For all of its troubles, politically and economically, the MTA always has a trump card in its back pocket. If nothing happens with regards to the multi-billion-dollar hole in its capital plan, the agency can always look to fare revenue for a potential source of income. The agency’s leaders know they have a captive audience of New Yorkers who have to come to rely on the subway system now more than ever; they know they can jack up tolls; and they know it gets the attention of those in Albany when the dreaded phrase “fare hikes” comes up in the public discourse.
Earlier this week as yet more time passed with nothing happening with regards to the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan, agency officials started talking about fare hikes and boy did it start something in the halls of power. During committee meetings on Monday, MTA CEO Bob Foran confirmed what anyone in the know already knows: The MTA could close its capital funding gap by issuing more debt which would incur higher operating costs in the form of debt service which would be covered by … fare hikes.
“If we do not receive adequate funding to carry us through the next two years, we don’t have sufficient funds to keep the program going. At some point, the board may take action and the action that they really only can turn to would be one that addresses fares and tolls,” Foran said.
He explained that fare hikes to cover the gap could top 15% — a far cry from the current rate of around four percent every two years the MTA has implemented. Meanwhile, Foran wasn’t the only one crying foul. Jeffrey Kay noted similar concerns. “If they don’t do anything in the next two months, we have a freight train coming at us,” he said. “This is a real problem, and it’s not just going to impact the MTA. It’s going to impact the riders, it’s going to impact the workforce, it’s going to impact the construction unions, and it’s going to impact jobs…This is a real serious issue, and I don’t know what we can do in order to tell our partners that this is real.”
A day after the meetings — clearly on orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office — MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast released a statement backtracking on his colleagues’ assertions. ““Yesterday’s mention of a potential 15 percent fare and toll increase,” Prendergast said on Tuesday, “was a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question. No one has proposed we pay for our capital needs on the backs of our riders, and no one is considering it.”
He reiterated those sentiments on Wednesday following the MTA’s full board meeting. “We have never, ever closed the capital program on the backs of the fare payers. That’s unconscionable. That’s not our desire. That’s not what we’re going to do,” he promised, again sounding as though the governor’s office had turned the screws on him.
Prendergast doth protest too much as the truth is that few options are even on the table. James Brennan’s proposal hasn’t moved much in the two weeks since it was introduced, and more troubling is recent borough-based opposition to the Move New York plan. A group of Queens Democrats, including the usually transit-friendly Assembly rep Phillip Goldfeder and Borough President Melinda Katz, issued a statement in opposition to Move New York because they claim it is “unfair” to Queens and “lacks any promise of returns.” How they drew this conclusion is beyond me, but their statement is far more damaging to transit in New York City than these politicians realize.
Goldfeder tried to defend his position to me on Twitter. He claims to be concerned that Move New York doesn’t “address transit starved communities,” but without the dedicated revenue, the MTA doesn’t have the money to begin to implement improvements. It’s not even a Catch-22; it’s just common sense — something I usually expect from transit allies such as Goldfeder and Katz.
Overall, without Queens’ Democrats, Cuomo isn’t likely to embrace Move New York, and without Cuomo, Move New York — along the $1 billion that come with it — is dead in the water. Thus, we circle back to the MTA’s fare hikes. They’re a threat and a political cudgel the MTA can use to get attention, but they also shouldn’t be dismissed. Fare hikes are, after all, the only way the MTA can guarantee revenue for itself, and if New Yorkers don’t like the idea of a 15 percent hike, I know a bunch of politicians in Queens who deserve to bear the brunt of any complaints.