but no one is expecting a repeat of the 2005 transit strike.)
Meanwhile, to drive home the point, the Straphangers Campaign released their annual top ten lists of subway stories yesterday. They focus on both the ten best and ten worst stories of the year, and while the ten good items concern technology upgrades and better bus service, the ten worst are all about the dollars. The MTA has lost upwards of $400 million over the past few weeks as it eyes debt funding for the remainder of its current capital plan. At some point, the system and the authority will reach its fiscal breaking point.