Twenty ten has been very unkind for the MTA. The year started out with Albany robbing the authority of over $143 million, and it’s been one bad piece of economic news after another. The payroll tax has fallen around $300 million short of expectations. The MTA has to go through the charade of public hearings to cut station agents. Now, Albany might outlaw OPTO and station agent reductions until 2013 all without providing much-needed funds for these unnecessary positions.
Through it all, the MTA has implemented a sweeping series of service cuts that has left bus commuters reeling and has restructured subway service patterns throughout parts of three boroughs. The agency won’t, however, seek to raise the fares until 2011 when it has legal permission to do so. In speaking with John Gambling on WOR radio yesterday morning, Jay Walder reiterated that position. “It will not come earlier,” Walder said. “We’re going to hold to the schedule.”
That’s the good news. The bad news, says Walder, is that the fare hikes will be far greater than the 7.5 percent increase the agency’s four-year plan had stipulated in 2009. “We’re grappling with an exceptionally difficult financial times and that requires tough decisions,” the authority’s chairman and CEO said. “It requires things that are painful for our employees and our customers, and we have to recognize there’s no easy way out.”
I can’t even begin to speculate on the size of the next fare hike. The agency still has, by most accounts, to fill a budget hole of nearly $300 million and will propose its solution later this month when it unveils its financial plan. We could see an increase of 15 percent or more. I wonder if this is the right approach.
I’ve long espoused the theory that the MTA should raise fares as much as it can before cutting service. It boils down the simplicity of the authority’s mission: It is supposed to be supplying a service to the public in the form of efficient, fast and frequent mass transit to meet rider demands. As Section 1264 of New York’s Public Authorities Law says, the MTA’s purpose is to provide for the “continuance, further development and improvement of commuter transportation.” Service cuts seem anathema to that goal.
One of the problems lies in the MTA’s approach to the fares. The authority isn’t required to hold down fares or artificially deflate them, and yet it has. With unlimited-ride MetroCard programs and pay-per-ride discounts, we are paying less per ride on average in real dollars than we did in 1996. As deficits grow, that the fares haven’t kept pace with inflation is just a bad business practice.
Another problem is one of priorities. Perhaps I’m unique in this sense, but I’d rather pay more for the same service today than pay the same for less service today or pay more for less service tomorrow. We know the MTA won’t restore the service cuts when they raise fares in January, but had they chosen to raise fares by five percent this year, the increase in revenue would have been more than enough to stave off the cuts. If that’s the price for a public transit network that doesn’t shudder under the weight of demand, then so be it. My 30-day MetroCard costs me approximately $1 per ride as it is; I can withstand a fare increase.
In the end, this discussion is one of policy. Would the MTA rather incur the wrath of riders and politicians over the third fare increase in as many years or through service cuts? For now, the answer is service cuts, but the authority should make sure that their customers know the service cuts — and the eventual fare hikes — were brought about through inaction in Albany. The state has refused to provide adequate funds for Student MetroCards; the state has refused to enact congestion pricing or East River bridge tolls. Instead, the state has stolen money earmarked for the MTA, and then the same representatives who voted for that measure slam the MTA for its budget gap.
A pawn because of its status as a creature of the state, the MTA can’t speak out against Albany as those who fight for better transit in the city do. What the MTA should do though is raise the fares before it begins to cut service. Without providing ample service, what role does the agency serve anyway?