That Gene Russianoff, always keeping us on our toes. Today, Russianoff’s Straphangers Campaign issued a warning about the state of the MTA’s finances. Without a fare raise, a new study conducted by the Independent Budget Office said, the MTA could see deficits rise to the billions by the end of the decade.
On the surface, the situation sounds drastic. The fares, the report estimates, would have to go up to $2.40 by 2010. Those $76 Unlimited MetroCards would cost a whopping $92. The commuter rail prices and tolls would spike. The Times summarizes:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will have to raise revenues significantly to stave off looming deficits in the next several years, increasing pressure on the authority to increase transit fares and bridge and tunnel tolls, according to a study by the city’s Independent Budget Office.
Unless it can substantially cut costs, the authority will need to increase total revenues by about 20 percent over the next three and a half years, the report said.
Over the last few years, we’ve heard proclamations similar to this one, and each year, the MTA’s tax windfall has staved off what seems to be an inevitable far hike. But in their report (available here as a PDF), the IBO warns that the MTA should not be relying on unplanned taxes to cover their operating expenses and possible debt.
For many, though, this IBO report is nothing new. Back in February, the MTA issued its own report that arrived at a similar conclusion. And as he did in February, MTA CEO Elliot “Lee” Sander stressed yesterday that the state of the subways will not degrade on his watch. “The one thing that we will not do is let the system go to hell, as it did in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he said, “and so we must ensure that the system remains viable in terms of its infrastructure.”
This all sounds well and good, but haven’t we heard this before? Hasn’t the MTA issued dire warnings of debt and higher fares? Well, as The Times notes, this new report however is different from these other warnings because the Straphangers actually agree with the MTA. The independent auditors see the need for a fare hike. No more cooked book scandals; no more unnecessary fare hikes. Like the boy who cries wolf, every now and then the MTA is right about the state of its economics. And maybe Sander has this organization turning a corner in terms of the face it presents to the public.
Now, astute riders may wonder, “But what of the congestion fee? Isn’t that supposed to go to the subways?” And that, my dear readers, is a very good question. While the Straphangers acknowledge that the $900 million in anticipated revenue from the congestion fee will go toward the MTA’s coffers, the City and the MTA are working on a deal that would earmark some of the congestion fee to the Second Ave. subway, a multi-billion-dollar project that doesn’t even factor into the debt crisis the MTA could face by 2010.
The IBO believes that a combination of fare hikes, slight property tax increases and federal and state contributions could help the MTA cover its debt, but the stars will have align just right for this dream to be realized.
So where does that leave us, the not-so-meek riders of the MTA’s grand system? We should steel ourselves for a fare hike. We should pray for another tax windfall. We should ask the state legislatures to do the right thing and send the MTA more money. And we should support Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion fee. We can avoid the direst of predictions such as that $2.40 fare, but as the Straghangers are now echoing the MTA, subway armageddon may be upon us next year after all.