Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/530 Thu, 03 Dec 2020 13:29:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) MTA’s ‘Worst Case’ is Really a Massive $23 Billion Deficit Through 2024 https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9959-mta-worst-case-23-billion-deficit-through-2024 https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9959-mta-worst-case-23-billion-deficit-through-2024 govcoumo sub ob

Governor Cuomo at an MTA train depot (photo: governor's office)


New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is facing the largest fiscal crisis in its history due to COVID-19. With more federal aid not forthcoming, the MTA has been buying time – quite literally, by borrowing up to $2.9 billion from the Federal Reserve – before the axe will need to fall on service and its workforce. The MTA’s Chief Financial Officer, Bob Foran, said that layoffs would need to start in May of 2021, and fare and toll increase hearings start this month. The MTA Board could vote on fare and toll increases as soon as February 2021.

Unfortunately, the public and many of New York’s elected leaders still have not fully grasped the magnitude of the MTA’s potential “worst case scenario” losses: $23 billion from 2020 to 2024 according to the latest budget numbers. This is partly because the MTA’s November Financial Plan does not clearly show the worst-case possibilities to the public and MTA Board, but rather emphasizes this period’s mid-point $16 billion deficit – still a debilitating sum. 

A cumulative deficit of $23 billion is a massive amount: the equivalent of 15 months of pre-pandemic operating costs for the MTA. For comparison, the New York City Department of Education has a budget of $34 billion for the 2020-2021 school year to educate more than 1 million students.

When factoring in a worst-case scenario “adjustment,” the MTA’s deficit through 2024 balloons to nearly $23 billion, up from $16 billion, as shown in the chart below, an increase of $7 billion and 44% worse.

Chart

The MTA’s worst-case scenario “adjustment” assumes more depressed ridership than anticipated, and a significant “second wave” of COVID-19 accompanied by more lockdowns this winter, according to an updated analysis from McKinsey. In the worst case, McKinsey assumes an average “ridership recovery” of 27% for 2021, 54% for 2022, 71% for 2023, and 79% for 2024.

ChartThis means that the worst case would be only 27% of ridership coming back in 2021 compared to what the MTA had projected pre-pandemic. It is worth noting that these recovery rates are not pegged to 2019 ridership rates, which saw steady ridership gains that were expected to continue through 2024. The MTA/McKinsey assumption shows relatively larger revenue deficits than if 2019 were held as a “base” year for ridership, and therefore for fare revenue, based on expected growth. However, steadily increasing MTA ridership is certainly a positive goal for the agency and the New York City region as a whole, albeit one that may be harder to attain post-covid.

Overall, McKinsey predicts a reduction in ridership due to the following factors: remote work (-4% to -12%); reduced non-work trips like shopping or for tourism (-2% to -5%); mode shifts such as walking, bicycling, driving, etc. (-2% to -3%); and decreased employment (-.2%).

MTA’s November Doomsday Plan Doesn’t Close Either a $16B or $23B Deficit
The MTA’s August Doomsday plan showed a number of options to close the gaps, as seen in our prior analysis, which also showed a $1 billion gap even with brutal cuts. The MTA’s November plan repeats many of these bad options to close the gaps in the absence of federal aid and greater support from New York State. Together, these gap-closers make up $14 billion of the MTA’s $16-$23 billion deficit, and include borrowing that will need to be paid back.

This means that at least $2 billion more in cuts will be needed, and as much as $9 billion in a worst-case scenario. Our summary of the MTA’s latest budget gap-closing options is below. It includes the MTA using its Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) trust, which was intended to help pay future MTA retirement benefits, and borrowing $2.9 billion from the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) program, which will require the MTA to start paying interest in 2023.

Chart

Fare Hikes
In August, the MTA hinted at possible fare hikes beyond the regular increases planned every other year, for an additional 1% above the planned 4% increase. While the MTA’s November Financial Plan shows only 4% increases as originally planned pre-covid (as included in the chart above), some MTA Board members loyal to the governor have indicated that there should be no increases, or new discounts to lure riders back. No one will dispute that fare policies should consider the impact on ridership, as who wants to pay more for much, much less? Higher fares could deter riders from coming back, and 2019’s ridership gains already seem a distant memory.

The problem here is that the only solutions being proposed by Governor Cuomo and his MTA are cuts, borrowing, discounts on fares, or holding the fare steady. At best, discounts and holding the fare at current levels will have a neutral impact on the MTA’s bottom line, if not further increasing the deficit. The proposed fare hikes were expected to net $148 million more in revenue for 2021, and $267 million more in 2022.

MTA is Planning on the State Raiding Its Dedicated Funds
Even worse, the governor is actively withholding from the MTA its dedicated funds as part of the state’s budget adjustment process, with 20% across-the-board cuts being inflicted on everything from the MTA to nonprofit service-providers, CUNY, and other vital institutions. Funds have been withheld for months now, and are becoming de facto cuts in the absence of formal cuts. The withheld funds have allowed the state to accumulate a cash hoard of $23.8 billion – 62% more than this time last year, according to the latest cash reports from the State Comptroller. This is nearly the same amount as the MTA’s worst-case deficit through 2024: $22.9 billion.

The MTA has acknowledged that $600 million in state subsidies are at risk if the federal government doesn’t provide emergency aid to New York State, even factoring this loss into its $12 billion ask for federal aid. Translated from Albany budget lingo into real-world terms, the state plans to raid $600 million in MTA dedicated taxes to prop up its own finances.  

Congress and Governor Cuomo Both Have a Role to Play
So where are the solutions? Everyone agrees that the federal government is the MTA’s best option. Congress provided the MTA with nearly $4 billion in CARES Act funds earlier this year, which was fully spent down this summer. And the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity program is going to give the MTA $2.9 billion more in liquidity to help it make up some of these gaps. But any borrowing needs to be paid back, and the MTA will start paying $143 million a year in interest on this loan, according to its November Financial Plan.

The MTA’s “worst case” $22.9 billion deficit also happens to be nearly the same size as the ‘deficit’ New York has with the federal government. The MTA is essential to boosting the region’s economy, and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s recent report shows that New York’s economic successes allowed it to send $23.7 billion more to Washington D.C. than it got back in federal aid in 2019. New York State ranked second worst only to New Jersey for what it got in return for its tax contributions. Forty-four other states got more back than they sent to the federal government; New Mexico, for example, got back nearly $12 billion more than it paid in taxes.

Now is the time for New York’s Congressional delegation to hold firm and ensure that the MTA is a necessary part of any emergency aid package. The latest aid proposal being discussed is yet again an anemic package that fails to fully support the MTA, which carries 40% of transit riders nationwide. The nation depends on New York to bolster federal tax revenue, and if the federal government lets the MTA fail, it only hurts itself.

At the same time, Governor Cuomo must once and for all pledge to stop raiding the MTA’s dedicated taxes to prop up the state’s budget shortfalls. The governor controls the MTA, and his own Board members have a fiduciary duty to the agency (including his Budget Director Rob Mujica), yet that is far from evident given that the State Division of the Budget is withholding millions from the MTA. It’s time they respect MTA dedicated funds – which were created by the Legislature to provide the MTA stable revenue in good times and bad – by giving them to the MTA at its time of greatest need.

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Policy Analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

 

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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MTA’s ‘Worst Case’ is Really a Massive $23 Billion Deficit Through 2024 Wed, 02 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The MTA’s $500 Million Cleaning Regimen is Shutting the Subways Overnight; Experts Say It’s Not Worth It https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9925-mta-cuomo-overnight-subway-shutdown-cleaning-not-worth-it https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9925-mta-cuomo-overnight-subway-shutdown-cleaning-not-worth-it Cuomo subway cleaning MTA

Gov. Cuomo cleans the subway (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics.
***

Every night since May 6, a small army of sanitation workers has mopped floors, wiped poles and turnstiles, and wielded electrostatic sprayers and ultraviolet lamps to disinfect New York City’s subway system.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects to spend around $500 million on sanitization in response to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, and a similar amount next year, even as the authority faces the worst financial crisis in its history. The MTA announced on Wednesday that it may be forced to implement sweeping service cuts, including a 40% cut to subway and bus service, in order to save $858 million in 2021.

