News
02.18.2009
Show MTA the Money
With a looming budget crisis amid a dismal recession, the MTA scrambles for cash

Like the rest of the city, the recent boom years have been good to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, leading to shiny new buses, trains, and megaprojects. But now, with the fifth-largest debt load in the country and the state out of money, the authority is on the verge of jumping the tracks, right into territory it has not seen since the 1970s.

The problem we’re in is the perfect storm of major dedicated taxes all drying up at once,” said Wiley Norvell, communications director at Transportation Alternatives. “The gas tax, the bridge tolls, the real estate tax, the sales tax—they’ve all gone dry. Plus, the MTA’s debt has exploded over the last two years.”

The result is a $1.2 billion hole in the authority’s operating budget, and a potential $20 billion shortfall in the forthcoming $30 billion 2010–2015 capital plan. The press has called it the “Doomsday Budget,” because, short of new revenue streams, it will lead to massive service cuts and fare and toll increases throughout the system.

And if that weren’t bad enough, the $1 billion payment for Hudson Yards was pushed back a year, following a February 4 agreement between the authority and developer the Related Companies. Meanwhile, Forest City Ratner has yet to secure financing for the $100 million it owes on the Atlantic Yards project.

On the bright side, the city’s Congressional delegation has secured between $1.5 billion and $2 billion for the agency in the House stimulus bill, with possibly more to come from the Senate. And, in an act of confidence or hubris, the authority earmarked $497 million on January 30 to complete the Fulton Street Transit Center, designed by Grimshaw and James Carpenter, before the package was even finalized.

It’s enough to make even the steadiest straphanger’s head spin.

“If we don’t solve this problem, we’re shortchanging the economy right now, when we can hardly afford to, and for decades to come,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. He said that as the city has learned in the past, even a year or two of disinvestment can take decades to reverse. Fortunately, the MTA agrees wholeheartedly. “This is probably the most difficult landscape the MTA has faced in a generation,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said.

And yet the recession could prove, in some small way, to be the authority’s salvation. Given the dire state of the economy, many politicians appear willing to entertain once-heretical notions. Take the mayor’s congestion pricing plan. It was initially sold as a measure to reduce congestion and pollution, but was ultimately defeated by the state legislature because, in its members’ view, the real purpose was to fund mass transit. Newer proposals, however, such as those put forward by former MTA chair Richard Ravitch—East River bridge tolls, payroll taxes, slightly increased fares and tolls—avoid the bait-and-switch and go right for the money.

Norvell said that compared to last year, the tone in Albany is “markedly different,” with almost no complaints about the payroll tax and a surprising openness to East River bridge tolls. “Oddly enough, the financial crisis has created a lot of political breathing room,” he said. “We’re looking at $2.50 MetroCards, $100 monthlies. Nobody wants his fingerprints on that.”

It will likely be late March before we know whether it is Doomsday or V-Day for the MTA. The federal stimulus package must first be passed, though even that would be but a few nickels in the bucket. From there, it should take a month for the legislature to either endorse Ravitch’s plan, adopt an alternative, or let the MTA go forward with its cuts, which the authority’s board approved in December. Given the state’s budget woes, that remains a distinct possibility.

Transit advocates remained heartened despite the MTA’s predicament. “I have reason to believe it will pass, given my conversations with people in both houses,” Yaro said of the Ravitch plan. Norvell believes the legislature owes it to the MTA. “The system’s been starved by Albany for the last decade,” he said. “The ball is in their court. We hope they make the right play.”

Matt Chaban