The topic of MTA debt is not a particularly sexy one. I’d rather write about how the subways are unsustainably crowded and how the MTA has no real plan for immediate relief. I’d rather write about light rail efforts through Queens, the latest goings-on in London with regards to overnight Tube service or some thoughts on closed entrances. But MTA debt is too important to ignore. Even if you’re tempted to close the tab or allow your mind to wander, stick with me for a few hundred words today.
The latest round of news about MTA debt comes from — you’ll never believe this — Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A few weeks ago, when Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio magnanimously did their jobs and came to an agreement on MTA capital funding, the two politicians hailed the deal as something groundbreaking. The MTA, the argument went, had unprecedented support from the state and unprecedented support from the city. Everyone wins!
If that sounds too good to be true, well, you’ve been paying attention. Despite announcing around $9 billion in state support for the MTA, Cuomo has not once said how he plans to generate this money. Had he wanted to see through a Move New York-style traffic pricing plan, he could have, but that would have gone against the ethos of Mr. Muscle Car Governor Cuomo. Instead, he’s like to turn to the tried-and-truth method of totally screwing over New York City subway riders: debt.
Bill Hammond, now writing for Politico after his unceremonious ouster from the struggling Daily News, had the story:
At best – and assuming it holds up – the deal settles only the latest turf squabble between feuding politicians: With a $10 billion hole to fill in the MTA’s $26 billion five-year capital plan, Governor Andrew Cuomo committed that the state will contribute $8.3 billion while Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to chip in $2.5 billion from city coffers. But this divvying-up exercise was a crisis only to the extent that governor made it one, as a tactic to offload a fraction of the headache onto his declared friend, fellow Democrat and favorite punching bag at City Hall.
The real political heavy lifting to be done involves not who collects that $10 billion tab, but who gets stuck with paying it – and how and when. And whether the MTA will walk away with a short-term cash infusion, or with the sustained base of funding necessary to build and maintain a halfway up-to-date mass transit system…The overdue debate on covering the $10 billion gap should begin to get serious in January, when Cuomo is promising to spell out, as part of his annual budget proposal, exactly how he intends to raise the $8.3 billion. De Blasio, too, will have to account for his share in budget documents due in the next three months.
This should be interesting. The Daily News has reported that Cuomo will likely borrow some or all of his amount – which is legitimate, given that it will be used for long-term investments in infrastructure – and that he is ruling out tax hikes. But $8.3 billion would add 15 percent to the state’s already prodigious debt load of $55 billion. Even if spread over a 30-year term, the annual payments on those new bonds would be roughly half a billion dollars – corresponding to nearly a 10 percent increase over current debt service.
The Daily News report Hammond mentioned is right here, and it’s a tells a tale of more debt. The MTA may have to borrow to cover the state’s contributions, and it’s not clear if the MTA or the state would fund the debt. The MTA simply cannot afford more debt. The agency is already carrying $35 billion in debt — debt that’s funded through fare revenue. More would simply push the cost of the capital plan onto the shoulders of riders, no matter what Cuomo says.
So Cuomo’s solution has been anything but a solution. Without identifying a revenue stream, debt simply becomes something we must fund in the future, and that’s no way to solve transit funding problems. Will New York wake up the problems of debt? It’s not looking good for the near future or the far future, and that’s not a positive development for anyone.