To facilitate the cleaning, the subway shuts down every night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. in the first planned shutdown in its 116-year history. The shutdown imposes heavy costs on late-night workers and on homeless New Yorkers, especially as the nights get colder.

The MTA and Governor Andrew Cuomo's office, which ordered the shutdown, say the disinfection program is a necessary public health precaution during a pandemic. But as a growing body of scientific evidence has shown that surface transmission of COVID-19 is extremely rare, transit advocates and MTA Board members have raised questions as to whether the cleaning is scientifically justified—and have received few answers.

'It’s Overkill. It’s Unnecessary.'
“You have to disinfect everything that a hand could touch on a subway car,” Cuomo said when he announced the program in April. “Every rail, every pole, and any place that droplets could touch. And then you have to disinfect the stations, the handrails.”

In the early days of the virus there was some scientific disagreement, but in the past several months, a scientific consensus has emerged that COVID-19 is rarely spread through surfaces. “Spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads,” according to CDC guidance, “Infections occur mainly through exposure to respiratory droplets.”

“I don't really think that they have an appreciable effect on the transmission of Covid,” Dr. Dean Blumberg, an infectious disease expert at the University of California at Davis, told New York Focus, referring to the MTA’s disinfection efforts.

“I think it's overkill. It's unnecessary,” Dr. Emmanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said. “Normal routine hygiene and maintenance is more than adequate to control this virus on surfaces. You don't need to go to these extremes.”

“It's not his fault, he's not a scientist,” Goldman added, referring to Governor Cuomo. “What the MTA should probably do is speak to scientists—there are plenty of them around in New York.”

Asked whether the MTA is speaking with scientific experts to review the effectiveness of the program, an MTA spokesperson wrote in an email, “We certainly have reached out to experts, and we are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

But in subsequent emails and phone calls, the MTA declined to name any scientific expert or group it has consulted, other than the EPA on disinfectants. MTA spokespeople also declined to provide details on the cost of the program.

Governor Cuomo's did not respond to repeated inquiries, other than to refer New York Focus to the MTA press office.

“The subway system has never been cleaner or better disinfected in its entire 116-year history as a result of the overnight closure,” Ken Lovett, senior advisor to MTA Chair and CEO Pat Foye, said in a statement to New York Focus. “We make no apologies for doing everything we can to protect customer health and safety during this once-in-100-year public health crisis.” 

'Why was the Board not consulted?'
Journalists aren’t the only ones having difficulty finding information about the disinfection program. Transit advocates and even members of the MTA’s Board—who are nominated by the governor, with input from the mayor and certain county executives, confirmed by the State Senate, and are responsible for the authority’s governance—say they have also been left in the dark.

The governor announced the nightly closure and cleaning procedures at a press conference on April 30. The news came as a surprise to Andrew Albert, an MTA Board member and the chair of the New York Transit Riders Council.

“I sent the Chairman an email saying that I was blindsided by this. ‘When was the decision made and why was the Board not consulted?’” Albert recounted.

Board members were not notified in advance, Albert said, adding, “Well, maybe the ones that are friends of the Governor were.”

“This is the same story that we've been telling for the past several years,” said Eric McClure, the executive director of the transportation advocacy group StreetsPAC. “Which is that it's Cuomo’s MTA.”

Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, testified to the MTA Board in June to ask for data about the effectiveness of its cleaning initiatives and for metrics on when to restart nightly service. Since then, she said, she has followed up to press for information but has not received answers.

“What we don't know is: How long does it take to clean? How long does it take to safely remove the homeless? Is there a way to condense?” Daglian told New York Focus. “And what are the numbers of riders who really need the subways in those hours, who will not be able to get home?”

The MTA has said that 24-hour service will resume “when the pandemic is over.” Daglian and McClure have both pressed for more specifics, as have reporters at many news outlets. “They need to give us some metrics and or a deadline for when they plan to do that. It seems really open ended,” McClure said. “We’re concerned that there is not really a serious plan to return the subways to 24-hour service.”

'We will see people die this winter'
Two days before he announced the shutdown, Cuomo held up a Daily News photo of homeless New Yorkers sleeping on subways at a press conference and said, “That is disgusting, what is happening on those subway cars.”

Many transit and homeless advocates say that Cuomo’s primary motivation in shutting down the subways was to address a flurry of negative tabloid coverage of homeless New Yorkers “ruling the subway.

The shutdown has posed extreme difficulties for homeless New Yorkers who used to sleep on the subways, and who will face even greater challenges as the nights get colder.

“The subways provide a place where folks can at least stay warm overnight by resting their heads against the subway wall or sometimes lying on a bench. And it's a place to be, a place to sleep,” said Craig Hughes, a social worker at the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center. “We will see people die this winter because they are pushed into freezing temperatures.”

In the early weeks of the shutdown, NYPD and Homeless Services met homeless people at end of the line stations, but the program—started by Mayor de Blasio—only offered 281 homeless New Yorkers shelter by the end of May and lacked follow through, according to Hughes.

“People were just dumped onto the stairs of Bellevue hospital. They were put on buses with no heat while the temperature was below freezing.”

A street homeless outreach worker, whose employer is contracted by the city and asked not to be named, said that the shutdown would be especially difficult for her clients in a winter during which, because of the pandemic, “they don’t have hospital ERs or 24-hour McDonalds.”

Late-night workers are also facing challenges. “There are a lot of people whose shifts end at midnight and they need at least an hour and a half to two hours to get home. And they're not able to do that,” said Felicia Park-Rogers of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

And many more riders may face dramatic service cuts, some of which could be averted using money spent on cleaning. The “deep cleaning” regimen is projected to cost $500 million this year, though some of that money may be subject to reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In addition to the cleaning costs, the shutdown is costing the MTA money in lost ridership revenue and bus costs. “Trains are actually running anyway,” Albert said, referring to the empty trains the MTA continues to run throughout the night. “We have this very expensive additional bus system. So by running the trains, you might actually end up saving some money.”

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by Devin Wright of New York Focus
@NYSFocus
@GothamGazette

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for its newsletter here.

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The MTA’s $500 Million Cleaning Regimen is Shutting the Subways Overnight; Experts Say It’s Not Worth It Thu, 19 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The State Must Step In Now to Avoid a Mass Transit Apocalypse https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9922-new-york-state-must-step-in-avoid-mass-transit-apocalypse https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9922-new-york-state-must-step-in-avoid-mass-transit-apocalypse lead cuomo rides

Governor Cuomo on the subway (photo: governor's office)


Hope that Congress can enact a post-election stimulus package to aid the economy amid another explosion of coronavirus cases has narrowed. One major institution in New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), is now out of time to get help. It is therefore necessary for New York State to step up and rescue the MTA before it begins a series of wrenching cutbacks that could permanently harm the New York region. The agency is being overwhelmed by financial losses due to the pandemic and its impact on the economy.

MTA Chair Patrick Foye, describing the MTA’s desperation, said in a NY1 interview on October 28, that “Our urgent request…to the United States Senate, is for $12 billion, which will take us through 2020…and 2021. That money is desperately needed. If we don’t receive it, our hand may be forced in terms of draconian service reductions, up to 40% on subways and buses, up to 50% on commuter rails, on top of laying off…thousands of our colleagues, plus fare and toll increases above those that are budgeted. This is an apocalyptic scenario.”

