After the MTA’s Doomesday budget proposal in late August, more than a few New Yorkers reached out to me worried about the future of travel in and around New York City and worried about their own subway lines. These weren’t the usual gang of anti-car crusaders, the bike advocates or the busway champions expressing the daily clamor for a better, more transit-focused and equitable transportation network. Instead, these were the workers who power New York City and need the subway to get around. They’re afraid the MTA’s pandemic-related budgetary woes will cut off their transit lifelines.
“Will the MTA actually have to get rid of the D train?” one concerned straphanger asked me, clearly focusing on the Riders Alliance’ Doomsday map. What would it mean, another wondered, if headways on local buses were increased even more? Is a bus that runs once an hour during the day even worth operating? Clearly, threats of massive service cuts — more so than looming fare hikes — hit close to home.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking more and more about MTA CFO Bob Foran’s presentation and what we should take from it. Needless to say, it paints an ugly future. After all, Foran’s service cuts threatened a 40% reduction of service on subways and buses, increasing subway headways to eight minutes, cutting bus frequency by 15 minutes and axing entire LIRR and Metro-North lines, crippling to the usefulness of any transit system. To make matters worse, while the MTA stares down a deficit of $10-$12 billion, these massive service cuts save just a fraction of the billions the MTA needs. Cuts to New York City Transit would generate just $880 million annually once the MTA factors in revenue loss from riders who abandon an infrequent system, and the commuter rail cuts generate just $160 million in annually. Even running a bare bones system puts the MTA in the red each year by a few billion dollars.
What then should New York make of the MTA’s proposal? And what is the future of a robust transit system in New York City? After all, we were all celebrating the successes of Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, the Subway Action Plan and the massive capital investments this calendar year. Is there any hope for the future? Or are we doomed to a death spiral that leaves the subway tunnels quiet, the city paralyzed and the MTA broke?
This is the question I’ve been mulling for weeks, and it’s one with no real clear answer right now. It’s important to understand the MTA’s Doomsday budget presentation as a political document first and a budget proposal second. It was very much designed by MTA executives who think they can get the attention of the federal government and, in particular, the Senate GOP and Trump White House, by warning of the dangers to New York’s economy should the MTA fail. “The pandemic-caused losses are beyond the capacity of any agency” to absorb, MTA CEO and Chair Pat Foye said following August’s meetings. “We’re agnostic as to the source of revenue. We’re realistic to the city’s financial conditions. We’re realistic to the state’s financial conditions….We’re going to do everything we can to reduce the size of the deficit for the federal government, but without federal funding, we will not be able to get out of this box.”
One “tell” regarding the political intent of the document is the request for an additional $1 billion in 2021 to offset revenue the MTA had expected from congestion pricing. Because the Trump Administration has completely slow-walked US DOT’s congestion pricing assessment, the MTA does not know if an EIS is required or if a less onerous Environmental Assessment would be sufficient. Thus, the MTA does not have federal approvals to start congestion pricing in January, and thus, the MTA’s anticipated revenues are short $1 billion. By requesting that $1 billion now, the MTA is both sending a political message and over-asking. It’s a shot across the bow in what should be rational negotiations regarding an MTA bailout, as the feds gave following the catastrophic damaged caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The second “tell” came in the form of an op-ed in The New York Times co-written by Foye and TWU President John Samuelsen, one of transit’s oddest odd couples. Enemies at the negotiating table, the two transit titans wrote about the “five-alarm fire” facing the MTA. Citing the Grand Depression as a comparison, the two noted that even during the depths of the 1930s, transit ridership fell only by 10-12% and not 80-90%. It’s an inapt metaphor though as the Great Depression was an economic crisis and COVID-19 is a public health crisis first and an economic crisis due to the public health crisis.
Still, Samuelsen and Foye tried to get Washington’s attention. “Punishing the M.T.A. and transit systems across the country over an ideological political agenda is not only wrong; it is bad economics,” they wrote. “The downstate New York region — New York City and the surrounding area — accounts for about 8 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. New York City cannot recover without a robust M.T.A., and the country cannot rebound economically without a healthy New York.”
But the MTA’s biggest mistake is assuming rationality. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, certain factions in Washington, DC — notably, the Senate GOP Majority Leader and the Trump White House — do not operate rationally. A rational response to the pandemic would involve bolstering state and municipal finances, including the nation’s transit agencies, to stave off job losses and economic collapse brought on by faltering transit systems. After all, the MTA is not asking for the feds to step in and cover its inefficient spending; it is asking to be reimbursed for pandemic-related revenue losses. Still, for now at least, the feds do not seem interested in staving off this economic catastrophe because, for now, it’s not their problem.
It’s not their problem because of the election in November, and that’s the big wild card. The equation in DC right now involves ignoring the local government funding crisis and punting it to the next team. If Joe Biden wins and the Democrats capture the Senate, Republicans will be powerless to oppose a funding package but can disingenuously claim to be concerned about the deficit, as they do any time they’re in the Senate majority. If Biden wins and the GOP hold the Senate, a traditional DC negotiation can ensue. If Trump wins, any rescue package will depend upon the party in control of the Senate, but a Trump win with a Republican Senate represents an outcome for the MTA more akin to the August presentation than we wish to consider. Still, the MTA’s ask is about politics right now; the pain for the riding public comes later.
The MTA has more than a few options in its pocket. I’ve written in the past about the operations savings the MTA could realize by shifting to a proof-of-payment model on commuter rail and reducing the number of employees required to punch tickets. Back in July, I asked Pat Foye is the MTA would consider a quick pivot to one-person train operations. He hedged at the time but was clearly ready for the question, stating the following:
Everything is on the table. There are collective bargaining agreements with our various unions that may have to be part of the discussions, but everything is on the table. We have not made that specific proposal to any union and what we’re focusing on is getting federal funding, one; two, reducing expenses, overtime, consulting contracts, non-personnel, non-labor expenses. We’re going to continue to do that. If the federal funding doesn’t through this year in 2020 or for 2021, the size of the deficit is going to require that everything be on the table. Things that are covered by a collective bargaining we may have to respect, and they may be the subject of negotiation which may be successful or not. The unions, on behalf of their members, are going to have very strong positions on many of these issues.
I’ll let you interpret that comment, but it’s clear the MTA has put some thought into what it would take to implement OPTO, just as they have put thought into the message they wanted to send to the federal government. I am ultimately left thinking about one of Foye’s statements. “The MTA,” he said, “is not going to shut down.” That’s all well and good, but it’s no comfort to millions of New Yorkers worried about the future of their buses, their subways and their D trains. The MTA isn’t about to cut full subway lines, but the subways could be a heck of a lot less useful if that funding doesn’t come through and soon.