Saying that they could be asking for more before their “Doomsday Budget” even takes effect, the MTA voted 12-1 to raise fares and reduce bus and train service.
Members of the public and the board took turns blaming the economy, the housing bubble, the rich, management, labor and “bad apple” riders for the current dire outlook – virtually all agreed that a “failure of leadership in Albany” was to blame.
After listening to 19 public speakers, including City Councilmember David Weprin, a representative for City Comptroller William Thompson, heads of commuter and environmental groups and dissident transit workers, only MTA board member Norman Seabrook voted in opposition.
Seabrook, after acknowledging that the law required the MTA – though not the state – to balance its budget, assured the other members that “[They] aren’t going to haul us off to jail if we don’t pass this budget now,” and asked for a delay.
“We can buy some time and vote this down,” he begged. “We can force Albany to do their job.”
Seabrook’s pleas went unheeded, as even members representing Nassau County and Staten Island “reluctantly agreed” to the hikes and cuts they decried as unfairly falling on their constituencies.
The MTA has said a failure of the state to approve funding enhancements, such as tolls on East River Crossings and new payroll taxes as suggested in the Ravitch Report, forced them to this point.
Numerous critics of “inaction and politics in Albany” focused on Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican and six Democratic senators, including beleaguered Queens Senator Hiram Monserrate, for their lack of support for an “MTA bailout.”
Board member James Blair reminded everyone that “our riders contribute more than any comparable system in the nation” and the crisis is the result of the “uncertain funding pattern” provided by the state. “Our people do pay their fair share,” he said.
Labor union dissidents focused on “greedy Wall Street Bankers” who hold MTA bonds as the villains and proposed that the MTA walk away from their obligations as the solution to the problem.
CEO Elliot “Lee” Sander and others dismissed such talk as a crippling threat to the credit rating of the MTA. He acknowledged that the problem had its roots in decisions going back 10 years, “to put our capital construction budget on a credit card.”
“Debt service” consumes 13 percent of MTA revenue, or 26 cents of every ride under the current fare.
In final remarks before calling for separate votes on the hikes, service cuts and other “technical” budget items, Sander reminded the board that their “precarious position did not materialize overnight,” and that the capital construction budget for 2010 through 2014 “is unfunded.”
“There are no other moves in the board’s playbook,” he declared.
Sander reminded the board and the audience that “even if advertising revenue was tripled” (as Weprin alluded to in his remarks) and “executive costs were eliminated entirely” (a drain mentioned by union speakers) “it still would not close the deficit.”
Among the “technical” items were provisions to cut some 3,000 staff positions that will close many station booths, resulting in more than 1,000 layoffs among MTA workers.
The individual votes were anticlimactic, with Sander calling the votes and noting, “Norman votes ‘no’,” on the three most controversial ballots, before moving on.
Single-ride fares on buses and subways will increase to $2.50 on Sunday, May 31, with the monthly MetroCard costing $103, up from $81. Fares on the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and Metro North commuter lines will rise roughly 23 percent the next day.
Existing bridge and tunnel tolls in the city will also rise on Saturday, July 11. EZ-Pass tolls will be rising nearly 27 percent and the one-way cash toll is going to $6.50 from $5.
Queens residents who travel north-south in the borough will suffer particularly from cutbacks and eliminations on the Q14, 26, 31, 74, 75, 76, 79 and Q84 lines.
The Board also voted to keep Access-A-Ride fares equal to the base transit fare, although public speakers including Patricia Dolan of the MTA’s Senior Citizens Advisory Committee suggested that “it is not clear that the board will not seek a waiver to double Access-A-Ride in the future.”
The future is still unsettled, Sander and Dale Hemmerdinger, Chair of the MTA Board, stressed both during and after the meeting.
Pointing out that “the revenue stream has eroded” from the point where the “doomsday budget” was projected, both warned that the board could be back calling for even more cuts and more hikes “soon,” unless the state resolves the impasse in the Senate and approves additional funding.
“Figure April,” Hemmerdinger warned.