He went on to say that the MTA Board would make a decision at its December Board meeting to proceed with the cutbacks in the first quarter of 2021 if Congress didn’t give the MTA the money. He expressed optimism nonetheless.

An October 2020 New York State Comptroller report on the MTA presented the below graph showing the staggering ridership losses for the subways and other parts of the massive transit agency.

jb image osc

The graph shows subway ridership plunging 90% at the start of the pandemic, recovering to an 80% loss as the economy partially reopened by mid-June, and trending up to a still devastating 70% ridership loss from the beginning to mid-September. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has been tracking MTA ridership reports and other city economic matters and the most recent ridership numbers show losses are still 63-70% below weekday daily numbers from the year prior. The suburban commuter rail systems are faring badly too.

New York State adopted its 2020-2021 budget in April 2020, just weeks after the declaration of the national and New York COVID-19 emergencies. The state budget anticipated the economic plunge and authorized New York to cut its budget. It also authorized New York to borrow up to $11 billion short-term to adjust to potential massive cash flow problems, some of which stemmed from Congress postponing the April 15 income tax filing deadline to July 15. New York’s large borrowing authorization also permitted conversion of short-term loans into longer repayment periods, including 30-year bonds.

To date, New York State has borrowed $4.5 billion. Current plans are to repay $1 billion by December 31, and the remaining $3.5 billion by March 31, 2021 the end of the current fiscal year, according to the mid-year forecast issued by the State Division of the Budget. New York State is in possession of this cash now.

Governor Cuomo can ask the State Legislature to quickly appropriate this $3.5 billion in cash to the MTA. The state can convert the earlier short-term borrowing into 30-year bonds in the next several months. The state may be proceeding now to repay the other $1 billion and it would not be wise to interfere with any processes underway in relation to that repayment. 

The State Comptroller’s Annual MTA Financial Report said the agency faces the greatest financial crisis in its history. The table below from that report shows that in 2020 the MTA has lost nearly $5 billion in fare and toll revenue, and nearly $2 billion in revenue from dedicated taxes and subsidies. Those $7 billion in losses were partially offset by the major federal stimulus package enacted in March, the CARES Act, which gave the MTA $4 billion. The MTA had a modest (a mere $412 million) deficit for 2020 before covid, but its final deficit for 2020 was projected in July to be $3.4 billion.

New York State appropriating $3.5 billion to the MTA now will stem this hemorrhaging for the moment and push the MTA’s crisis into later in 2021, though the MTA will need federal help sooner or later. State action now could help get the MTA to the Biden administration without catastrophe.

jb img1 cares

Even if the MTA gets the financial relief it needs for 2020, from New York State or the federal government, the table shows it faces a $6.2 billion deficit in 2021. If the economy fails to improve as much as anticipated, or if the huge part of New York City’s employment base now working home continues to do so, the MTA’s revenue losses would be higher and its deficits larger as a result. The MTA may be facing a major long-term restructuring.

The state budget allowed the MTA itself to borrow money, but it has said it simply cannot afford to do so. In fact, to survive into 2021 it must hoard cash. Among the options are deferring pension contributions, deferring Social Security payroll taxes, and halting cash contributions to the capital program. These options will save $3 billion in 2020-2021. The MTA can continue a hiring freeze and work with the labor unions on possible savings.

The 2020-2024 MTA capital program has been temporarily suspended. The centerpiece of revenue for that program, congestion pricing, was not approved by the Trump administration and awaits action from the Biden administration. It will be at least several years before most of this capital program can be started. The MTA will need to focus on finishing the 2015-19 capital plan with the remaining available sources of funds.

Severe health and economic problems other than the MTA confront New Yorkers. If the state is going to rescue the MTA, it could also borrow either short-term or long-term to avoid implementing its planned cutbacks to public services and aid to localities.

The State Division of the Budget’s plan to implement the adopted 2020-2021 budget provided for $8 billion in spending reductions in local assistance, in schools, health care, transportation, and emergency services. In its recently-released mid-year budget update, the Division of Budget reported that by the end of September it had withheld $2.4 billion in local aid, as it awaited the elusive new stimulus package that Congress and the President have failed to enact.

The Department of Budget’s April 25 Financial Plan indicated it would backload 40% of the state’s local assistance cutbacks to the final quarter of the state fiscal year, meaning from January through March 2021. That would represent a $3.2 billion cut to schools, hospitals, and other vital public services. If the state used $3.5 billion in borrowing authority to help the MTA, it could use part of the remaining borrowing authority to halt the cutbacks planned for the final quarter of the 2020-2021 fiscal year. This would mean the state would not be compounding the financial problems of local governments, including New York City, for now.

Sooner or later, Congress will pass another stimulus package that will include more aid for the unemployed, for state and local governments, and for transit agencies. It may be the President Biden stimulus package. But the MTA and New York’s local governments will be reeling by then if New York State does not act now. The state can use some of the funds from Congress to repay loans and cover deficits.

While such action is necessary, it will also remain true that the state, the city, the MTA, and the rest of New York’s local governments will likely confront the reality of continued budget deficits in 2021-2022, and beyond, and the necessity of a full-on restructuring of spending, borrowing, and taxing for years to come. But that likelihood does not negate the importance of state action now.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The State Must Step In Now to Avoid a Mass Transit Apocalypse Wed, 18 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
To Tackle Covid and Climate Change, Invest in a Five-Borough MTA https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9785-tackle-covid-and-climate-invest-five-borough-mta-subways-buses https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9785-tackle-covid-and-climate-invest-five-borough-mta-subways-buses mta disinfected covid

Governor Cuomo talks subways (photo: governor's office)


A city on the precipice of financial collapse. A federal government unwilling to provide help. Thousands of jobs and vital programs on the line. This was the situation in New York City in 1975, but this description is not far off from the picture in 2020.

Though the causes of these two crises were different, the effect will most likely be the same: massive budget cuts, especially to new projects. During the 1970s, the MTA was implementing plans to expand the subway system, including building the Second Avenue Subway, but scrapped them due to budget constraints. Fifty years later, the MTA is once again on the verge of collapse. But with the climate and economic crises escalating by the day, it’s imperative that politicians don’t make the same mistake this time.

As we’ve learned from previous downturns, cutting spending is counterproductive, as it only deepens recessions, leading to more job loss and thus more revenue loss. The MTA employs about 70,000 workers directly, and supports many more contracting jobs. According to the American Public Transportation Association, every dollar invested into transit yields about five dollars back.

It’s only fair that the wealthiest New Yorkers, the only people to actually experience financial gains during the pandemic, fund these investments upfront. Public transit is the lifeblood of this city’s economy, and those who benefit most from that economy ought to contribute to its well-being. Now is the time to tax the rich and expand transit service, not implement austerity on the MTA.

Mass transit is also vital to a Green New Deal. According to the Department of Transportation, public transportation releases anywhere from 33% to 76% less pollution per mile travelled than cars, with rail generating the most reductions. Transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the highest of any sector of the economy. Clearly a Green New Deal must not only tackle electricity generation and buildings, but also investing in transit.

But equally important to how much we invest in public transportation is where we invest that money. While it’s easy to get about in Manhattan by walking and taking the subway, the same is not true of the other boroughs. Manhattan has 9.2 subway stations for every 100,000 people, compared to 6.5 in Brooklyn and 3.5 in Queens. In terms of area, Manhattan has 64 subway stations per ten square miles, compared to 23.9 in Brooklyn, 16.7 in the Bronx, and a meagre 7.4 in Queens. Consequently, in the city renowned for its public-transit culture, a staggering 43% of ‘outer-borough’ residents live over a quarter mile from the subway.

As a Queens student who (in the pre-remote days) took three buses to get to my high school in the same borough, I know firsthand that outer-borough residents desperately need more and better transit options.

