Home Fare Hikes On Gov. Cuomo’s reelection and the looming MTA fare hike

On Gov. Cuomo’s reelection and the looming MTA fare hike

by Benjamin Kabak

Once upon a New York minute, just the threat of a subway fare hike was enough to sink candidates and raise voter ire. In fact, one of the reasons the MTA has had to dig out from decades of deferred maintenance — and one of the reasons why the MTA was created in the first place — was due to the five-cent fare. Until the system nearly broke down, politicians simply could not raise transit fares in New York City without seriously jeopardizing their reelection changes.

With the MTA firmly entrenched in Albany, now, one could be forgiven for hoping that the days of playing politics with MTA fare hikes are a relic of the past. One might also hope to hear from the distant rich relative or receive a lifetime supply of 30-day unlimited ride MetroCards. Politics and the MTA are alive and well.

Recently, I’ve spent some time examining Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s relationship with the MTA. When convenient for him, he uses the agency for positive press; when inconvenient, he runs away or actively works to hold off the bad news. The looming 2015 fare hikes are no exception.

As part of the MTA rescue plan a few years back, the agency committed to biennial fare hikes. Although these raises seem to outpace inflation, the MTA is still playing catch-up from the introduction of the unlimited ride MetroCard nearly twenty years ago, and the inflation-adjusted average fare is still less today than it was in 1996. The fare hikes are a sure way for the MTA to guarantee revenue and a way to level the fare with long-term inflation. We had a fare hike in 2013, and we know we’re having one in 2015. The increase in revenue may have dropped from a projected eight percent to around four percent, but the fare hike is coming one way or another.

In the past, the MTA has unveiled fare hike information in early October in order to prepare the public for hearings and brief the Board on the fiscal plan. This year, the MTA has engaged in near-radio silence regarding the fare hikes. In fact, during last week’s MTA Board meetings, agency head Tom Prendergast danced around the issue. He again confirmed the hikes were happening and promised information within a few weeks. Otherwise, though, he was tight-lipped on the numbers or proposals for revenue increases.

“For me to go any further than that is inappropriate because there haven’t been discussions. We have to follow the process and ultimately this has to follow a process where there’s an interchange with the public,” Prendergast said when pressed on the issue.

So why the delayed timeline and the lack of details or even a leak? I’ve been told by a few people in the know that Governor Cuomo has put the kibosh on fare hike talk until after Tuesday’s vote. He’s not in danger of losing to Rob Astorino, and the existence of the 2015 fare hike is public knowledge. But Cuomo doesn’t want the press to focus on numbers and increased costs at or around Election Day. He wants to run up the score on his opponents and then have this news come out. (This may as well be why the MTA Reinvention Commission hasn’t turned in a report yet, but I haven’t been able to confirm or refute that suspicion one way or another.)

And so we get another round of MTA politics. No one is discussing fare policy before Election Day. No one is discussing the capital plan, and no one is talking about ways to reform the MTA. It’s just the way Gov. Cuomo wants it.

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Alex C November 2, 2014 - 11:18 pm

I think we’ll see a repeat of the PA toll increase crap Andy and his best bud Christie pulled. The fare hike will initially be announced as higher than it actually will be, and then ole Andy Cuomo will “save the day” and make the evil MTA decrease the fare hike (to what it was actually supposed to be all along).

Then he’ll quietly announce on a Friday at 4:30 PM that the $4 billion to pay for the bridge that is nothing more than a monument to himself will come from the MTA’s budget.

Billy G November 3, 2014 - 5:26 pm

The new Tappan Zee bridge is essential to the flow of goods and services, the existing span has well outlived its useful life, and its replacement is essential. It’s about time that the MTA paid for something other than rail, considering that it ate up the TBTA. Let the MTA and the state Thru-way Authority quibble over who pays for what.

adirondacker12800 November 3, 2014 - 5:31 pm

why not let the people who use the bridge pay for the bridge?

Tim November 3, 2014 - 5:57 pm

Imagine that…

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 5:50 pm

(1) The TZB may have outlived its design life, but maintaining it is probably less expensive than replacing it and (2) the MTA has nothing to do with the TZB and Alex C’s comment to that effect was facetious.

Tim November 3, 2014 - 5:57 pm

Doesn’t MTA own the TZB?

