By Philip Newman
When Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials mentioned the prospect of two transit fare hikes in 18 months, several MTA board members suggested that even one hike might be one too many.
The occasion was the MTA's monthly meeting July 23, but most of it was occasionally heated discussions of just how many billions the agency is short of and what could be done about it.
Before MTA Executive Director Elliot Sander conducted a slide show with graphs and gap-closing theories delivering bad news, MTA Chairman Dale Hemmerdinger said he wanted to make something clear.
“This 2009 preliminary budget is the most preliminary of reports,” Hemmerdinger said. “There is no vote on anything today. We wanted to get this plan out to give everybody five months to discuss this thing.
In any case, the Ravitch Committee, appointed by Gov. David Paterson to come up with a plan to bail out the MTA, is scheduled to release its report in December, which could change whatever further plans the MTA might have.
Also in December, the MTA is to come up with a final budget, which would then go before the MTA board for approval.
Only then would straphangers find out if fares will rise and by how much.
The MTA's preliminary budget plan includes a fare increase — some sources say of 25 cents — starting July 1, 2009, and a second in January or possibly later in 2011. The two increases would total 13 percent.
When Hemmerdinger asked whether any board members had comments or suggestions, nobody spoke. Finally, Andrew Saul, who represents Westchester County on the board, broke the silence.
“Before we ask the riding public to take an 8 percent fare hit, I think we need to redouble our efforts to find every nickel and every quarter we can in expense reductions.”
“There's got to be a fundamental change in the way this place operates,” Saul said in reference to the MTA.
Critics have long suggested the agency could save millions by consolidating its various sub-agencies and departments. The MTA recently combined Long Island Bus and city bus operations.
The preliminary budget plan cuts nearly 500 jobs from New York City Transit and other departments.
The MTA is counting on the state Legislature to come up with serious bail-out money and City Hall, although Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the city does not have the money to do it.
The $700 million shortage the MTA faces is the result of many factors, including a cooling real estate market, which has rapidly diminished the steady flow of money from realty transactions; a slumping economy; rising fuel costs; and interest coming due from years of prodigious borrowing to pay for major projects, like the Second Avenue subway and the East Side Access project, to bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central Terminal.