This disparity is only getting worse. From 2009 to 2017, the rate of private-sector job growth in the outer boroughs was over 30% higherr than in Manhattan. A Manhattan-centric subway system might’ve made sense in the twentieth century, but today the city’s economy is shifting. Expanding subway lines in Manhattan should take a backseat to addressing the dearth of public transit options in the other boroughs.

Adequately funded public transportation is also a justice issue. Median pay for workers in the outer boroughs is about half of what it is in Manhattan, meaning workers in outer boroughs especially need access to affordable public transit. The outer boroughs are also home to the largest immigrant populations in the city, with Queens and Brooklyn being home to about a million immigrants each. Additionally, the outer boroughs are home to many of the city’s Black residents, especially the Bronx with a 43.6% Black population and Brooklyn at 33.8%. New Yorkers of color rely on public transit at higher rates than the city average, especially Black and Hispanic New Yorkers. Thus, a reallocation of transit investment towards these boroughs not only makes economic sense, but promotes social and racial equity.

There are a number of possible ways to increase transit options in the outer boroughs. One idea, put forward by the Regional Plan Association, is to convert a stretch of underused freight track into a “Triboro” line connecting Co-op City in the Bronx to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, with a possible extension across the Narrows to connect it to Staten Island. This plan, which is currently under consideration by the MTA, would facilitate transfers to major subway and LIRR stations and largely eliminate the need to take the subway through Manhattan to get around in the other boroughs. A Brooklyn College student who lives in Jackson Heights, for example, would save over an hour a day on their commute.

Another option is to reduce the price of commuter rail within the city. The MTA’s existing Atlantic Ticket and City Ticket programs offer reduced fares (between $4 and $5 dollars) for certain LIRR and MetroNorth trips. Some, including several City Council members and Comptroller Scott Stringer, propose going even further, advocating for a so-called “Freedom Ticket” that would reduce the cost of all commuter-rail trips within city limits to the standard $2.75 fare. A 2018 report by Comptroller Stringer’s office found that 18 of the 38 LIRR stations in the city are in neighborhoods without subway access, meaning that this investment would greatly benefit nearby residents. This proposed fare parity, combined with planned commuter-rail expansions such as the Penn Station Access line in the eastern Bronx, would go a long way to improving mobility in the outer boroughs.

There are many more strategies to increase outer-borough public transit, and we shouldn’t be afraid to get creative. From converting Moses-era highways into light rail to turning boulevards or abandoned rights-of-way into exclusive busways – the possibilities are almost endless if we have the vision. And we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just repurposing existing rights-of-way; while building new infrastructure (e.g., tunnels, elevated lines) is harder, creating new and sustainable structures and providing an economic boost in the process – and increasing the subway system’s resilience against the inevitable increase in climate-driven natural disasters – would truly embody the spirit of the Green New Deal.

But what we absolutely should not do is repeat the mistakes of the 1970s and scale down spending on transit. Now is the perfect time for revitalizing the MTA with an economically and racially just Green New Deal, and to tax the rich to fund it.

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Anil Amir Singh is a high-school student in Queens and an activist with Sunrise NYC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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To Tackle Covid and Climate Change, Invest in a Five-Borough MTA Tue, 29 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Without Federal Aid, MTA Bloodbath Will Be Even Worse Than Its ‘Doomsday’ Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9763-federal-aid-mta-budget-bloodbath-worse-doomsday-subways-buses https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9763-federal-aid-mta-budget-bloodbath-worse-doomsday-subways-buses pat foye distr

Subway ridership (photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


We agree with the MTA that its fate hinges on the federal government, which must provide the MTA at least $10 billion in federal emergency funds through the end of 2021 to prevent the end of the New York City region’s mass transit system as we know it. 

The MTA’s options without federal aid from its August “doomsday” plan are all terrible. Worse, they are far from exaggerations and are a glimpse into a possible, very grim future. The parade of horribles range from service cuts and fare hikes to chopping major capital investments to wage freezes. Yet all the unthinkable options in the plan together won’t make up the entirety of the agency’s deficits. This means that all of the MTA’s doomsday scenarios together aren’t a complete picture of the possible devastation that would occur to our transit system without federal aid. 

If you take all the “doomsday” cuts together, they add up to nearly $15 billion through 2024. In the short-term, however, the MTA would still be short by more than $2 billion through 2021. Looking further into the future, with these cuts and reductions sustained for four painful years, the MTA is still short by more than $1 billion through 2024, given total COVID-related losses of more than $16 billion.

  2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 Total, 2020-2024
 
MTA Deficit from August “Doomsday” Proposal  -$3,198  -$5,844  -$3,485  -$1,776  -$1,959  -$16,262
 
Reinvent Albany Sum of MTA Doomsday Proposals  $2,055  $4,664  $2,347  $2,884  $2,968  $14,919
 
Amount of Deficit Remaining after Using all Doomsday Plan Options  -$1,143  -$1,180  -$1,138  $1,108  $1,009  -$1,343

 

The MTA was clear in its August presentation that these are potential cuts and options, but not yet final proposals. Some board members noted that the plan didn’t make up the entirety of the deficit, and a final, balanced budget will need to be adopted by the end of 2020. Without federal funding, the MTA could be forced to turn these possibilities into real, ruinous cuts. In doing our own analysis of the plan, we are seeking to read between the lines of the MTA’s doomsday options and understand exactly what is at stake for riders. Our graph below shows all the MTA’s proposals together.

 Not included in the doomsday proposal is any deficit financing in the form of borrowing from the public markets or private banks for operating expenses. The MTA is, however, proposing deferring as many expenses as possible, such as the payroll taxes that would have been due in 2020 as authorized by the federal CARES Act. MTA CFO Bob Foran called the ability to delay this payment “basically an interest-free loan” from the federal government. The MTA is also seeking to defer payments to its employee pension accounts. Paying back these deferrals in 2022-2024 results in the negative values seen in the chart above. 

The MTA has already tapped $450 million in short-term bonds from the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF), which gave it a better rate than the public market. However, this is less than a nickel on the dollar of what it needs to bridge its deficit through 2021. Borrowing substantially more sums of money to make up the current deficit is a risky endeavor, however. The MTA already has huge debt loads reaching nearly 26% of its expected revenues next year (see below), and taking on more at a time when continual downgrades makes borrowing even more expensive risks crippling the MTA’s future.

Moody’s, in its latest downgrade, specifically noted the possibility of the MTA using deficit financing in its rationale for its downgrade, stating, “While MTA can access deficit financing to alleviate its near-term revenue losses, this solution would be one-time in nature and result in higher debt leverage. Reduced debt capacity would disrupt the timing and implementation of the authority's $55 billion capital program and potentially weaken asset condition and service quality.”

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The Fed could substantially improve the MLF with longer-term and lower- or zero-interest loans. This is one way that a limited amount of borrowing wouldn’t put the MTA in an even worse financial situation. Only the federal government has the power to set this type of monetary policy and “print” billions in emergency aid.

Transit Service Cuts and Fare Hikes - $6 Billion through 2024
Possible doomsday service cuts include a 40% reduction on the subways and buses and 50% reduction on the commuter railroads. Yet what would be the most dramatic impact to MTA riders makes a surprisingly small dent on the MTA’s deficit: 40% subway and bus service cuts only amount to $880 million in annual “savings,” 50% commuter railroad service cuts only reduces expenses $160 million a year, and Access-A-Ride cuts would be $65 million a year, together only reducing the deficit by $1.1 billion in 2021. While these cuts together are the largest component of the doomsday plan, the MTA is expected to lose $6 billion in 2021 alone, so these devastating potential service cuts to mass transit are only a small part of the reductions that would need to be made.