Benjamin Kabak November 3, 2014 - 6:02 pm

Nope. The NYS Thruway Authority maintains — and collects all revenue from tolls on — the Tappan Zee. It’s not part of the MTA network and would have been under Port Authority’s purview but for state politicking a bunch of decades ago.

adirondacker12800 November 3, 2014 - 6:18 pm

The reason they decided to replace it is that maintaining it would cost more than replacing it.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 6:43 pm

Haha! Good one! Oh, wait, you were serious?

Back of the envelope calculations:

$3.9B bridge (number looks like: $3,900,000,000)

Bonding it out (ignoring underwriting fees, etc.) over 30 years @ 4% APR: ~$224.3 million/year

Generous revenue assumption of 100,000 vehicles/day @ $7 each: $255,500,000

A quick Google search suggests current maintenance costs are about $100M/year. Presumably the new bridge would have lower maintenance costs, but would that really overcome a situation where nearly all revenue the bridge generates goes to cover cover bonds? Quite unlikely.

adirondacker12800 November 3, 2014 - 8:46 pm

yes I’m serious because people who get paid to look at it and produce reports the size of the Manhattan white pages said that maintaining the existing bridge over the lifetime of a new bridge would cost more. And people who produce reports the size of Manhattan white pages have managers and auditors and additional third parties verifying their numbers.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 9:02 pm

What independent agent made that argument? The bridge replacement was political all along, but at least the early plans included some value additions that Cuomo removed.

adirondacker12800 November 3, 2014 - 10:11 pm

Yep the Thurway just slaps things together and the NYSDOT doesn’t bother to look at it and the Federal Government – the FHWA, Army Corp of Engineers and the EPA – just takes their word for it. And no notices that it takes them years to just slap it together. Like the bond holders and their auditors.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 11:00 pm

Not for nothing, but you practically listed every major stakeholder that has an at best lukewarm opinion of this project. The Thruway Authority’s finances are rather in the shitter, and they’re probably not too pleased at having a profitable asset replaced by an unprofitable one. The Feds are about the last people to say no to a road project, but they don’t exactly seem to be opening their wallets.

And the EPA? You got to be kidding.

adirondacker12800 November 3, 2014 - 11:11 pm

And you gotta be kidding me that no one at any of the state agencies or the federal agencies or the bondholders and their lawyers was able to pull an envelope out and come up with the same numbers you did. They all can’t be incompetent or corrupt.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 11:34 pm

They probably came up with worse numbers. In case you missed it, my numbers were deliberately generous to your argument.

adirondacker12800 November 4, 2014 - 12:07 am

Uh huh sure, they came up with worse numbers than you and didn’t say anything to anyone about it even though their jobs depend on saying something. Uh huh sure. And the people at the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA who issue permits for the environmental damage the work will cause. And the bondholder’s auditors. The only logical conclusion is that that it’s all a vast coverup because numbers you pulled out of thin air don’t agree.

lop November 4, 2014 - 12:07 am

If the feds disagreed with how much of the bridge was going to have to be replaced because it was built on the cheap to begin with, and how expensive it was going to be to do so, why’d they fast track the new bridge as a high priority project?

Bolwerk November 4, 2014 - 12:35 am

What the fuck makes you think they didn’t say anything? And what’s to say? We know the purported construction costs, we know some of the funding mix. Some of the costs of financing would be settled on the market when the bonds are sold. The point is the same: it was never going to pay for itself, everyone knows it, so now Cuomo is trying to find a workable mix of subsidies/grants to keep tolls down – and not having much luck.

Agree with it or not, the decision to green light the bridge was political.

@lop (assuming you’re responding to me): who said they disagreed? They aren’t eager to pay for it, whether they agree or not.

adirondacker12800 November 4, 2014 - 12:49 am

If they had said something, it being New York where the major hobby of many people is suing the state, someone would have noticed. And sued if the Thruway didn’t have a good formal response to it. The Corp and EPA don’t issues permits lightly. And people like the Riverkeeper watch them obsessively would have sued if there was a problem with the numbers.
They aren’t happy but none of those people are raising a stink.

