The past year was a tough one for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).
Gov. Cuomo’s COVID-19 shutdown caused mass transit ridership and fares to drop to historic lows.
And while the state’s economy is rebounding in 2021, the MTA’s return to normalcy is proceeding at a much slower pace.
Many private-sector employees have grown accustomed to working at home and are not in a rush to be dashing commuters. Others concerned about their safety are loathe to ride the crime-ridden subway system.
This reluctance helps explain why ridership numbers are still pretty dismal.
At the end of May, the Long Island Railroad had recovered 37 percent of its passengers; Metro North, 32 percent; subways, 41 percent; and buses, 52 percent.
Only the MTA’s bridges and tunnels are back to pre-pandemic traffic. The explanation: people avoiding mass transit are taking to the roads. (In our own backyard, the Northern State Parkway and the Long Island Expressway are a testimony to this phenomenon — they are constantly clogged.)
To manage the severe drop in revenue and to balance its books in 2020, the MTA borrowed $2.9 billion from the Federal Reserve, diverted capital project dollars to the operating budget and obtained $14.5 billion in one-shot revenue in COVID relief from Washington.
If the regular income streams fail to return to pre-pandemic levels and if the MTA does not receive additional federal, state, and city aid, or cut expenses, it could get ugly. The MTA’s $54.8 billion 2020-2024 capital program, which includes 517 projects, could be jeopardized.
The office of the state comptroller agrees.
A recent report released by Tom DiNapoli made this observation: “In a scenario with low ridership and no new capital assistance, the MTA may also be forced to reprioritize its capital program, thus pushing much-needed repairs and modernizations further into the future.
A reduction in the program would risk undoing progress in making the MTA safe, accessible, and reliable.”
In these troubling times, New York City mayoral wannabees have been proposing remedies they believe will save or improve our region’s mass transportation system. Sadly, some of them are just plain dopey.
Take for instance candidate Andrew Yang’s plan calling for the city to take control of subways and buses.
That idea is not new. Back in 1984, gubernatorial candidate Mario Cuomo issued a similar proposal. He argued his generation should decentralize the previous generation’s consolidation of mass transit.
However, shortly after Cuomo became the state’s chief executive, the head of the MTA, Richard Ravitch, lectured him on the absurdity of his idea, and it was never mentioned publicly again.
Why is it a dumb idea? Because the MTA was created by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the late 1960s to save the financially ailing and decrepit subway and suburban rail lines from ruination.
The key to the restructuring was the incorporation of the very profitable Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) under the MTA umbrella.
Toll revenue surpluses from TBTA’s facilities have been used to help defray the subway system’s never-ending annual operating deficits.
The MTA has also issued tens of billions of bonded debt to finance capital improvement plans that benefit mass transportation throughout the New York Metropolitan areas.
Such financing a city-controlled subway system could not do on its own. The financial markets that underwrite bonded debt would not have confidence in the City to manage the system let alone to come up with the dollars to pay off the debt.
Establishing a NYC Transit Authority independent of the MTA is impractical, and would only lead to a fiscal and operational meltdown.
It is difficult to believe that Andrew Yang is so ill-informed to make public such a ludicrous proposal.
The MTA is in serious trouble. And the recent leadership shake-up at the Authority will probably not help matters.
Therefore, if New York’s political class does not wake up and begin realistically addressing the MTA’s severe revenue loss and exploding debt burden, commuters will be left holding the bag. They will have to endure huge fare and toll increases, as well as service and repair cutbacks.