On its own, a fare hike doesn’t portend a looming transit death spiral. In fact, regular and predictable fare hikes for, say, a subway ride designed to ensure that revenues remain fairly consistent with inflation and other costs over the long term can be a sign of a robust and well-managed transit system working to compete with other modes of transit. But when a fare hike is coupled by service cuts amidst a prolonged period with an overall decline in ridership and revenue, the transit death spiral canary starts chirping a bit louder in that coal mine. Last week, the canary showed up at the MTA Board’s budget meeting as the board books showed a continued decline in ridership, the budget forecast called for service cuts, and the MTA started debating the structure of next year’s fare hike. It certainly seems like New York City’s transit system sits on the edge of a death spiral.
The transit death spiral is a particularly prickly beast to pin down. A few months ago, Aaron Gordon wrote about it in his newsletter, and I’d like to reframe Aaron’s model slightly. The death spiral encapsulates a budget cycle in which a transit agency recognizes a revenue shortfall due to lower-than-project ridership, raises fares and cuts service to compensate, and thus further dampens ridership, leading to additional shortfalls. As the cycle repeats, the spiral becomes inescapable until a massive bailout or death. When the topic arose over the summer, Cap’n Transit wrote a rebuttal to Gordon’s piece, and in the intervening few months, the spiral seems to have worsened.
The current cycle will come to a head soon when the MTA Board reconvenes to approve a 2019 fare hike. On its own, the 2019 fare hike isn’t a surprise as the MTA instituted biennial fare hikes beginning in 2011, but with service reliability on the decline, riders seem particularly up in arms over next year’s planned hike. You can see the proposals in the chart atop this page, and I’m agnostic as to which one the MTA should choose. With the introduction of subsidized Metrocards for low-income New Yorkers on the horizon, eliminating the pay-per-ride discount and keeping the increase on unlimited passes at a minimum is probably my preferred outcome, but that choice is akin to just shuffling deck chairs. In a handful of months, we’ll be paying more.
You can view the fare and toll hike proposals in this pdf, but the details of the hike aren’t the big story. Rather, the big story is the MTA’s worsening financial picture. That story unfolds in this pdf, and it’s a dire one. In the span of two years, since the July 2017 financial plan, the MTA’s long-term outlook has worsened by over $800 million. According to MTA documents, the biggest drivers are declining ridership ($485 million), paratransit costs ($321 million), workers compensation payments ($125 million) and overtime ($100 million). The MTA has relied on a series of one-shot budget moves to stave off deficits, but these one-shots are drying up. As Robert Foran, MTA CFO said last week, absent healthcare and pension reform, the MTA is out of cost-savings measures, and no politicians have desired to leap into that fraught battle. (In fact, Gov. Cuomo did just the opposite when the MTA labor contracts were up recently.)
So the options are fare hikes and service cuts, the two best ways the MTA has of controlling revenues and expenses. With fare hikes scheduled for 2019, service cuts loom for 2020 – the first cuts since the crippling scalebacks in 2010. The MTA, of course, hasn’t said exactly what the service cuts will be, but it sounds as though the agency could change “service guidelines” to allow for more crowded trains and less frequent service. The total cuts to the subway will equal around $10 million – which is modest and projects to a few fewer trains per hour during certain times of the day on some, but not all, lines – and $31 million for buses which will devastate the bus network. Perhaps then the buses, with extremely steep ridership declines, are closer to that death spiral than the subways.
Still, service cuts are a last-gasp approach. As Foran detailed at last week’s meeting, the MTA prefers to seek out a separate revenue streams to avoid service cuts while closing its budget deficit, and I think back again to the piece I wrote on the fight for congestion pricing revenue. The money may have to go to shoring up the MTA operations budget before it can go to the capital plan (or Andy Byford’s Fast Forward fund) as everyone is laying claim to a magical cure-all that won’t be.
If that doesn’t further complicate the picture, Aaron Gordon in his newsletter last week noted yet another issue the MTA budget projections: Their out-year projections do not account for planned or potential work that could further stifle ridership and revenues. I quote from last week’s edition:
The L shutdown, for example, begins next year. The MTA predicts the vast majority of trips will still take place within its ecosystem, but it’s easy to imagine ridership falling due to discretionary trips not being taken or a higher-than-projected rate of folks opting for rideshare or bicycling instead. Indeed, the MTA now predicts a 1.1 percent decrease in ridership in 2019, following a 2.8 percent decline this year. This is a major revision from the July plan, where they predicted ridership *increases* in 2019 and 2020 despite acknowledging the L shutdown. Their logic: the economy is good.
These explanations are more confusing than insightful. Pegging ridership trends to future employment projections may be accepted practice but it’s been demonstrably unreliable in recent years due to fundamental changes in how we work, shop, and travel…But there’s an even bigger red flag in their ridership projections. If the MTA does get funding to move ahead with the Byford Plan, entire trunk lines in Manhattan as well as major branches in Queens and Brooklyn will be shut down on nights/weekends for months if not years on end. In other words, the most extreme planned work shutdowns in the city’s history will occur in the next decade if Andy Byford gets his money. Ridership will almost certainly suffer.
That’s not an argument against doing the work, but merely a consideration therein, especially when projecting budgets. But, as of now, the MTA is predicting flat ridership for 2020-2022. Of course, the MTA cannot budget for a plan that has yet to be funded, but they don’t even flag this as a potential risk. This is emblematic of the agency’s tendency to get caught flat-footed by predictable ridership trends.
In other words, the plan to repair the system will, by necessity, lead to temporarily lower ridership, and the MTA isn’t accounting for it now. Their budgets for outyears aren’t conservative enough, and we’ll have to go through this process sooner than the MTA currently anticipates. You see where this is going? That’s also part of that death spiral.
Meanwhile, the MTA itself is struggling to figure out why service is declining. This came up first over the summer during the presentation of the July financial plan when the MTA failed to distinguish between the cause and the effect of the ridership decline. Ridership is declining because off-peak and weekend service isn’t reliable, and with easy and cheap alternatives such as for-hire vehicle apps, those who take discretionary subway trips are opting for more reliable means of travel. Last week, the MTA bigwigs tried to blame fare evasion as the leading cause of ridership declines without offering any evidence whatsoever, and it seems like the gatekeepers don’t know what ails the transit network. Between the lack of foresight in budget planing and the lack of understanding of the ridership decline, it’s hard to say if the current MTA Board and management can work its way out of this mess before the spiral leads to death or at least temporary paralysis cured only by a steep infusion of cash.
I am ultimately not particularly optimistic as we sit here a few days after Joe Lhota’s departure and a few months before fare hikes and the L train shutdown start to tax the system. It’s not clear what the future holds for Fast Forward, and it’s not clear where these downward trends lead. Enough people are watching that I hope we can escape the spiral before it gets worse, but like I said, that canary just won’t stop chirping.