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MTA Urged to Look Beyond Fares and Tolls to Keep Subways and Buses Moving

An MTA bus heads past signs of struggling businesses along Harlem’s 125th Street, Dec. 1, 2020.
An MTA bus heads past signs of struggling businesses along 125th Street in Manhattan, Dec. 1, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The $4 billion the MTA landed from the finally signed federal pandemic aid stimulus package will spare riders massive service cuts and worker layoffs next year, even if fares are still set to rise in the spring.

But the lack of clear future funding and the uncertainty of when — or if — ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels has some transit and union leaders questioning whether the MTA can keep relying on fares and tolls for half its $16.7 billion operating budget.

Among the ideas to help make up the difference: a $3-per-package surcharge on online deliveries. In addition to the so-called Amazon tax, some are eying increasing the state gas tax and hiking tolls on drivers even higher than the 4% every-other-year increase that’s been in place since 2009.

“We still have extraordinary problems ahead,” Robert Linn, an MTA board member, told THE CITY.

The coronavirus pandemic, which caused a 90% drop in subway ridership last spring — has shown the transit system is “too susceptible to catastrophe,” John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union and a MTA board member, told THE CITY.

“This primary reliance on the farebox as a source of revenue, it has to stop,” he said.

Massive Budget Gaps Ahead

While bus ridership has returned to about half of what it was a year ago, MTA figures show the percentage of riders using the subway is only about 30% of 2019 numbers. The drop-off is steeper on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North.

On Dec. 22, the subway system recorded 1,759,576 trips — down nearly 63% from the approximately 5.4 million trips taken the same day in 2019.

Agency officials had warned for months of 40% service cuts on the subway and buses without a federal bailout. The MTA previously received $3.9 billion in federal aid, which ran out in July, before getting the latest boost from Congress.

Commuters wait for a C train to come to a full stop at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn, Dec. 4, 2020.
Commuters wait for a C train to come to a full stop at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn, Dec. 4, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“That $4 billion is a welcome reprieve that will put off these devastating cuts, but it doesn’t get us back to where we were at the beginning of the year,” said Ben Fried of TransitCenter, a research and advocacy organization. “We need to think about how to get there.”

But getting there won’t be easy for the MTA, whose five-year capital plan, now on hold, called for extensive signal upgrades on six subway lines, elevator installations at more than 60 stations and the purchase of 1,900 new subway cars.

The MTA still faces $8 billion in deficits from 2022 to 2024, officials say. Meanwhile, the state is in an enormous hole, with an $8 billion budget gap of its own, and Albany lawmakers would have to approve new taxes.

‘No Fare Hikes’

The Transport Workers Union and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA have said the transit agency should reconsider its pattern of fare increases in light of the pandemic.

“With the $4 billion stimulus, we’re doubling down on our call for no fare hikes,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “This is a year like no other.”

An MTA spokesperson acknowledged 2020 has been “anything but standard.” The agency’s board is scheduled to vote on the proposed fare increases at its January board meeting.

The board will consider several options, including eliminating unlimited seven- and 30-day MetroCards.

“We recognize our customers are facing unprecedented hardship and the MTA will take all this into consideration, as well as the thousands of public comments received after eight virtual hearings when making its decision,” said the spokesperson, Abbey Collins.

MTA Chairperson Patrick Foye recently told Bloomberg TV the federal aid is “incredibly important for the MTA” since the transit system is “critical” to the economic recovery of the city and the region.

Samuelsen, whose union represents rank-and-file subway and bus employees, praised the $4 billion aid package as “a huge victory for [transit] workers.”

He warned that the MTA could fall into a repetitive pattern of pleading for money, invoking a 1993 Bill Murray comedy to make his point.

“This is going to become like the movie ‘Groundhog Day,” Samuelsen said. “This is going to repeat itself over and over again if they don’t come up with new revenue sources.”

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