The MTA Wednesday unveiled its final 2012 budget and the latest set of projections for 2013-2015. Although the budgets still rely on revenue generated by fare hikes in both 2013 and 2015, the authority does not currently anticipate cutting services to balance its books. However, the long-term outlook remains debt-heavy, and the MTA admitted that its four-year projections rest on a precariously balanced dime.
“The MTA has achieved a fragile fiscal stability by reducing expenses and operating more efficiently,” Joseph Lhota, MTA Executive Director, said in a statement. “It’s clear, though, that we’re still feeling the impact of the economic crisis and must continue to reduce costs even as we work to improve service.”
The details, available in full as a PDF here, remain substantially the same as they were in July. Thanks to aggressive cost-cutting measures instituted while Jay Walder was the CEO and Chair, the MTA anticipates annual savings of at least $850 million by 2015. By freezing non-unionized worker pay for three years, reducing administrative overhead and reining in overtime, the MTA has begrudgingly become a leaner organization.
Yet, the long-term outlook is rife with potential problems. Even still, the MTA is relying on two fare and toll hikes that will be designed to increase revenue by 7.5 percent, but those are the safe figures. The MTA is counting on $323 million in what they’re calling “net zero wage savings for represented employees.” In other words, unionized workers will either by taking pay freezes for the foreseeable future or the MTA will have to resort to layoffs. I don’t think John Samuelsen will be too happy to hear that.
The MTA, meanwhile, warned of inherent risks in their rosy projects. For now, the authority anticipates an operating surplus in 2011, a balanced budget in 2012 and a smaller surplus in 2013 before the MTA lands over $200 million in the red by 2015. Much of this deficit, the authority says, is driven by increasing costs of retiree and healthcare benefits that will eat up nearly all of the additional revenue generated by the anticipated 2013 and 2015 fare hikes.
Furthermore, the MTA warns that a variety of factors could turn this rosy outlook sour. Among those factors are a stagnant overall economy; reductions in state subsidies and dedicated taxes; a failure to achieve desired expense reductions; an increase in labor costs due to bargained-for agreements that do not attain the “net zero” wage level; less funding for the capital program. As far as projected budgets go, then, the MTA’s current plan may be a final one that needs approval but it’s hardly set in stone.
The other 800 pound gorilla in the room involves debt on the operating budget and funding for the capital plan. As the MTA seeks to close a significant funding gap in its five-year capital plan, it will do so through a series of measures that will increase its long-term debt obligations. Even as the authority retires debt from the 1980s, more will hit the books. Future New Yorkers will have to pay for both our desired maintenance and theirs.
“In the context of the ongoing economic crisis in New York State, this proposal advances our critical capital investments in an affordable way,” MTA CFO Robert Foran said. “It relies on revenues already dedicated to capital expenses and keeps debt service at a manageable level, with the percentage of debt to capital investment the lowest in 15 years.”
And what of the surplus and budget flexibility? Two MTA Board members have proposed reinstituting services lost to the 2010 cuts. Mitch Pally and Allen Cappelli both called up on the MTA to include a $20 million item in its $12 billion budget that would restore some of the old service. “I don’t believe we can restore all of them, but I believe a portion of them should be – and can be – funded in this plan,” Pally said during yesterday’s MTA Board meeting.
Everyone is fighting for a piece of the pie, and those who inherit the most are those who will have to face the MTA’s mounting pile of debt. For now, the authority will stay afloat, but the long-term outlook is not comforting.