When the MTA releases its 2014 budget in a few weeks, transit advocates and budget wonks alike will be rubbing their hands with glee, rather than dread. While the budget will likely contain some bad news and dismaying long-term projections, the big question of the month will finally be answered: Just what does the MTA plan to do with that extra $40 million?
For the better part of 2013, we’ve heard a lot about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s transit largesse. As part of an increase in available state money, Cuomo upped his executive contribution to the MTA by around $40 million, and the MTA suddenly has an unexpected windfall to spend. A few months ago, the tug-of-war began with politicians calling for increased service and labor leaders calling for increased salaries. Only a few have urged the MTA to use this drop in the bucket to pay down its crushing debt load, and one way or another, it seems, the public will benefit in the short-term from the $40 million while the MTA’s long-term needs are ignored.
Lately, the battle has been heating up, and two competing editorials argued for the money this weekend. In the Daily News, John Raskin of Riders Alliance — of which I am a board member — and Gene Russianoff called for better transit service. The two write:
The need for expanded service is more pressing than ever. Ridership is at its highest level since 1950. The subways and buses are packed. Ongoing repairs from Sandy are causing additional hardships for R and G train riders, with future repairs likely to cause trouble on many other trains as well.
Riders are paying more money for less service. Fares have gone up four times in six years, at a pace that the state controller found to be more than double the rate of inflation. The base fare jumped from $2 in 2008 to $2.50 in 2013 — and the 30-day card increased from $81 to $112 during the same period. Meanwhile, the MTA still has not restored most of the service that was eliminated in 2010, putting back less than one-third of the $93 million that was chopped from the budget in the depth of the recession.
Restoring subway and bus service is not only possible because of a recovering economy; it is also necessary for New York to truly maximize its economic potential in the years to come. Our transit system is the lifeblood of the region’s economy, moving more than 7 million people every day to work, school, shopping and other appointments, and making a much-needed dent in productivity-killing traffic congestion. Improving service is an investment in jobs, economic growth and future tax revenue.
Specifically, they call for increased off-peak service for subways, restored bus lines, and more LIRR and Metro-North trains as well. I’m still hesitant to embrace the call for reactivating lost bus routes as those routes never had the ridership to justify service in the first place, but perhaps I’m falling for my own chicken-egg problem. If we add buses and encourage regular and predictable (or observable) service, maybe ridership will increase. If the MTA is investing in its service offerings, the other requests are no-brainers.
Meanwhile, on Long Island, the chair of the LIRR Commuter Council has issued his own wishlist in the form of a Newsday Op-Ed. He too requests an increase in off-peak LIRR service; more security measures for some of the system’s lesser-used stations; increased spending on cleaning, maintenance and waiting room hours; more wheelchair access; and fare reduction. His requests are reasonable, but it’s not clear if Mark Epstein understands how little $40 million is. If the MTA devoted the entire surplus to its fares, it would reduce any looming fare hike by less than one percentage point. It hardly seems worth contributing even a token amount of this money toward alleviating a fare hike because it won’t achieve much at all.
Ultimately, though, I’m still left with the uncomfortable feeling that everyone is arguing over something that will soon disappear. The MTA has a little extra money to spend for one year, but there’s no guarantee that money will remain in place in subsequent years. If the funding stream dries up, the agency will be left with a larger operating deficit, and we haven’t even accounted for the fact that the MTA’s budget rests on a shaky foundation of a net-zero wage increase. If net-zero is unobtainable, the $40 million will evaporate before a single extra train can roll down the tracks.
The politically expedient move is to spend the money on customers. The token gesture would placate politicians and irate straphangers. The economically expedient move is to spend the money reducing future debt loads even by just a little bit. I have a sneaking suspicion though the former will win out.