Catastrophic cuts planned for the MTA without federal aid

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Catastrophic cuts planned for the MTA without federal aid

The NYC subway system is already creaking along with delays, cut service, and reduced hours. Could the 2021 budget be its death knell? (Brad Bang/Unsplash)

Even with Joe Biden in the White House, the dire service cuts that the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) predicted in August could come to pass, the agency warned this past Wednesday, November 18.

Forty percent service cuts to bus and rail service, killing the unlimited Metrocard, hiking fares by 4 percent, and killing 9,400 jobs to cut costs are reportedly all on the table if the MTA can’t line up a $12 billion federal bailout by the end of 2020. As the agency prepares its 2021 budget, Gothamist reports, they’ve released a “draconian,” worst-case scenario plan with little hope of federal aid on the horizon.

As AN has previously covered, the worsening coronavirus pandemic has left the transit agency in a deep hole as only a quarter of the state’s six million subway and bus riders have returned—and with NYC set to be locked down again as COVID cases continue to rise, things won’t be getting better any time soon. With a $16.4 billion deficit predicted for the next four years, the agency has already shelved its ambitious $51.5 billion 2020-2024 capital plan, which would have bolstered accessibility across the New York City subway system. Even that $12 billion the agency is requesting would only cover their operating losses through 2021.

“Nobody likes this. Nobody likes the impact on the customer. Nobody likes the potential impact on the employees. This is just ugly, and this is something that we must consider if we’re going to survive,” the MTA’s Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran said during the budget release, according to Gothamist.

Operating under the assumption that ridership won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024 (a best-case scenario, from consultants McKinsey & Company), the 2021 budget makes deep cuts to stave off the system’s potential collapse. Some of the measures floated, which would go into effect in May of next year if enacted, include: Eliminating the 7-day and 30-day unlimited Metrocards (lifelines for working-class New Yorkers), reducing service by 40 percent as previously mentioned for bus and subway lines, and 50 percent for commuter rail lines (increasing wait times for trains and busses to up to 15 minutes, and up to an hour between commuter rail trains), and bi-annual fare and toll increases.

Other fare increases considered include increasing the cost of a single ride by $1 and raising the cost of buying a new Metrocard by $3; of this comes on top of the 4 percent fare increase already scheduled for the spring. The agency will also borrow $2.9 billion from Federal Reserve’s emergency program, which, although it offers low rates, will further saddle the MTA with even more debt, which already accounts for 16 percent of its annual budget.

Transportation advocates are sounding the alarm that these dire cuts could trigger a death spiral. Major service cuts and cost hikes could cause daily riders to abandon New York’s subways and busses altogether, further depressing fare collection and increasing deficits to (even more) unsustainable levels.

Even the prospect of a Biden administration, who would be more open to funding the MTA and allowing the state to implement congestion pricing, isn’t enough; if Republicans keep control of the Senate, a federal bailout for the nation’s largest public transportation system isn’t likely.

The MTA board will vote on the proposed budget sometime before the end of 2020, and MTA union leaders have vowed to fight the deep layoffs if they come to pass.