Bolwerk November 4, 2014 - 8:48 am

Huh? Sue for what? Who has standing to sue? There is nothing illegal about bad financial reasoning, especially in a political decision. Shit, if there were, almost the entirety of New York State would be in prison. A state can finance whatever projects it deems fit for whatever reasons it sees fit, and sovereign immunity makes it pretty hard to sue the state.

adirondacker12800 November 4, 2014 - 11:55 am

You wanna build a new bridge you aren’t going to get permits from the Army Corp of Engineers and the EPA and the DEC and the Coast Guard unless you have good reason to build a new bridge. A good reason is “a new bridge will cost less to maintain, in the long run, than the old bridge” and your numbers better make sense. And if they don’t there will be a gaggle of environmental groups down your throat. Nah all the state agencies and all the federal agencies are corrupt or incompetent and all the people who sue them at the drop of a hat aren’t paying attention.

Bolwerk November 4, 2014 - 4:46 pm

You’re making things up (again). As long as the engineering is possible without majorly bolloxing the things those agencies care about, they aren’t going to do anything. EPA cares about pollution. Coast guard cares about clearance.

adirondacker12800 November 4, 2014 - 5:23 pm

and building a new bridge causes pollution. Building more lanes causes pollution. The EPA cares about that. One of the ways they can stop the Thruway from building a new bridge and stirring up the striped bass is to say the numbers you presented for maintenance costs are incorrect. The Coast Guard cares about bridges that need a lot of maintenance to keep them from falling into the river. Hundreds if not thousands of people who care deeply about this haven’t sued.

Bolwerk November 4, 2014 - 6:53 pm

Nobody is alleging a cost estimate is wrong. It’s well known the project will not pay for itself, and there is nothing illegal about that. Nobody has standing to sue.

There is nothing difficult about this to understand. Just about every major infrastructure project in the region has financial performance as bad or worse than the TZB (ESA?!). For that matter, there probably aren’t any highway projects in the USA that pay for themselves.

adirondacker12800 November 4, 2014 - 7:41 pm

You are.

” Bolwerk says:
November 3, 2014 at 5:50 pm

(1) The TZB may have outlived its design life, but maintaining it is probably less expensive than replacing it ”

No one else is. The NYSDOT hasn’t said it’s untrue or the NYSDEC or the EPA who could refuse permits if the bridge was unneeded or the Army Corp of Engineers who could say that it’s unneeded because it’s not a hazard. Or anyone else who does have standing to sue and hasn’t.

People do sue sucessfully.


Nathanael November 4, 2014 - 9:14 pm

(1) The EPA actually balked and refused to give Cuomo what he wanted because it was enivronmentally unsound;
(2) The Tappan Zee bridge is in the *wrong location* due to 50-year-old state politics — who builds a bridge at the *widest* point in the river?
(3) Cuomo deliberately stripped everything useful from the bridge.

It’s actually a completely useless bridge, economically speaking. It’s always been a political bridge. Specifically, a bridge to move traffic through New York instead of New Jersey.

* Traffic between NY State West of the Hudson and NYC goes through New Jersey, taking the GW Bridge or the tunnels
* Traffic to Long Island from most of the country goes through Staten Island and over the Verazzano Narrows
* The traffic which is completely bypassing the NY Metro Area heading for New England takes I-84 and the Beacon-Newburgh bridge

The Tappan Zee bridge serves a purely local traffic function which would probably be served just as well by a car ferry. If you demolished it, the non-local traffic would reroute instantly, and probably arrive faster.

The GWB and the Cross-Bronx Expressway are actually crucial to freight and auto mobility now (despite the horrible history behind the Cross-Bronx Expressway). The Tappan Zee isn’t.

Bolwerk November 4, 2014 - 9:24 pm

Considering I accepted their cost estimate at face value, I can’t be wrong about it unless they are.

As of right now, and probably over the next generation or so, that comment is entirely accurate. They’re eliminating a profitable asset and replacing it with an unprofitable one. There was no financial reason to fast track the bridge; even low interest rates are a dubious case for it.

Perhaps there was an engineering reason. Probably not an urgent one, but at least that is within the realm of possible.

adirondacker12800 November 4, 2014 - 9:48 pm

Okay I give up. Hundreds if not thousands of professionals who know how much it costs to maintain bridges are all in a vast conspiracy to cover up the lies the Thruway is telling about how much it will cost to maintain the bridge versus building a new one and maintaining that. You should send the Thruway your resume, you could save them billions.

