As the MTA struggles to improve paratransit service for New Yorkers who aren’t able to ride subways or buses, City Hall is being asked to take the wheel on funding Access-A-Ride.
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed state budget calls for the city to fully cover the MTA’s paratransit costs by boosting its annual contribution by more than $500 million, while Mayor Eric Adams has pushed back on what he’s called an unfair and unsustainable burden on his budget.
Meanwhile, advocates for New Yorkers with disabilities and even MTA board members have questioned if that funding shift could worsen service reliability or cut into accountability.
The state’s attempt to move away from the current 50-50 funding structure comes three years after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo got the city to increase its legally required Access-A-Ride contribution from 33.3% of the program’s cost. The proposal has also led to a budget-season split between a governor and mayor who, unlike their predecessors, have been frequently aligned on matters of mass transit.
Hochul on Tuesday said the budget is “evolving” through “great conversations” with Adams, while officials at the transit authority, which the governor largely controls, said the proposals are part of a spending plan that, if enacted, would provide the MTA with financial stability through 2026 and beyond by eliminating projected budget gaps.
“Given that we’re facing a fiscal cliff, all of us have to share in the pain of saving this, because we have to,” the governor said.
The budget proposal also calls for the city’s increased contribution to cover more than the $58 million it now pays for student MetroCards that provide city public school students with three trips each school day.
MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber acknowledged Thursday at the agency’s board meeting that the proposed cost shifts are “controversial, even among this board,” but said they are important to the agency’s financial stability and to realigning what he called “outdated cost-sharing arrangements with the city of New York.”
He added that the current funding debate is different from previous city-state battles because of the warmer relationship between the governor and the mayor — a vast change from the years when Cuomo and Bill de Blasio frequently clashed over the MTA.
“This is one area where obviously there is a difference of opinion and it’s being worked through through the normal process,” Lieber said. “So I want to acknowledge that the spirit of this exercise is very positive and may be different than in the past.”
But Joseph Rappaport, executive director of the advocacy organization Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, noted that the state can more easily than the city raise revenues for mass transit through taxes and issuing bonds that support the MTA. He said the paratransit system, which is a federal requirement, is potentially being singled out as a city responsibility.
“This is an obligation of a transit authority to carry people who otherwise may not be able to travel on their buses or subways,” he told THE CITY. “It’s absurd to suggest that you can separate paratransit from the rest of the mass transit system and force the city to come up with the dough.”
The questions over what the potential transfer in city funding obligations could mean for paratransit service surfaced this week during an MTA finance committee meeting, as some members named to the board by Adams pointed to past changes in the funding structure.
“There was a 20% investment the city was making, then it was, I think, 30%, then it was 50%, now it’s [going to be] 100%,” said board member Midori Valdivia. “So this means that MTA will no longer provide any funding related to paratransit if this budget were to pass?”
“That’s correct,” answered Kevin Willens, the MTA chief financial officer.
Valdivia — a one-time MTA chief of staff to the agency’s former chairperson, Patrick Foye — told THE CITY she was concerned at the call for the city to take on all of the funding for a paratransit system it does not operate.
“I do not want to see any Access-A-Ride user left behind,” she said. “I never want Access-A-Ride and paratransit services to be seen as the hot potato, where there is a back and forth on who holds the responsibility — especially in a time when service is actually improving.”
Those concerns about who pays for paratransit followed testimony about the state budget from Adams in Albany earlier this month, when he told lawmakers the proposed cost shifts “will leave the city with no choice but to take very serious measures” in its upcoming spending plan.
“We all want what’s best for riders, but we need a fairer and more sustainable proposal,” Adams said.
Questions of Reliability
The MTA last month touted gains in customer satisfaction among Access-A-Ride customers after service reliability hit its lowest point in years in the fall of 2021. The agency has also committed to eventually making 95% of all subway stations accessible to people with disabilities.
“MTA has rightfully made accessibility a strategic priority,” Valdivia said. “But this feels like a step back.”
Sherif Soliman, another city-appointed board member, said the proposal would put pressure on the city to fund Access-A-Ride without state funds that go to some suburban paratransit services.
“This proposal shifts 100% of paratransit to the city of New York without such state transportation operating assistance that is received elsewhere,” he said.
Edward Friedman, a power wheelchair user who relies on paratransit and serves on the MTA’s Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility, said it is time to consider an entirely different funding structure for paratransit services.
In a City & State op-ed this month, Friedman, who was a key staff member at the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities from 2018 through 2021, wrote that Albany and City Hall must consider turning to Washington for paratransit funding help.
“The long-standing state versus city funding dynamic does little to serve the public,” Friedman told THE CITY Wednesday.
He added that he has “real concerns about the potential service implications of a bifurcated Access-A-Ride system” operated by the MTA, but fully funded by the city.
“Instead of debating who funds an outdated service, all three levels of government should have an honest conversation about what it would take to provide reliable, same-day, shared-ride paratransit that working-age people with disabilities like me would be able to use to be productive members of society,” Friedman said.