When you look at the big picture, the MTA fare increases were both modest and necessary to deal with this years operating deficits of several hundred million. The capital side shortfall is in billions. Long term MTA debt exceeds $40 billion. This results in debt service payments eating up 17% of the annual budget. Yearly debt service payments will grow to 20% under the next MTA Five Year 2020 — 2024 Capital Plan. The MTA has no available surplus operating dollars to delay any fare increase let alone offer any reductions. Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio’s current and upcoming budgets include no funding to do either. Both the MTA and elected officials have never been serious about combating fare evasion. Every year, the MTA losses over $200 million for those who refuse to pay their way. NYC District Attorneys will not prosecute fare evaders. This encourages more riders not to pay. NYC Transit police have their hands tied, thus giving up enforcing fare payments.
For those public officials, MTA board members and others who opposed any fare increases and were quick to demagogue on this issue (for political purposes to win upcoming elections), just how would the MTA balance financial shortfalls? Which capital improvement projects should the MTA cancel to help balance the budget and avoid fare increases? Which route(s) would you support service reductions to save operating dollars? Would you volunteer to reduce service, cancel or delay any capital projects benefiting constituents in your district? What future union contracts would you ask for more flexible work assignments, hire part time employees, contract out more work to the private sector and reduce salary increases. Will you ask employees to increase their contributions toward medical coverage and retirement pensions?
Contrary to the heated rhetoric of elected officials and so called transit advocate, MTA services continue to be one of the best bargains in town. Since the 1950s, the average cost of riding either the bus, subway or commuter rail when you buy a weekly or monthly ticket has gone up at a lower rate than either the consumer price index or inflation. The Metro Card introduced in 1996 affords a free transfer between bus and subway. Prior to this, riders had to pay two full fares.
A majority of residents purchase weekly or monthly NYC Transit bus/subway Metro Card, LIRR or Metro North ticket which reduces the cost per ride significantly below the base fare.
In the end, quality and frequency of service is dependent upon secure revenue streams. We all will have to contribute — be it at the fare box or tax revenues generated by different levels of government redistributed back to the MTA.
TANSTAFFL or “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” or in this case a free ride. Someone has to pay for it.
(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. )