Bolwerk November 4, 2014 - 10:27 pm

You can’t be this stupid. Revenue – Expenses of the current bridge is in the black and and (projected) Revenue – Expenses of the new bridge is in the red without massive toll increases. No expert is disputing this. Not even Cuomo disputes this.

The only person asserting anything to the contrary is you. There is no need to be an expert. The only criterion for understanding this, other than maybe having a grip on reality, is a grasp of rather basic arithmetic.

adirondacker12800 November 4, 2014 - 10:34 pm

And I can’t understand why you think wooden pilings in a river are eternal.

Bolwerk November 5, 2014 - 9:00 am

Good thing too, since I never said they were. I should have a shot every time you say something stupid, but I don’t think I’d be on my feet long.

Duke November 3, 2014 - 8:56 pm

This back of envelope calculation makes two blatantly false assumptions:
1) That maintenance costs would remain constant over the next 30 years rather than dramatically increasing.
2) That direct maintenance expenditures are the only costs of maintenance.

As it is, the bridge is decaying and costs of maintenance are rising. If the bridge were not replaced, they would keep rising and keep getting more and more disruptive.

For an example of what might happen, take a gander at Pont Champlain in Montreal, which is going to be replaced within the next 10 years but is in worse condition than the current Tappan Zee. The Federal Bridge Corporation of Canada has over the last bunch of years applied a lot of emergency repairs to that bridge in order to keep it from falling into the St Lawrence River, requiring frequent closures of lots of lanes lasting for entire weekends, sometimes even having to temporarily close the whole bridge entirely. Besides costing a lot of money, there are large costs in lost productivity due to people and goods being unable to cross the bridge.

Were the Tappan Zee not getting replaced now, we would have to look forward to a similar situation in the coming decades.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 9:13 pm

I wouldn’t (and didn’t) make either of those assumptions, but to justify replacement you have to show how the life of the new bridge compares cost-wise to maintaining/refurbishing the old one. Eventually the new one will need to be refurbished or replaced too. Even if costs will go up in the long run, the current costs appear to be more than covering the bridge’s maintenance and probably could for years to come.

I kept the comment brief since it sufficed to make my point. That’s all. Unless there is a compelling and imminent safety issue, replacement probably doesn’t make sense, especially when there are more pressing projects that need financing.

adirondacker12800 November 3, 2014 - 10:13 pm

Shipworms are a compelling short term issue. The bridge was built during steel shorteges caused by the Korean war. Most of the causeways rest on wooden pilings. That were designed for a much narrower roadway.

Abba November 3, 2014 - 12:03 am

Everytime there had to an annoucement we have to wait for cuomo?

BrooklynBus November 3, 2014 - 8:24 am

I like Cuomo’s campaign ad that he delivered a $2 billion surplus. Sure he has because no state contribution has been announced for the MTA capital program, if there is even one.

Phillip Roncoroni November 3, 2014 - 7:48 pm

CUNY employees have also been working under an expired contract since October 2010. The state funds 75% of CUNY.

Larry Littlefield November 3, 2014 - 9:09 am

“As part of the MTA rescue plan a few years back, the agency committed to biennial fare hikes.”

Why not annual fare hikes? Or fare hikes in the year before an election for state legislature, rather than a year after?

This dates back before Cuomo. They hand out goodies to insiders before elections, and put the knife to the serfs thereafter due to “circumstances beyond our control.”

Chris C November 3, 2014 - 11:12 am

Come to the UK when we have annual fare hikes for trains, buses and underground elections or not!

And all based on a formula of at least inflation then some !

Larry Littlefield November 3, 2014 - 11:32 am

At least you have avoided some of the increases the NYC subway has seen over the decades, after a long period of “save the fare!”

25 percent. 33 percent. 50 percent. Even 100 percent!

Billy G November 3, 2014 - 5:34 pm

A fare rise for the subway is long overdue.

A $0.25 hike was trivial and couldn’t be expected to stand for long.

It should be $5/ride by now, especially considering the lack of zone-based fares.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 5:53 pm

Stupid idea, considering it pays for things that have little to do with transportation. We don’t need conductors and token booth clerks, for instance, but if the state insists on having them there is no reason on inflicting the costs on riders.

