The state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority has just suffered the worst month of its more than 50-year existence: at least 62 workers dead, including one motorman murdered on a near-empty subway. It’s hard enough to get through today and tomorrow, let alone think of next year. But the fact is that the new state budget creates a long-term risk: a crippled transit system for years, harming Gotham’s recovery.
Though nothing compares to the coronavirus death toll — likely the highest death rate among any American workforce — the MTA’s fiscal picture is beyond bleak. Subway, bus and commuter-rail ridership are down 92 to 98 percent. But cutting service — even more than the MTA has — risks crowding trains and buses, another danger.
Without fares, and with its tax revenues probably down by double digits, too, the authority is almost certainly running a monthly budget deficit of more than a billion dollars on its $17.2 billion annual spending.
The MTA is already begging and borrowing: It will get $3.8 billion from a federal rescue package, and it has borrowed $1 billion for operating expenses, the telltale sign of fiscal distress. (Generally, government should borrow only to invest in long-term physical assets, like, in the MTA’s case, subway cars.) But this money won’t last past late summer.
The bleak long-term reality is that the MTA has no idea what ridership will look like come fall and winter. Will the residents and workers who have fled Manhattan feel comfortable getting on trains? Will the United States open its borders to global tourists this year, or will many restaurants, stores and entertainment houses still see a steep decline in jobs?
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature, though, have already told the MTA: You’re on your own.
The new state budget authorizes the MTA to issue $10 billion for operating expenses over the next 2 ¹/₂ years. It also raises the MTA’s debt limit from $55 billion to $90 billion.
The MTA borrowing $10 billion for day-to-day costs is just catastrophic. The MTA’s total debt load, accrued over more than 40 years, is about $45 billion. Over the course of the next two years, then, the MTA could increase its outstanding debt burden by nearly one-quarter and have nothing to show for it in improved physical assets, like more reliable subways and buses.
Even if the city and its suburbs bounce back strongly next year, lawmakers would be asking the MTA to take an irresponsible risk.
But it could take years to get people comfortable on transit, in the near-record numbers they took trains and buses until the past month.
Cutting service two years from now to pay debt accrued this year could create a worse spiral: less reliable trains that are overcrowded even with fewer riders, leading to even fewer riders and less fare revenue.
Worse, this borrowing demolishes the MTA’s capital budget: its nearly $52 billion, five-year capital plan to modernize subway signals, purchase new buses and subways, finish the East Side Access plan to bring LIRR trains to the East Side and the like.
Consider: The MTA borrowing $10 billion now would mean exhausting two-thirds’ worth of expected congestion-pricing revenue over at least a decade, just to get through this pandemic.
And that’s assuming congestion pricing — which is supposed to start next January — doesn’t give business yet another reason to shun Manhattan. As Saint Augustine once said, congestion pricing is a fine idea, but not now.
What would be prudent, instead?
Hammer home the point to the region’s congressional delegation, in every forum: Without billions more in operating aid, the MTA can’t recover, and the region can’t recover, meaning an ongoing disaster for the national economy.
Use the time bought to finish the ongoing restructuring of the white-collar workforce, to see how much money the MTA can realistically save. Devise potential new schedules, based on different projections of ridership and desired crowding — and figure out how much each will cost.
Then, pick out the top priorities in the capital plan — “yes” to signal modernization, to run more trains and keep them less crowded. Probably “not any time soon” to bringing Metro-North trains to Penn Station.
In sum, make new post-corona operating and capital budgets, see how much more aid comes in from the feds. Then — in late summer or fall — figure out how much and whether the MTA needs to borrow, revisiting it every three months.
The fact that lawmakers and the governor are leaving the MTA to its own devices here until 2023 is not a good sign for recovery.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal. Twitter: @NicoleGelinas