The MTA has a problem. And no, I’m not talking about the duel threats of steep fare hikes and rampant service cuts. Instead, I’m talking about the capital campaign. The cash-strapped MTA needs $30 billion for its next five-year capital plan. Where that money is going to come from is, right now, anyone’s guess.
We know about the MTA’s current operating budget issue. The MTA has to find a way to balance a budget currently $1.2 billion in debt, and when they unveil their plans later today, the riders are going to suffer. But long term, the MTA has to remain in good shape.
For the past twenty years, the powers-that-be have pushed an aggressive capital expansion and modernization plan. Every five years, the MTA submits a new plan for approval and funds a significant part of that through borrowed funds and government contributions. But in a bad economy, the money has practically dried up, and as William Neuman explores in The Times today, the very future of the MTA is at risk if capital sources dry up.
“The authority,” he writes, “is uncertain how it will pay for the next five-year capital spending plan that could cost as much as $30 billion.”
The fare increases and cutbacks are meant to keep the system running next year. The capital plan is meant to keep it running for years beyond that through the purchase of new equipment, maintenance of tracks and renovation of stations…
The current capital plan expires at the end of next year, and the authority must submit a new five-year plan to the state for approval even as it seeks additional money to plug its operating deficit. Officials have estimated that the capital plan could cost $25 billion to $30 billion, much of which would be financed through bonds that the authority would repay over many years.
Both budgets are important, but Mr. Brodsky and others worry that the long-term needs will be lost in the tumult of settling the more immediate need. “It would be a terrible mistake to take whatever resources may be available and use them all on the operating side,” Mr. Brodsky said.
In the article, Richard Brodsky, Democratic assemblyman from Westchester, sounds like the MTA’s biggest booster. “The need for investment in the system is gargantuan,” he says. “Twenty-five years from now what we do on the capital plan will resonate much more loudly than what the debate is going to be about fare increases.”
He’s not lying, and in fact, the MTA chair backs him up. “Not enough people recognize that the system is vulnerable, and if you don’t keep spending this money it will go back to the way it was in the ’70s before you can blink an eye,” Dale Hemmerdinger said to Neuman. “All the focus and all the talk so far has been on the operating budget, and the capital budget runs out next year and we need to know the money is going to continue to flow.”
But Brodsky has also been one of the biggest thorns in the MTA’s side. From his position as head of the MTA’s oversight committee, he opposed congestion pricing, a progressive scheme to deliver $400 million annually earmarked for the MTA’s operations budget. He urged the MTA to ask the assembly for more money only to see the governing body deny the authority needed funds.
It’s very true that the MTA needs to find a way to ensure its capital campaigns continue. We can’t afford to see the subways slip back into the state of disrepair so rampant in the 1970s. That is indeed more important that arguments over short-term service cuts and fare hikes. But we also need politicians willing to put their necks out there to fund transit. Something has to give; what will it be?