No Light at the End of the Tunnel for Straphangers

In March, New York City’s straphangers had to swallow yet another fare increase. That hike is likely to be followed by many more in the coming years. It’s clear that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to fares going up.

That’s because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority needs billions of dollars to overhaul a system that’s in desperate need of repair. Some of the tracks and signals haven’t been upgraded in half a century — or more.

The MTA figures it needs an additional $32 billion over the next five years to update its infrastructure so that its subway system and buses can reliably carry commuters. The agency believes it can cover $17 billion of it with its current revenue and aid streams, but it has no idea where the other $15 billion will come from.

Although the MTA bans panhandling on its subways and buses, last week America’s largest transportation network had its palm extended to Mayor de Blasio, asking for $2.5 billion to help cover the capital improvement shortfall. In response, the mayor pledged $657 million during the next five years. The MTA has also pleaded for more cash from New York State; however, Governor Cuomo, who believes the MTA’s numbers to be bloated, has offered only $1.15 billion to cover the planned infrastructure improvements. The MTA insists that its capital plan is necessary to keep the system rolling along.

Of course, the MTA can always issue more bonds and borrow by promising to pay bondholders high interest rates. The problem is that it’s already deeply in the red. For every dollar the MTA spends, 17 cents goes toward paying off past debt. The agency’s total debt has soared to $34 billion, more than the national debt of 30 countries, according to a report by New York Public Interest Research Groups’s Straphangers campaign. In fact, its debt is more than that of Iceland and Panama combined. To be kind, NYPIRG excluded 20 nations that had less than $10 billion in debt, which means the MTA owes more than 50 countries.

With both the city and state refusing to pony up money the MTA needs to get back on track, New Yorkers will have to keep shelling out more for bus and subway fares.

That’s tough to accept when subway and bus riders are getting less for more.

Single-ride fares rose from $2.50 to $2.75, a 27-percent increase in the last five years.

What are New Yorkers getting in return? Worse service and more crowded subways. According to the MTA, only 74 percent of its subways made the run from one end of the subway line to the other on time in 2014. That’s 6 percent worse than the year before. There’s even more bad news: subway delays were up 36 percent last year.

Not only are New Yorkers getting more squeezed on subway fares, they are getting more squeezed in subway cars. Subway ridership skyrocketed to 1.75 billion rides in 2014, the most in 65 years, and a 2.6 percent increase since 2013. The odds for weary New Yorkers to snag a seat on the subway keeps getting worse: If you’re a Q train rider, for example, you have only a 23 percent chance of getting a seat during rush hour. The best train line for seats is the R line. But even with that line you have only a 66 percent probability of not needing to hold onto a subway pole or lean against a door.

While state and local governments need to do more to assist the MTA, the MTA has also dug itself into this deep tunnel of financial woes. While it highly touts its new gleaming Fulton Street hub on billboards throughout the system, it doesn’t tell its paying ridership that the project had cost overruns of $500 million.

And while most straphangers can only dream of retiring at 55, MTA workers have that right as part of their contract. In addition to a full pension, MTA workers receive health benefits for life. Pension costs account for a full 10 percent of the MTA’s budget. Combine that with its debt payments, and 27 percent of the MTA budget isn’t even being spent on subways or buses.

As part of the next contract negotiations with the Transit Workers Union, reining in pension costs should be on the agenda. Ways must be found to better fund the city’s mass transit system. The city is funding universal pre-K to the tune of $300 million this year so that parents can go to work. Parents also need a viable transit system to get them to work. Without state or local funding, the MTA will have to resort to non-stop fare hikes in the foreseeable future.