The impact of service cuts cannot be minimized, however. Riders Alliance presented their own doomsday map in July, showing visually on the subway map what taking away half of subway service could look like and saying that cuts would be “a crime against the city and its millions of residents, and a deep, self-inflicted wound to the national economy.” These cuts would have real, negative impacts on riders’ commutes, with subway headways (the time between trains arriving) increasing by 8 minutes, and bus headways by 15 minutes. This means longer commutes, and more likelihood of missing job interviews and child-care pickups, and a much slower, worse economic recovery for the region. 

While no specific lines were identified for reductions on the subways and buses, the MTA identified two possible commuter rail cuts. Eliminating West of Hudson service on Metro North Railroad would reduce expenses by $25 million annually, and save the MTA $1.2 billion in planned capital costs. Long Island Railroad could also delay even further the start of East Side Access (ESA) service, which would reduce expenses by $250 million. East Side Access was anticipated to start in 2022 after decades of work on the troubled project. Pre-COVID, ESA’s operating costs were expected to be more than what riders would pay in fares for the service, making this choice logical in the short-term, but a head-scratcher in terms of the overall cost/benefit of the project. The State Comptroller said ESA operating costs will reach $205 million in 2023, but raise only $14 million in fare revenue.

The pain of these transit cuts could be exacerbated by a bigger fare hike than already planned. The MTA typically budgets for fare hikes every two years at 4% each, and the MTA’s August doomsday options float an additional 1% hike, meaning there could be fare hikes of 5% each in 2021 and 2023. To increase fares at a time when nearly 20% of NYC residents are unemployed would be another severe blow to the region’s recovery.

Fare hikes would mean a monthly Metrocard could increase to $140 a month in 2023 from $127 today, or a single-ride would rise to $3 from $2.75. Typically the MTA has sought to keep single-ride prices low, however, while increasing monthly and weekly card costs to limit the hardship for low-income individuals who tend to buy single rides. These fare increases would generate about $300 million extra through 2024. This means that riders would essentially be paying even more for much less. And with a system both less reliable and more expensive, concerns about a “death spiral” with more people choosing not to ride the system are real, and these “savings” projections may not fully factor in a large drop in ridership.

Bridge & Tunnels Toll Increases and Workforce Cuts - $2.7B
Additional workforce reductions and toll hikes are also possible for Bridges & Tunnels (B&T), which is a revenue generator for the MTA and will remain so with traffic on the bridges and tunnels down about 12% in September from 2019 as of the writing of this piece. Tolls of an additional $1 beyond planned 4% increases in 2021 and again in 2023 would bring in considerably more than the possible fare hikes for trains and buses at nearly $2 billion through 2024. Additional funds could be raised from eliminating resident discounts ($65 million annual) and implementing peak pricing ($100 million annual).

While B&T is the “cash cow” for the MTA, raising billions to subsidize mass transit service and increased tolls will help to offset the deficit, it is important to remember that the MTA doesn’t control all bridges into Manhattan. It therefore cannot effect the same type of outcome on gridlock reduction and air control improvement as congestion pricing would. “Toll shopping” is a continual problem for communities neighboring free bridges, and the current toll structures of bridges and tunnels across the region is not rational. Federal approval of congestion pricing remains essential. However, the MTA must consider robust toll increases as part of its deficit reduction plan, as it is one of the few revenue sources it controls on its own.

There is no real “service” equivalent resulting from B&T workforce reductions as would occur for mass transit. The 300-person workforce reduction does have consequences, like increased lane closures, delays in responses to non-critical incidents, less customer-facing maintenance such as painting and landscaping, and less frequent customer messages. (It is too late, however, to pull back on the $30 million in colorful tiles for B&T tunnels as ordered by Gov. Cuomo.) But it’s not like the MTA’s bridges and tunnels would be fully closed down to drivers 40-50% more like the service cuts that would be inflicted on mass transit riders, or the Whitestone Bridge would suddenly be closed to all traffic like the potential closure of West of Hudson Service. 

Therefore the “pain” felt by drivers of an additional $1 toll is largely at the pocketbook rather than the huge opportunity cost of waiting for unreliable and unaffordable mass transit service. (The New York City Comptroller quantified the economic cost of subway delays in 2017 at the recent height of subway meltdowns as $389 million annually, and it is reasonable to see a 40% service reduction having an even worse economic impact.)

Capital Plan Delays/Reduction - $1.5B through 2024
The MTA’s plans also include pausing or reducing the agency’s capital program, which for 2015-2019 is still unfinished, and for 2020-2024 had barely begun. While we have questioned the MTA’s ability to finish its capital plans on time, capital work is essential to keep the system running and there is more than enough decaying infrastructure to fix. The 2020-2024 plan included buying new trains and buses, as well as modern signals to keep trains on schedule, and the MTA’s August doomsday plan indicated that nearly all big-ticket items from the plan are at risk of being “paused”:

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A “pause” on the capital plan is only one possible outcome, however, given that the capital funds may be used for operating costs. The Governor and State Legislature in April gave the MTA the ability to use “lockboxed” 2020-2024 capital funds for operating expenses rather than bonding them out for capital projects after sign-off from the MTA Board and the Director of the Division of the Budget (Robert Mujica, who also sits on the MTA Board). Under the current legislation, this would be allowed through 2021, and could be paid back if enough federal funds come through to both plug the operating budget gaps AND pay back money “borrowed” from the capital plan. 

Without congestion pricing, the amount of lockbox funds available is less than originally anticipated at just under $1 billion through 2024 according to the MTA’s August document. The MTA also floated spending $674 million in “pay as you go” capital funds on operations. Using capital funds for operating may be a prudent short-term solution, but eventually, the system will simply fall apart if it is not maintained. 

The doomsday plan lists so many major projects that could be delayed or cut that it basically says nothing. The process for changing the plan will be rife with politics (much like the adoption of the capital plan itself) and advocates for each of these projects are likely to clash over which are crucial enough to remain in the capital plan. Additionally, changes to the plan will require the sign-off of the Capital Program Review Board, which has appointees from the Governor, state legislative leaders, and New York City Mayor. While the CPRB failed to be formed in December 2019, essentially approving the 2020-2024 plan “by default,” the stakes are even higher now with the possibility of a scaled-back plan, and it seems more likely that the CPRB appointers might want to exercise their votes this time around.

With a reduced capital plan, the MTA’s focus should be on keeping the trains and buses running, not embarking on costly expansion projects whose return on investment is questionable - take East Side Access for example, whose service is on the chopping block because the $11 billion project is going to cost more to run that it will bring in fare revenue, as noted previously. 

Workforce and Non-Service Impacts - $4.3 Billion
Given the workforce reductions that could happen with the massive service cuts -- 7,200 for New York City Transit alone -- the MTA has also listed possible reductions to headquarters’ costs like consulting contracts, something that front-line workers and unions have frequently called for. Cutting consulting contracts would save $310 million through 2024 (though consultants often do essential work on IT systems, for example, that would need to be taken up by MTA staff instead), and the MTA has floated other “non-personnel” reductions of $875 million through 2024. 

The MTA also listed the possibility of either postponed wage freezes (net of zero, but $536 million in deferred costs through 2022) or permanent ones ($1.1 billion in cuts through 2024). Additional workforce reductions of 1,000 workers would cut costs by $125 million annually. 

Overtime cost reduction has been a continual focus of the MTA and more is proposed in the plan at $975 million through 2024. However, with a gutted workforce and a wage freeze ($1.1 billion through 2024), overtime cannot be eliminated entirely and it will be difficult to cut back unless the current workforce is aligned perfectly with the MTA’s needs. With fewer workers available, the goal might be to reduce unplanned overtime, to ensure that the amount budgeted is correct.

