NEW YORK CITY-Unless Albany acts before May 31, the eight million New Yorkers who ride public transit each day will be served up another dose of economic reality, thanks to a doomsday budget vote by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Wednesday. At the same time, the few hundred thousand motorists who cross on currently toll-free bridges will continue to do so.
Voting 12-1, board members passed a balanced budget, required by law, that sets in motion a 50-cent fare hike per one-way trip on MTA subways and buses, higher fares for Long Island and Westchester commuters, longer waits on train and bus platforms and increased tolls on city bridges. The subway and bus fare increases would take effect May 31, with higher fares and service cuts being phased in later.
Hardly a surprise, the board’s move came after lawmakers in Albany failed to reach a solution or compromise plan to save the MTA from its crippling billion dollar-plus deficit. Wednesday’s meeting and vote, broadcast live on the MTA’s homepage, showed a marked level of frustration as both board members and citizens debated the transit agency’s past choices, the impact of current economic conditions and the city’s future public transit options. Several speakers railed at the MTA for what they saw as risky participation in a borrowers culture to cover much of its capital improvement budget needs.
Acknowledging that many capital improvements made from 2000 to 2004 were “put on a credit card,” MTA executive director Elliot Sander said at the meeting that despite the authority carrying a surplus in 2007, deficits were looming due largely to the ballooning debt service from the 2004 capital program. But he said the agency took “immediate action to become more efficient in the face of widening gaps.”
In his remarks, Sander also said “despite what some have said about the MTA in the heat of this debate, no one wants to wipe out the extraordinary progress that has been made here over the past 25 years, progress achieved through a $76-billion investment in state of good repair projects for our subways, buses and commuter rail.” He added, “The 50% increase in ridership we’ve experienced since 1996 is unprecedented and was simply unthinkable to anyone who used the system in the early 1980s” and expressed the hope that the legislature would act soon.
In reaction to the MTA vote, New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver calls the fare increases and service cuts unacceptable. He says in a statement that the Assembly majority is prepared to pass a plan to save the MTA and prevent a massive fare hike. Silver’s compromise plan would enact $2 tolls on the East River and Harlem River bridges into Manhattan and tax payrolls at 34 cents for every $100 while MTA fares would only increase by 8%.
However, that compromise plan ran into roadblocks when members of the State Senate, led by majority leader Malcom Smith, introduced an alternative. As GlobeSt.com reported, that plan would omit the East and Harlem River bridge tolls, lower the payroll tax to 25 cents for every $100 and set fare increases at 4%.
In his remarks on Wednesday, MTA chair H. Dale Hemmerdinger thanked Smith, saying, “I truly believe that he wants to do the right thing but is being thwarted by infighting and partisanship.” Earlier this month, Hemmerdinger told the New York Times that Smith’s plan fell short of meeting MTA’s needs by about $1 billion.
For his part, Bronx senator, Pedro Espada Jr., who supported the Smith plan, tells GlobeSt.com, “it is unfortunate that the MTA’s arbitrary deadline has resulted in unnecessary anxiety for the ridership of mass transit.”
Espada says the MTA must present an actual capital plan to the Legislature before the Senate will approve any revenue stream for such a plan. He says an MTA rescue must not have a disproportionate impact on any single group of constituents in his district, as well as throughout the city and Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk Counties.
“The MTA took on too much debt and too much risk, and is now trying to saddle victims–in this case, the ridership–with bailing out years of bad decision making,” Espada says. “We are getting widespread support in my district for holding out against a toll and coming up with solutions that will not have a disproportionate impact on any one group.
Sources told GlobeSt.com in a March 18 story that if the Senate delivers a workable plan in the coming days, it will not turn it down, and the fare hikes may not see fruition. However, sources said, time is of the essence, and if too many weeks pass, the wheels will be set in motion, and it would take months to detangle the changes put in place.