Fare, toll hikes likely as MTA struggles with budget

Judy Rife

Times Herald Record

Oct 24, 2018

NEW YORK — The only way the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can achieve a balanced budget in 2019 is to levy another of the biennial increases in fares and tolls that commuters have endured since 2009.

Chairman Joseph Lhota made that blunt announcement to the MTA’s board Wednesday in summarizing the crisis that confronts the agency in funding both its operating and capital budgets.

After 2019, he said “significant deficits” will still occur year after year, creating gaps that current funding levels cannot close. He ruled out cutting service or raising fares and tolls higher than the average 4 percent of recent increases.

“That’s not a road I want to go down,″ Lhota said.

He said the proposed budget, which the board will receive at its November meeting, will show that the MTA is continuing to register significant recurring cost savings, but that its ability to maintain that momentum is finite. A hiring freeze on non-essential personnel was instituted this month.

The proposed budget will also show that ridership has fallen because of two related issues: declining service levels, particularly in the subway system, and extended closures for maintenance and repairs.

Lhota said ridership is likely to continue to decline as more repair work is scheduled and as the MTA undertakes more modernization of its aging infrastructure. Real estate taxes, another major but erratic source of revenue, are lower, too.

He told the board that the agency has to press its funding partners in government, primarily the state and the city, for multiple new and substantial sources of revenue in the billions of dollars, for both its operating and capital budgets.

Congestion pricing, he added, will not be enough to cover the MTA’s needs even if it wins legislative approval and is fully implemented.

Lhota praised state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s annual report on the MTA as “honest and straightforward.” DiNapoli said the MTA faces its greatest challenges in decades. The report, issued Oct. 11, is posted at www.osc.state.ny.us.

Lhota did not specify the size of the projected fare and toll increase. The last one, in 2017, averaged 3.75 percent for Metro-North Railroad’s east-of-Hudson customers and 2 percent for its west-of-Hudson ones in Orange and Rockland counties.

If the board ultimately adopts the budget in December with a fare and toll increase, public hearings will be held in January before it is finalized and implemented in the second quarter.