MTA: To Dig or Not to Dig?

East, East Coast
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
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Sunset for the Z-train: The MTA could be ending express service on the JMZ line—and so much more—amid new budget shortfalls. (Courtesy Satans Landromat)

Sunset for the Z-train: The MTA could be ending express service on the JMZ line—and so much more—amid new budget shortfalls. (Courtesy Satan's Landromat)

Not since the collapse of Lehman Brothers last year has a major bastion in the city seemed to fall apart so quickly and readily as the MTA over the past few weeks. As the Times succinctly puts it, “state legislators cut $143 million out of the authority’s budget; state accountants then determined that a payroll tax dedicated to mass transit financing would produce $100 million less revenue than initially thought. Finally, late last week, a court ruled that the authority must pay significant raises to transit workers, adding tens of millions of dollars in expenses.” The MTA is required to fill the $400 million budget hole this created because it must end the year with a balanced budget. And so a range of service cuts were ratified today by the agency’s board, including the elimination of subway and bus lines, reduced off-peak service and para-transit, and no more free rides for half-a-million students.

While all these cuts—which do not take affect until July 1—are a disgrace to riders, the latter two may seem particularly onerous for good reason: they are so politically charged (think Helen Lovejoy) they will almost certainly be reversed, and indeed Governor Patterson has already called for the reinstatement of student MetroCards. But that only restores about $170 million, so what about the rest? We’ve been here before with these proposed service cuts, and the consensus among transit advocates is it will never come to that or super fare hikes. But with the MTA bailed out once already this year, a return to bridge tolls or other new revenue streams seems equally unlikely.

Another proposal that has been gaining steam is dipping into the authority’s capital funds, temporarily syphoning funds off, say, the Second Avenue Subway, to temporarily cover the gap. The Straphanger’s Campaign has been pushing this approach, as its long-held belief is general service over flashy megaprojects, and it has been taken up by the City Council as well, a number of whose members rallied at today’s board meeting. But the mayor has long opposed such a move because these projects are considered a boon to economic development, an argument echoed by the venerable RPA and upheld by the MTA. “Diverting money from the capital program as a one-shot stop-gap fix for the operating budget is what led the system into the decline that characterized the system in the 1970s and early 1980s,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said in an email. “It took decades to recover from that.” Fortunately, this is only the beginning of the end, as we live to see another doomsday.

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