MTA: 40% Service Cuts Could Happen Without Federal Aid

Yes, it's sometimes crowded, but the subway is the solution.
Yes, it's sometimes crowded, but the subway is the solution.

Did somebody say “death spiral”?

The MTA finally unveiled its long-awaited and dreaded plan for massive service cuts in the increasingly likely event that the federal government doesn’t help fill a yawning budget gap due to a drop in ridership and economic contraction caused by the coronavirus pandemic. On the menu: Cutting up to 40 percent of service on subways, buses and the Staten Island Railroad.

The service cuts, which would be done in order to fill a $12-billion budget hole in 2020 and 2021, would devastate both riders and MTA employees. According MTA CFO Bob Foran, the cuts would stretch wait times eight minutes longer on subways, 15 minutes longer on buses and 30 minutes longer on the SIR.

The cuts would also result in 7,200 lost union jobs, which TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano said would be a “betrayal” after 131 MTA employees died during the pandemic.

In addition, the agency floated cuts to the LIRR and Metro-North up to 50 percent, that would completely eliminate at least one — as yet unidentified — LIRR branch and reduce service on heavy ridership lines to one train per hour and one train every two hours on lines with lower ridership.

“Horrendous choices lie ahead,” MTA Chairman and CEO Pay Foye said at the presentation to the MTA Board, before inviting Foran to share the horrendous choices that have come about with subway ridership hovering at about a quarter of the almost six million daily riders the system once moved around before COVID.

Foye did say that the exact nature of the cuts haven’t been solidified, but the hazy picture of what will happen without a federal rescue package is coming into shape. According to the MTA’s figures, the subway and bus cuts would save the agency $880 million annually, which is less than the total doomsday scenario that the Riders Alliance suggested in July, but would still not be greeted kindly by straphangers.

“That sounds awful,” said Ambar Nicole, who was waiting at the 86th Street Q station. “The subway’s already very expensive as it is compared to other cities.”

Nicole’s fears succinctly capture the potential that the MTA winds up in a dreaded “transit death spiral,” in which funding shortfalls lead to service cuts and poor service, which suppresses ridership and farebox revenue further, causing even more riders to bolt the system until the entire thing collapses entirely.

City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez also blasted the potential service cuts, especially as the school year is going to begin at some point in the near future.

“With the start of the school year fast approaching, this drastic change in services could put many riders at risk, especially in communities where bus and train services are not as frequent,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “This ‘doomsday’ like scenario needs to be taken seriously by all federal legislators on both sides of the aisle.”

The MTA’s fiscal hole, which will reach $3.2 billion by the end of 2020 and $5.844 billion in 2021 alone without a federal bailout, is worse than the situation the agency faced during the Great Depression according to Foye. The agency is banking entirely on a federal bailout, which is currently stuck in the machinery of a larger coronavirus rescue package in Washington. Although the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed a $3-trillion relief package that included $4 billion for the MTA, the Republican-led Senate countered with a smaller package that entirely left out aid to states and public transportation agencies. Congress is currently out of session, and prospects for any kind of relief bill at all are currently muddled.

“Literally the survival of the MTA lies in the balance,” Foye told the Board and the listening public as his closing message for the meeting.

It’s unclear what the next step will be for the MTA, though the agency did put together an ad that showed New York City very literally fading out of view if Congress doesn’t act.

Foye said that the agency was “agnostic” about where any potential money came from, but the MTA’s head honcho reiterated over and over again that he felt the federal government was the only realistic way the MTA can avoid the fiscal cliff that was described at Wednesday’s meeting. Asked if he and the MTA Board would push for the city and state government to find money in something like higher sales or gas taxes in the MTA region in order to avoid even some potential service cuts, Foye told reporters that neither government had money to give.

“There’s no solvent government, frankly, in America right now. The state and the city effectively have no money. The state faces a $15-billion deficit, the city is talking about laying off 29,000 people. In that citation the only place to go for funding is federal funding,” said Foye.

However, there did appear to be a developing split among the MTA Board itself as far as what should be done. Board members Larry Schwartz and Linda Lacewell both beat hard on the drum for a federal rescue, with Schwartz asking the city’s larger capital class to remind Congress that the survival of the New York metro area was at stake. Lacewell flat out said that the federal government had put the MTA on the edge of annihilation.

“The federal government is directly responsible for the situation we are in, and not just because Congress isn’t providing funding,” said Lacewell. “The federal government did not manage this pandemic. It’s why we had to shut down, it’s why our economy was so adversely affected. They have an obligation to step up because they created this situation.”

Other board members, including David Mack, Andrew Albert, Victor Calise and Bob Linn suggested that the MTA had to make plans beyond depending on the federal government. Mack and Albert specifically suggested looking into raising the gas tax, while Calise supported what Linn called a “balanced approach” in a soliloquy he gave the board.

“We need to find a path that responsibly keeps the New York metro area transit running, and it requires discussion now of a balanced approach,” said Linn. “We’re going to need temporary revenue surcharges, clearly taxes, whether it’s a gas tax or whatever else, and other revenue sources need to be on the table: Borrowing, even though it turns short term problems into long term problems, maybe has to be part pf an overall approach. Maybe service adjustments will be necessary. and labor, needs to step up to the table and deal with various changes. Everybody needs to share the burden and do our part to chip in and solve the problem.”

The cuts, if they are done, will be announced this fall, Foye said, since they’ll need to be voted on as part of the MTA’s 2021 financial plan in November.

— with Adam Light