Lastly, the MTA is floating deferring a number of employee-related costs. These include payroll taxes originally due in 2020 ($473 million, to be paid back in 2021 and 2022), and pension plan deferrals ($1.8B billion to be paid back 2022-2024). The MTA has also floated using other post-employee benefits (OPEB) trust funds in 2022, freeing up $336 million. However, MTA Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran noted at the August MTA Board presentation that “this is money that was set aside to be invested at a higher return to provide for future health care costs.”

The proceeds from this are unknown in terms of the higher costs MTA would pay without this investment. It is considered best practice to have OPEB trusts, as they will lower costs in the long-term. For all of these items, they are simply helpful for cash flow in the short-term, as the MTA seeks to keep the system running in the absence of federal aid. But eventually these costs will need to be paid back, and the longer the MTA waits for federal funds, the more it will have to resort to measures that risk its ability to provide the type of service that New York City needs for its economic recovery.

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Rachael Fauss is senior research analyst for Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

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Without Federal Aid, MTA Bloodbath Will Be Even Worse Than Its ‘Doomsday’ Plan Sun, 20 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
To Honor Essential Workers, Congress Must Save Public Transit https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9627-honor-essential-workers-congress-must-save-public-transit-new-york-city-subway-mta https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9627-honor-essential-workers-congress-must-save-public-transit-new-york-city-subway-mta honor essential

Nurses and other essential workers need public transit (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


I am a lifelong New Yorker and public transit rider. In March, when so many of my friends, family, and neighbors stopped commuting, I kept traveling to work. I depend on a bus and two subways to get from my Queens home to the East Side of Manhattan hospital where I’m a pharmacist. 

Like most people, I had never heard of “essential workers” before COVID-19. Everyone I knew got up and went to work regardless of what job they had. And thankfully, many I know are still employed, though working from home. I found out that being an essential worker, besides fighting COVID directly, meant still having to commute while others sheltered at home.

As a commuter during COVID, I have depended on transit more than ever. Without a car, the bus and subways were my lifeline. Without public transit, I could not reach nor serve my patients. More this year than ever, I need reliable service. Especially when service was reduced for months, any delay became magnified and more frustrating than before. 

I am so grateful for the transit workers who showed up so that I could show up too. It has been heartrending to hear of the losses among bus drivers, train operators and conductors. I don’t always think of myself as a hero just because I work in a hospital during a pandemic. But if I am one, the people getting me there every day despite everything are certainly heroes as well.

Now, as I watch terrified while COVID cases rise around the country, I also fear for my commute here in New York. I know firsthand how many fewer people have been commuting through the pandemic. I understand how much less money the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has from fares, and from tolls and taxes as well.

In March, New York’s Congressional leaders brought home $3.9 billion to keep trains and buses running through the worst of the pandemic in New York. But that money is nearly gone. The MTA is back to normal service and doing a lot more cleaning, still with relatively little money coming in. To avoid huge cuts next month, the agency needs another $3.9 billion.

In May, New York’s members in the House of Representatives put $3.9 billion for the MTA in the House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t taken up the bill. With COVID worsening nationwide, it now looks like another aid bill will start moving through the Senate soon. Congress must again take care of the MTA and people like me who depend on it.

Without more aid, the MTA will soon be short half the money it needs on a monthly basis. With a $17 billion annual budget, it could soon face a gap of $650 million each month. That’s a lot of trains and buses that would have to stop running.

To put it into perspective, the MTA’s last major cuts came in 2010 to save $400 million over one year. Today’s cuts could be 20 times larger than that. Last time, the MTA cut the V and W trains and cut or reduced service on 110 bus lines. In a report from 2011, they found that 15% of riders were inconvenienced by the cuts. A decade later, bus ridership had dropped 25%.

Cuts 20 times larger than those of 2010 could mean entire subway trunk lines shut down. The Riders Alliance recently produced a subway map with half the lines removed. Even if it’s not quite that bad, we could be waiting 20 to 30 minutes for trains during much of the day. Crowding would be very dangerous. Fares could rise by several dollars even as service is far worse. 

Life as we know it in New York would be devastated if Congress does not rescue the MTA. We have already known so much unprecedented hardship this year. For essential workers like me, it is unimaginable what a cruel blow to the infrastructure we depend on would mean after what we’ve already experienced on the frontlines of COVID. It also makes me worry about some of our patients, who rely on public transportation to get to their medical care. The MTA cut would be another barrier for them to overcome to stay healthy.

Our influential leaders in Congress must stand up for us. We need our New York leaders in the House and the Senate to speak up now more than ever. They must tell their colleagues how letting New York’s transit system collapse would destroy our recovery and bring the nation down with us. Leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Hakeem Jeffries -- and the entire New York delegation -- must use the great power they’ve built in Washington to save the commutes of millions back home in New York City.

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Suk-Yee Wong is a pharmacist who lives in Queens and works in Manhattan.

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To Honor Essential Workers, Congress Must Save Public Transit Sun, 26 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Keep Subways Closed Overnight to Expedite System Modernization https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9421-new-york-mta-keep-subways-closed-overnight-expedite-system-modernization https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9421-new-york-mta-keep-subways-closed-overnight-expedite-system-modernization gov tours cars

Governor Cuomo discusses subways during coronavirus (photo: governor's office)


The MTA’s recent institution of overnight closure of the subways has attracted a tremendous amount of attention and criticism from advocates for homeless people and many transit advocates. MTA Chair Pat Foye has sought to reassure critics by emphasizing that it is a temporary measure that will end when the pandemic emergency is over. The closure seems to be an attempt to assure transit workers that the MTA is taking their safety seriously and the public that the trains are safe and will not become de facto homeless shelters. But it can be turned into a long-long term initiative with important benefits.

Instead of bemoaning the loss of a symbol of the ‘city that never sleeps,’ public transit supporters should be welcoming the closure policy and giving serious thought and discussion to whether to make it permanent, at least in some form.

The subway system urgently needs more regular maintenance and capital improvements, especially the installation of computer based train control (CBTC). CBTC will allow trains to safely run more closely together, enabling more frequent service and hence, less crowding. The L and the 7 lines are the only ones now equipped with CBTC, while work on the E, F, M, and R lines is in progress. Faster installation would require that lines go out of service so the tunnels can be accessed for longer windows of time than is possible during 24/7 service. That is one of the reasons MTA estimates for system-wide completion of CBTC have run into multiple decades.

That is crazy. Despite being the biggest transit system in North America, we still rely primarily on WWII-era fixed-block signals, which are safe but limit the system's capacity on the majority of its lines.

Of course, the lack of subway service at any time of day is a serious problem for those who depend on it to get to work, school, and other important activities. But the problem is less acute now. In pre-pandemic times, of the more than 5 million subway riders each weekday, only 150,000 daily riders (less than 2%), used the trains between midnight and 5 a.m.

The MTA has expanded bus service for the approximately 11,000 essential workers who need public transportation overnight during the pandemic. This effort can be ramped up and improved when the city reopens and more riders return. Indeed, it is expected that it will be quite a while until the prior levels of ridership return so there will be time for the level of alternative overnight bus service to fully ramp up.

The Regional Plan Association, one of the leading supporters of the metropolitan area’s public transit systems, argued for overnight subway closure in its Fourth Regional Plan, released in 2017:

Only a handful of cities aside from New York run 24/7 service and in most of these cities it’s not the entire system, just one or two lines. If New York City decides to use overnight closures to accelerate modernization efforts they would be taking advantage of the fact that only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the system between 12:30 am and 5 am. However, the MTA must provide robust alternative service for these riders, many of whom depend on subways to get to and from work and other late night activities. For these riders, the MTA should offer frequent high-speed bus service. This may even provide superior service for most riders given that late night service subway service is already infrequent and unreliable, and that buses could run frequently on largely uncongested streets overnight.

