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Hochul Calls MTA ‘Lifeblood’ of New York, but Transit Plans Lack Meat

Speaking before state lawmakers, the governor committed to coming up with a “comprehensive set of solutions” to the significant hurdles facing the MTA. Transportation watchdog and advocacy groups want to see specifics.

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Gov. Kathy Hochul greets lawmakers in Albany before her State of the State address.

Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

As the MTA nears its “fiscal cliff,” Gov. Kathy Hochul pledged Tuesday during her State of the State address to secure the financial future of the troubled transit system, but gave few details on how.

Calling the MTA “the lifeblood of the New York City metro region,” Hochul committed to ensuring the long-term health of a subway, bus, commuter rail and paratransit system that is facing massive budget deficits and higher-than-projected fare increases, as it has been rocked by a pandemic-driven drop in ridership and other forms of revenue.

Speaking before state lawmakers, Hochul committed to coming up with a “comprehensive set of solutions” to the significant hurdles facing the MTA. The agency’s leaders have, for months, been calling on the state, city and federal governments to come up with new funding sources for North America’s largest transit system.

But the route to that destination remains unclear.

“We need to see specifics,” Danny Pearlstein, policy director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group, told THE CITY after Hochul’s speech. “What we need on a day-to-day basis is a seamless transition where no one has second thoughts about riding transit because they’re going to be stuck on a platform or at a bus stop for 20 minutes — and we’re not there yet.”

The MTA board last month signed off on a $19 billion budget that calls for fares to go up this year for the first time since 2019, with the price of a single bus or subway ride potentially topping $3 by 2025.

Transit officials have warned that  higher-than-projected fares are inevitable if the system doesn’t either find new sources of revenue or experience a return to pre-pandemic ridership levels, when customers covered about 50% of the MTA’s operating budget. Officials have said service cuts or layoffs would be a last resort. 

Weekday subway, bus and commuter rail ridership is currently at around 60% of pre-pandemic levels. The MTA says it faces post-COVID farebox revenue that will only cover about 35% of its operating budget for the foreseeable future.

You Own It, You Fix It

Albany watchdogs said possible solutions to the MTA’s latest fiscal crisis should be clearer once Hochul presents the state’s executive budget in the next few weeks.

“The MTA is a New York state authority, the governor owns it and is the one ultimately responsible for fixing their financial trouble,” said Rachael Fauss, senior policy adviser for Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit organization dedicated to better state government. “Her executive budget is the place we will be looking to see if she delivers new revenues for the MTA.”

Without new funding sources for the MTA, commuters could be looking at service adjustments beyond those already planned to take effect this summer on Mondays and Fridays on the E, L, F, Q and No. 1, 6 and 7 lines. Those reductions are planned for days when ridership has remained lower, and will be accompanied by increases to the G, J and M lines on weekends.

“[Hochul] is in the driver’s seat, and we anticipate she will deliver for transit riders,” Pearlstein said. “After all, we delivered for her — this is not a governor who won in the suburbs, she won in the city.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul and MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber, Sept. 2, 2021.

Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor

In her second State of the State speech since replacing former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Hochul cited other transit initiatives. She said she supports the long-delayed congestion pricing plan to toll vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street as a way to curb traffic and raise revenue for the MTA, and making City Ticket available for use around the clock.

City Ticket, which offers cheaper rides on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road within the five boroughs, is currently available only during off-peak hours — but Hochul has said it will now be available as a low-cost and flat-fare option at all hours of the day within the city.

“This is something that you push and push and push and you get and get and get,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, which first proposed the discounted fare program in 2003.

“To us, this is a commitment to improving equity and expanding access to riders across the MTA system in the city,” Daglian said. “It will save people time and save people money.”

What’s Next for the IBX?

Hochul also said the state will move forward on the transit expansion plan she rolled out at her 2022 State of the State, when she announced intentions to study a potential Interborough Express line linking Brooklyn and Queens.

Hochul revealed that the Interborough Express study showed light rail is the preferred option for connecting the two boroughs and providing links to up to 18 subway lines and the LIRR. Officials had been considering bus rapid transit and conventional rail as other options for the line.

“Moving forward with light rail for the Interborough Express means better access to jobs, education and economic opportunities for some 900,000 New Yorkers in Queens and Brooklyn,” MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber said in a statement Tuesday.

The nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign said opting for light rail, as opposed to the heavy rail systems used in the subway and on the commuter railroads, limits potential benefits for riders. 

“We urge the governor and the MTA to reconsider this decision and prioritize a regional rail network that will truly transform our transit system,” said Felicia Park-Rogers, director of regional infrastructure projects for the advocacy organization.

Advocates said they will anxiously look forward to new developments about how to boost the financial fortunes of a transit system still struggling to emerge from the pandemic.

“They have got to fill in the details,” Pearlstein said. “The subway is one of the most visible places in America and the governor is accountable for it.”

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