Tomorrow morning, the MTA Board, after hours of contentious debate, will vote on the latest round of service cuts. By all accounts, the reduction in service, designed to save the deficit-riddled MTA $93 million, will be approved, but they are just the tip of the iceberg as the agency will still have to address another $400 million budget hole that has emerged since the cuts were first announced.
To understand the impact of the Board vote and what it means for the immediate future of transit in New York City, I offer up a brief FAQ on the vote.
Does the vote mean service will definitely be cut?
When the MTA Board votes tomorrow, they are doing so well in advance of their so-called drop-dead date. The cuts are designed to go into effect in June and will be rolled out slowly over the course of the summer. If the MTA’s financial picture improves or if the state is able to address the MTA’s funding gap before the end of May, these cuts could be taken off the table. However, the state is broke, and the MTA still must, as I mentioned above, close a $400 million budget gap. One way or another, we will see service cuts this year.
What happened to the Student MetroCard cuts?
Because the introduction of a half-priced Student MetroCard won’t begin until September, the MTA has decided to postpone a vote on that part of the cuts package. Political support is growing for some sort of action on Student MetroCards, and the MTA does not want to back itself into a corner by cutting the service now before the politicians have time to respond to constituent demands.
If and when the Student MetroCards are up for a vote, the MTA has structured the plan to give Albany ample time to save free travel. During the 2010-2011 school year, the authority would offer half-price rides to students, and only in September 2011 would any student discounts be eliminated. Odds are good that someone will step up to the plate before the MTA does away with free rides for students.
Can Sen. Espada’s bridge toll plan avert the MTA’s cuts?
Over the weekend, Pedro Espada, part of the Four Hike Four, surprised everyone by announcing his support for East River Bridge tolls. The revenue would be dedicated to the MTA, and all money from tolls must be, in the words of the Senator, “earmarked specifically for the restoration of the free student MetroCard program and other subway and bus services that are being targeted with cuts or elimination.” Sounds like a rescue plan, no?
Well, Espada’s plan has some faulty assumptions. He is proposing a $2 toll on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges and claims this toll would raise over $500 million for the MTA. Those who have studied the issue in depth — such as the Drum Major Institute’s John Petro — say that Espada is overestimating by double. As Petro writes today, this plan would net the MTA around $250 million. That would be enough, for now, to save student transit and take most of the subway and bus cuts off the table.
There is, however, one final catch. If Espada’s plan delivers just $250 million annually, the MTA would still need another $500 million to cover the remaining deficit, and those cuts would probably be reinstated. Right now, the MTA is running a dangerous political game by not proposing $750 million in cuts, but that’s the way it is. Any money from Espada is better than nothing.
Will the MTA raise fares this year?
As part of the last MTA funding plan approved in 2009, the MTA will be raising fares at the start of 2011, and the agency has been vehement in its adherence to that schedule. There will be, they say, no fare hikes this year. Still, some Board members seem to be floating trial balloons on the fare hike. If the MTA does raise its fares this year, it would probably be viewed as an advance on the 2011 fare hikes, and the authority would not, barring an economic catastrophe, have to raise fares again next year.