If it seems inevitable that congestion pricing will arrive in New York City, that’s because it is. Although no one in Albany appears to be in a hurry to push through pricing plan, every gubernatorial candidate, including the incumbent set to win by 20 points or so in two weeks, has, to one degree of enthusiasm or another, endorsed a fee on cars entering Manhattan. But with expectations high, can congestion pricing be the savior everyone is hoping it will? Can it fund Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan or is the money already earmarked for something far less sexy? if I’m even asking, you can already guess the answer.
The most recent answer comes to us from a comptroller’s report on the MTA’s tenuous financial outlook. As Thomas DiNapoli explores in a new release [pdf], the MTA’s mounting debt is set to explode over the next few years, and with numerous competing demands on any new sources of revenue the state may authorize, along with a need to modernize the system, the MTA is in a position of promising the moon and stars while stretching dollars to cover investments it simply cannot afford. It’s a dire picture indeed.
The state comptroller summarized his findings in a press release on the report. In essence, even without addressing Andy Byford’s $40 billion Fast Forward plan, the MTA’s debt service payments are set to balloon to $3.3 billion by 2022 with the MTA’s total debt to reach $41.9 billion that year, and that’s before the agency starts bonding out Byford’s plan. Meanwhile, even though the MTA plans to raise fares next year and in 2021 and reduce certain expenditures, the operating budget gaps are projected to be $262 million in 2020, $424 million in 2021 and $634 million in 2022. To close those gaps, the MTA will need to implement massive cuts or fare increases or receive a new dedicated funding stream.
Even then, a balanced budget is no sure thing. As DiNapoli notes, the MTA’s current budget projections rely on “the assumption that the current economic expansion will continue uninterrupted.” As DiNapoli writes, that’s not sure thing: “As evidenced by the sharp drop during the Great Recession, the MTA’s revenues are sensitive to economic fluctuations. Changes in business cycles are inevitable, and the likelihood of an economic setback grows with each passing year.” Additionally, DiNapoli notes that, despite recent trends (including a very negative report on August ridership I’ll cover later this week), the MTA’s fiscal outlook relies upon a ridership increase in 2019. As the comptroller charitably notes, “While subway service has improved marginally in 2018, it remains far below riders’ expectations, and the improvement may not be enough to persuade riders to return in the face of higher fares.” Fare increases, as DiNapoli charts, have already outpaced inflation over the past decade, and if the MTA’s assumptions fail — if the economy falters and/or if ridership continues its precipitous decline — the MTA’s deficits, and corresponding fiscal pressures, will grow.
So how, you may ask, does this implicate the fight over congestion pricing? Well, the MTA has multiple competing fiscal demands right now. The agency is legally required to balance its operating budget and needs money over the next decade, as part of the next two five-year capital plans, to fund Byford’s Fast Forward program. Without it, service reliability will continue to decline, and eventually, the subway crisis will grind New York City to a halt. So essentially, the MTA needs two new revenue streams — one to fund its capital program and one to fund budget deficits (driven by the increased debt load from its capital spending). Congestion pricing can’t cure two ills in one fell swoop, but it’s being billed as a grand solution for the MTA’s woes.
On the one hand, New York City needs congestion pricing for numerous reasons. It needs to clear out congestion for economic, environmental and sustainability reasons, and it needs a new dedicated funding stream for transit. On the other, the MTA needs far more reform than congestion pricing. It needs a strong commitment from Albany to fund the capital budget through direct investments rather than new debt. It needs a strong commitment to reform capital spending so that projects aren’t orders of magnitude more expensive here than they are anywhere else in the world. And it needs an immediate response to the ridership and reliability crisis. These are not ills congestion pricing can solve immediately, and in certain ways, congestion pricing will put more pressure on the transit system to deliver reliable service immediately.
So as we talk about solutions to the MTA’s problems, and digest DiNapoli’s report in light of the MTA’s own budgetary picture, we have to be realistic. Congestion pricing is a piece of the puzzle, but that money will disappear into the agency’s budget as fast as it can. Perhaps congestion pricing can delay the inevitable, but can the MTA save itself from, well, itself? That’s the billion-dollar question upon which the fate of New York City rests, and as the Magic 8 Ball might say, “Reply hazy; try again.”