As the federal government comes through with $500 million for the MTA — just one installment of $3.9 billion from the CARES Act support for state and local governments – labor leaders and think tanks are backing the transit agency’s call for more stimulus cash as the only way.
MTA chair Patrick Foye said the federal funding — in an amount he said must total $7.8 billion — would simply cover operating expenses and that any other scenario is unacceptable.
Tom Wright, chief executive officer of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), explained that his group ran the numbers as well and that fares hypothetically would have to reach $9 for subway service in New York City to recover in the absence of adequate federal support.
MTA leadership, unions, transit advocates say DC must double its investment
“It is to pay our operating expenses because of the incredible, precipitous drop in revenue since the pandemic started in tolls and fares and the dedicated taxes and subsidies. So solely for operation,” Foye said during a panel discussion organized by Crain’s.
Wright’s organization has made a complete “about-face” in its efforts from devising visions for future infrastructure to simply attempting to help pull the MTA out of the current crisis that has befallen the agency. According to Wright, transit ridership will recover the same way skyscraper development rebounded from 9/11, but it boils down to maintaining the system for the region until it is primed for recovery.
Layoffs in the transit agency would cripple the ability of the system to provide transit at the start of the recovery, a $9 fare would only push ridership farther away and deepen the hardship of the economic downturn from the pandemic, Wright explained. Future generations would be saddled with financial woes if the MTA were to increase its debt service burden at this point.
“I’ll say from the RPA perspective, if we don’t get that federal funding you start to think what happens next and what options does the MTA have to try to make up that close to $4 billion deficit over the course of the year,” Wright said. “The only other option would be essentially raiding the capital plan to try and pay for this, and that’s the kind of strategy that if you want to go back to something like the 1970s and the declining services that we had, that’s what you would do.”
While 118 transit workers have died from the pandemic, 8,800 have returned to the job after either sick leave or quarantine, Foye said.
But while Wright cautioned against measures that would take subways back to their nadir in the 1970s and ’80s, another transit leader warned against returning to times as recent as 2017.
John Samuelsen, Transport Workers Union International president, explained that the COVID-19 pandemic began just as the MTA was making progress after lack of investment during the early years of the 2010s. This culminated in widespread disrepair and frequent delays across the board of an antiquated system.
January 2020 was a landmark for the MTA in that it approved a $51 billion five-year capital plan — $17 billion for 2020 alone — that would modernize transportation in New York City. The optimism that unleashed lasted only about two months.
“The truth of the matter… is that a significant portion of the disrepair was due to previous disinvestments in capital, but also because of operating budget shortfalls,” Samuelsen, said. “When there’s a shortfall in the operating budget, the company has done a couple of things. They’ve deferred maintenance, they’ve slashed service, they’ve done everything that makes things less palatable for riders.”
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said regular folks can get involved by urging their representatives in Washington DC, to support MTA funding in the next stimulus package.