Closures to improve construction productivity were recommended, albeit in a less emphatic way, in the report of Governor Cuomo’s Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup, released at the end of 2018. Andy Byford’s Fast Forward Plan provided for some temporary weekend and line segment closures to install CBCT and do high-priority maintenance. That plan, however, estimated it would take 10 years to install fully computerized signal control on all lines.

As pandemic restrictions ease, there is a real concern that many will shy away from public transportation and resort to driving cars to get into and around New York City. To attract riders back, subway cars and stations need to be clean, with public health measures in place to make riders feel safe. This is no small task, to be sure. But it will also encourage riders to return if they know that service has improved, that there are more trains and hence, less overcrowding, that trains do not go out of service because of “signal problems” or for other maintenance reasons. 

Keeping the system closed for four hours overnight, even if for only a few lines at a time, while CBTC and other capital and repair projects are completed will dramatically improve service without impacting the vast majority of riders, and will have relatively little impact on fare revenue.

In response to a question after his talk before the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) two weeks ago, Chair Foye acknowledged that the temporary overnight closures present an opportunity to make more rapid progress on repairs and system enhancements. He and the governor should go further and open a serious conversation about the relative costs and benefits of reverting to all night service versus keeping the system closed in those overnight hours and/or closing certain lines to get all the needed work done. There are probably operating cost savings that could be achieved through long-term closures as well as service benefits. 

This could be one of the few chances to make lemons out of lemonade from a terrible catastrophe; we just need to abandon the 24/7 orthodoxy and think seriously about how to dramatically and quickly improve subway service. New Yorkers can still be part of a thriving 24-hour city while the subway is being cleaned, modernized, and enhanced for a few hours each night.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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Keep Subways Closed Overnight to Expedite System Modernization Mon, 25 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Governor Cuomo Owes Subway Riders and Homeless New Yorkers A Housing Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9384-governor-cuomo-subway-riders-homeless-new-yorkers-housing-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9384-governor-cuomo-subway-riders-homeless-new-yorkers-housing-plan flushing amid pandemic

Governor Cuomo disinfects a subway car (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


The subway is New York’s circulatory system. If it doesn’t recover, New York won’t. But reopening the subway and the city means more than running more trains: It also means helping homeless New Yorkers who today have nowhere else safe to go.  

That is because, as Governor Cuomo demonstrated, the city’s transit crisis is too entwined with its housing crisis for the MTA alone to bring the subway back. In response to the rising number of New Yorkers with no choice but to seek shelter underground, the governor took the most dramatic step he’s taken since putting the state on pause: closing the subway system between 1 and 5 a.m. each night.

The end of 24-hour-a-day subway service made international headlines. In a cruel twist of irony, New York may no longer be the city that never sleeps and at the same time has one less place for unhoused people here to bed down. But closing the subway will not prevent people from sleeping in the transit system, so long as no other safe options are available. To date, the governor and Mayor de Blasio have refused to offer hotel rooms for homeless individuals on the streets or subways who need safe spaces to socially distance and take care of their basic human needs. Although the Mayor has touted that 1,000 people are being moved from congregate shelters to hotel rooms each week, thousands of homeless New Yorkers still face a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in congregate shelters -- and those on the streets and subways are not offered these hotel placements directly. 

For several decades, as rents have risen, wages have not kept pace. In the past 15 years, New York City has lost more than a million low-rent units, and housing construction for extremely low-income and homeless households has not kept pace with that loss. That inequitable mismatch has increased the number of people who can’t afford a place to live, whether or not they work. Moreover, the shocking economic and health effects of the coronavirus pandemic have forced newly homeless people onto our streets and into the subways.

While New York City maintains a legal right to shelter, the congregate nature of many shelters is simply not safe, as evidenced by the spread of COVID-19 throughout approximately 171 shelters so far. Homeless New Yorkers on the subways know this and are consciously and reasonably refusing to enter shelters and risk their health.

At the same time, New York City needs 24-hour subway service. A significant number of riders -- many of them essential workers -- depend on the subway for travel between 1 and 5 a.m. and have no other option. Essential workers in health care, food service, building services, and more ride transit overnight while the rest of us sleep. Overnight subway service is essential to restore our 24-hour economy as soon as is safely possible. A full recovery is unimaginable without it.

Meanwhile, daytime service, which moved several million people daily for more than a century until March, will falter if crowding is unmanageable as New York reopens. As more New Yorkers return to work, the ability to maintain social distance on the commute is key. Governor Cuomo must ensure subway riders have more space than before. But to reliably limit crowding and keep both homeless and housed New Yorkers safe, he will also need to safely house people who have had to resort to sheltering inside subway cars.

The answer to homelessness in our transit system is not to drive people off the subway and further into the shadows, further from the help they so desperately need. The answer is to offer them safe temporary shelter and permanent housing. Right now, the city and state are deploying NYPD, MTA Police, and outreach workers to clear trains at night and offer “services.” These services are in the vast majority of cases a transport to an unsafe congregate shelter. Many individuals on the trains are aware of the risks of COVID-19 in shelters and take their chances on the streets instead.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Stephen Levin recently proposed opening the city’s more than 100,000 empty hotel rooms to homeless people. This sensible option can provide the safe, private accommodations everyone needs to ride out the pandemic. With no indication when tourism will return, allowing homeless individuals on the streets and in the transit system to immediately access hotels is a creative, humane, and efficient way to match surplus with need. It is the right thing to do.

Similarly, state legislators led by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi and Senator Liz Krueger have long advocated for state-funded housing vouchers to move people off streets, out of shelters and other public spaces, and into homes of their own. The Home Stability Support program and more permanent supportive housing would put state resources behind ending one of the harshest manifestations of life in the most unequal state in the nation.

In the coming weeks, these worthy proposals should form the basis of a housing plan fit for the subway that will keep riders safe. To reopen New York to everyone, around the clock, Governor Cuomo must seize the moment to meet New Yorkers’ housing needs.

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Danny Pearlstein is Policy Director at the Riders Alliance. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless. On Twitter @dannypearlstein & @RidersAlliance & @giselle_ashley & @nyhomeless.

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Governor Cuomo Owes Subway Riders and Homeless New Yorkers A Housing Plan Tue, 12 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Shut Down the Subway – and Fix It https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9254-shut-down-new-york-city-subway-and-fix-it-cuomo-coronavirus https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9254-shut-down-new-york-city-subway-and-fix-it-cuomo-coronavirus cuomo train tunnel MTA subway shutdown

Gov. Cuomo should close the subways, the author writes (photo: Governor's Office)


New York City is the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the United States. State and city authorities are pleading with residents to stay home, shelter in place, and maintain distance from fellow New Yorkers to slow the wave of cases crashing into the city’s healthcare facilities.

Yet, public transportation was running on the standard weekday schedule as of Monday morning. With subway ridership down ridership down 87%, the response on Tuesday was to cut trains by a quarter.

Such quarter-measures will not serve the city well. A full closure of the subway is needed, along with steps to dedicate buses and other transportation services to the essential workers who are saving lives and keeping the city running. As drastic and disruptive as shutting down the subway sounds, doing so can slow the spread of the virus. Apart from the exigency of the public health crisis, the unprecedented fall in ridership also offers an opportunity to undertake repairs and fixes that would be disruptive in normal times -- and help set the stage for the system’s recovery.

There is an irreconcilable tension between running public transport essentially as normal while authorities order folks to stay at home. Public transportation accounts for most trips within the city, and the virus travels alongside passengers in the confined spaces of trains and buses. Public transit was suspended on the first day of the lockdown in Wuhan, China in order to slow the circulation of people and the virus they may carry, and Chinese public health officials have urged cities to suspend service in other affected countries. MTA workers -- not to mention CEO Patrick Foye -- are falling ill themselves and the decision to run fewer trains has increased crowding, and thus transmission risks.