Buses may realistically be closer to that expensive to operate though.

adirondacker12800 November 3, 2014 - 6:19 pm

The riders insist on having a pair of eyes in the stations and a pair of eyes on the train.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 6:24 pm

No we don’t. Only the TWU insists on that.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 6:45 pm

It’s a nonsensical argument anyway, since both are fairly impotent to do anything useful to improve safety, no matter what people’s opinions happen to be.

sonicboy678 November 3, 2014 - 8:34 pm

That depends on the situation, honestly. Given that there are some situations where it would be better to have a capable human around, it would only play toward safety to make sure there are at least a few staff members on hand to handle matters.

For the record, I have no personal connection to TWU. The only thing I have which even remotely relates to TWU is a hat I no longer wear because the buckle snapped.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 8:45 pm

That doesn’t matter either. Yes, we can all imagine situations where a conductor or token booth agent is available to see a problem an act on it. We can imagine situations where the police save us too, but reality often turns out to be a little different.

The best bet for safety is transit being affordable, well-maintained, and as prolific as possible.

sonicboy678 November 3, 2014 - 11:28 pm

Sure, dismiss the possibility as irrelevant. That makes for a good argument. Sure, the evidence may not be favorable, but it can’t dismiss the possibility.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 11:43 pm

I didn’t dismiss the possibility. I dismissed the probability. It’s illogical to make a far-reaching, expensive choices based on contingencies that have a minuscule chance of occurring.

sonicboy678 November 4, 2014 - 8:49 pm

At the same time, it’s illogical to not make choices that will handle contingencies that have a minuscule chance of occurring. In a nutshell, a fair balance must be struck so nothing is left out.

Nathanael November 4, 2014 - 9:19 pm

London is replacing useless employees who are locked inside booths, with useful employees who stand out on the platforms and are allowed to help people.

(They still have people in booths at key locations.)

The conductors on NYC Subway trains essentially do nothing at this point. They could be replaced with roving guards who are not locked in a compartment, and it would be an improvement.

Bolwerk November 4, 2014 - 9:59 pm

It’s illogical when the costs of those choices greatly exceed the benefits. Keeping a labor-heavy regime of excess conductors and token booth clerks isn’t going to add more safety than using the money to invest in safer infrastructure, elimination of wayside signals, etc.. Even cleaning probably would improve safety more, especially if broken windows has any validity. :-p

lop November 3, 2014 - 6:53 pm

Bus costs depends on the route and how you apportion transfers. $5 a ride would mean riders of low cost routes that cost less than $3 per ride are subsidizing network coverage routes that cost more than $10 per ride.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 7:06 pm

Realistically keeping enough buses and drivers to meet the relatively low ridership spread over a wide area isn’t going to lead to great farebox recovery. But you have to do it.

Justin Samuels November 3, 2014 - 8:30 pm

The machines are occasionally down, and conductors are just a way to have another employee on the train who can call/radio in case of emergency. Not all stations have wireless signals and the tunnels as a whole do not have wireless service. So until the MTA does a much better job in having wireless service available in all tunnels and stations I do not see why anyone would want to just fire transit employees en masse. I’ve been on trains and in stations in which the police had to be called.

This particularly rider would rather fares go up then for the MTA to get rid of all conductors and token booth clerks.

Bolwerk November 3, 2014 - 8:56 pm

Nobody said anything about firing them. But changing the work rules so they can do some productive work would be in order.

Their value for customer service is already incredibly low, but safety netted from having excess employees is about nil.

Nathanael November 4, 2014 - 9:20 pm

If the subway conductors were actually walking the train, accessible to riders (like they are on, for instance, Amtrak/NJT/LIRR/Metro-North), they would provide some value.

But right now? They aren’t!

The booth clerks are somewhat more useful and should be retained as information agents at key stations like Times Square and Grand Central… but they don’t do much at minor stations.

lop November 4, 2014 - 9:32 pm

They open emergency exit gates for bikes and strollers.

Bolwerk November 5, 2014 - 9:02 am

Probably nothing that can’t be done remotely with minimal investment. It’s probably something that could be borderline “free” if it’s included in the next contract for a payment/collection system to replace MetroCards.

Qurik November 3, 2014 - 10:52 pm

“This particularly rider would rather fares go up then for the MTA to get rid of all conductors and token booth clerks.”

So this is about you again, right? Nice…


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