Toward the end of March, with a general increase in state tax revenue and a slightly rosier financial picture emerging, the MTA revealed a surplus of $40 million that would make its way into the perennially strained budget. Since then, everyone and their mothers has tried to lay claim to these dollars, but the MTA is playing coy. The agency hasn’t determined how to spend or who gets it, and the race is on for the big bucks.
The money itself comes from Andrew Cuomo’s budget. Despite the obvious lessons of Superstorm Sandy, our car-lovin’ governor hasn’t quite seen the transit light yet. Rather, as the overall state economy picks up, there are more dollars to go around, and the MTA will get to benefit. That said, when Cuomo announced the new funding, he called upon the MTA to better serve as the “circulatory system” for the region’s economy. How best to accomplish that is the latest debate.
The loudest calls have been for more service. Over the weekend, the Riders Alliance (of which I’m a board member) held a rally with various MTA Board Members and local politicians urging the agency to reinvest in long lost services. Restoring lost buses, reducing off-peak subway headways and expanding the CityTicket were all on the agenda. “Any budget surplus should and must go toward restoring and improving the transit services on which our city relies — especially in the wake of yet another fare increase,” State Senator Daniel Squadron said.
Others echoed this call. “The MTA must realize that now more than ever the loss of service continues to impact our community and the MTA must do everything it can to restore and expand service for riders who all depend on it,” Assembly representative Nily Rozic, a rising star from Eastern Queens, said.
At various MTA Board and Committee meetings this week, Board members, especially those from Staten Island, argued to use the money to restore services lost in the 2010 cuts. Increasing bus service would be a big help to the city, and reducing subway headways is seemingly a no-brainer. The MTA though remained non-committal, and others have called for the money.
On the labor front, TWU President John Samuelsen has called upon the MTA to use the money to up his union members’ wages. At the Board meeting yesterday, Tom Prendergast, future Chairman and CEO, discussed using the dollars to steep avoid a 2015 fare hike. No one, meanwhile, has mentioned applying the money to the MTA’s crushing debt load and paying off some loans ahead of schedule. In a sane fiscal world, that’s likely the wisest solution and the one that would help the MTA and its riders most in the long run.
But we live in the here and now, and New Yorkers, still adjusting to the new MetroCard prices, want more bang for their bucks. Service should be increased, and the $40 million could go a long way. “I’ve asked the staff of all the agencies to look at service proposals in terms of either restoration of services or enhancement of new services,” Prendergast said yesterday. In July, the MTA must release its annual budget, and we’ll know then how we all will enjoy the fruits of an additional $40 million in spoils. My money is on increased service, and that’s OK.