The MTA needs to immediately cease providing fully “public” public transportation. Addressing this crisis requires taking seriously the real economic, social, and health costs of continuing to provide service, and beginning to think about how the system can recover after the crisis.

The MTA should shut down all subway lines and use the time for several weeks’ worth of dedicated repairs, accomplishing fixes that would in normal times have to be stretched over months or years. Typically, major disruptions to train operations for necessary repairs are impossible or at least extremely difficult due to rider pushback, even when closures allow for faster and cheaper progress.

The subway is the circulatory system of New York City. In drastic open-heart surgeries, the heart is stopped and damage repaired to help the patient come back healthier. Taking advantage of a time when circulation needs to halt to ensure the health of the subway when it restarts is prudent and will allow New York to come back from this crisis stronger than before.

This would be an effective use of money set aside for public transportation in the new federal stimulus bill, and closure will also help strengthen existing shelter-in-place orders to slow the spread of the virus throughout the city. With ridership already at historically low levels, coupled with an imperative to minimize travel, the typical disruptions from repairs are minimized. Making progress on the extensive backlog of much-needed repairs to dilapidated stations, outdated power systems, and other priorities while advancing progress on essential signals upgrades will help the subway emerge more reliable and faster for New Yorkers after the crisis, which will help the system more quickly recover ridership.

There are, of course, major logistical challenges that must be overcome to make such a plan workable. For one, healthcare providers and other critical workers need to get to their jobs. MTA buses should be dedicated to the transport of essential workers only, maintaining existing routes on streets cleared of competing traffic. For essential workers unable to commute by bus, the city should draw on its taxi fleet to provide alternative transportation or partner with app-based services.

Care will also need to be taken to ensure the health of workers undertaking repairs. Workers will need to be screened (at least for their temperatures, if coronavirus testing delays persist), worksites will need to be consistently monitored for transmission risks, and workers must be provided guaranteed care in the case that transmission does occur on the job. Practices and procedures will have to be adapted to match the needs of these unusual times.

Slowing the spread of the coronavirus in New York requires dramatic actions, and halting public transportation to reinforce existing orders is just one needed step. Stopping the trains now and using the time to make necessary repairs can also lay the foundations for New York’s recovery by creating the opportunity for the city, and its public transportation, to bounce back better than before.

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Patrick Farrell is a Master in Public Affairs student concentrating in economics and public policy at Princeton University with prior experience as a researcher focused on urban economics at New York University. He is a co-author of the article Social Connectedness in Urban Areas, which explores the distribution of social networks in New York City and the role of public transit in shaping them.

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Shut Down the Subway – and Fix It Sun, 29 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York Mass Transit System on Verge of Going Broke, Needs Bailout Quickly https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9229-new-york-mass-transit-system-on-verge-of-going-broke-needs-bailout-quickly https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9229-new-york-mass-transit-system-on-verge-of-going-broke-needs-bailout-quickly mta subway vintage

Subway ridership has plunged during the coronavirus outbreak (photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA NYCT)


Patrick Foye, the chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and therefore the leader of the city’s subway and bus systems, sent a letter to the local Congressional delegation on March 17 stating that the MTA faced financial calamity and seeking $4 billion in federal aid.

The MTA’s cash reserves are small, meaning it will go broke very quickly because of massive revenue losses (in this case resulting from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak). By going broke I mean unable to meet payroll and pay bills. More than 60% of the MTA’s expenses are for labor, nearly all of it under contract, and those workers need to keep getting paid.

In Foye’s letter to Congress, he reported the authority has drops of 60% in subway ridership, 49% in bus ridership, 90% in Metro-North ridership, and 67% ridership on the Long Island Railroad.

On March 19, MTA New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg reported on WPIX-11 that subway ridership had dropped 71% from the same date a year prior. For the city subway and bus systems, that means MTA NYC Transit is still carrying 3 million daily rides, instead of the normal 7 million rides per weekday. Three million rides is still a lot of people and the system has to keep operating to bring health care workers, first responders, and others essential for society’s basic services, including in the utility industry, supermarkets and grocery stores, banking, some retail, and essential government functions.

Foye’s letter also cited a potential collapse of the $6 billion in taxes and fees directly dedicated to the authority that derive from economic activity in the metropolitan area. The prospect of rapid revenue losses puts the MTA in an impossible situation — it must keep paying its employees to operate the trains and buses, but its cash flow may be insufficient to meet payroll in the near future. Payroll, pension, and health and welfare also don’t include paying the fuel and electric bills, buying supplies, or the $250 million a month needed to pay interest on the borrowed funds that sustain the capital program and assets already put in place.

The MTA has only about $560 million in general reserves, about three-quarters of which is set-asides for retiree health and welfare, which the MTA is obligated to pay but, unlike the pension system, are unfunded. The MTA makes these payments for the retirees in cash out of the operating budget but they rise every year, though it has tried to accumulate some reserves for this purpose.

An analysis of the overall MTA budget shows, however, that the combined ridership and tax revenue financial losses by the end of April would bring a shortfall for the MTA of around $500 million from the $1.4 billion sum needed to pay one month’s MTA expenses. The monthly ridership revenue is about $500 million, and it is nearly six weeks to the end of April. A 50% drop would mean a loss of at least $375 million over that period. Foye’s reports indicate the ridership losses exceed 50%.

The dedicated taxes and fees also run about $500 million a month, and even a 20% drop over the next six weeks would result in a loss of $150 million. With a revenue shortfall by the end of April of $500 million, the authority would need all of its reserves to meet payroll and the rest of its bills and would start coming up short in May. The table below, taken from Volume I of the MTA December budget, p. 14, provides the data to make the calculations.

     

A FINANCIAL SNAPSHOT OF THE MTA

     
 

                    REVENUE SOURCE (millions)

 

EXPENSE CATEGORY (millions)

Farebox

   

$6,486.00 

   

Payroll

   

$5,525 

Tolls

   

$2118

   

Overtime

   

$896

Taxes

   

$6182

   

Health & Welfare

 

$2171

State & Local

 

$613

   

Pension

   

$1467

Other Revenue

 

$682

   

Other Labor

 

$509

Funding Agreements

$718

   

Non-Labor

 

$4156

Other

   

$203

   

Debt Service

 

$2843

Total

   

$17,003 

   

Total*

   

$16,991 

                   

(*includes adjustments of ($577 million) from use of reserves, etc.)

Getting bailed out by City and State government won’t work. The City and State are anticipating the major downturn in the economy severely affecting their own budgets. A new report by the State Comptroller’s office shows the State’s tax revenue could drop $4-7 billion below predictions from when the governor’s executive budget was released in mid-January.

Both governments have $6 billion or more in reserves and short-term borrowing powers, but will need these funds to sustain other government employment, the health care system, and public assistance, and will likely soon need to be bailed out by the federal government themselves. At best the City and State could squeeze out about $250 million each in the month of May for the MTA, but after that the federal government has to step in. Only the Feds have the unlimited borrowing power to stem the tide. The MTA will need large government cash infusions within the next several months.

The Capital Plan and Congestion Pricing
Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio recently recognized the Trump administration was likely stalling the approval of congestion pricing, the $15 billion centerpiece of the long-term funding of the next MTA capital plan, which includes many important projects like re-signaling several subway lines. The Federal Highway Administration has to approve the State’s plan because our roads affect the Interstate Highway System.

Perhaps the national impulse to drop partisan rancor might diffuse hostility on this point. Maybe. New York might still need to await a Democratic victory this fall to assure that, sooner or later, congestion pricing will be approved by the presidential administration. But between Donald Trump and the new coronavirus, some parts of the MTA capital plan will likely be delayed until 2022 or beyond. The MTA’s capacity to operate needs help right now.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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New York Mass Transit System on Verge of Going Broke, Needs Bailout Quickly Sat, 21 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000