1:04 pm Oct. 10, 2012
Congestion pricing is dead, the government seems ever more unwilling to fund New York City's mass transit system, and the authority that runs that system continues to take on debt, with no apparent end in sight.
To the obstinate problem of funding New York City's subways, buses, and trains, one budget watchdog today proposed a solution: the "25-50-25" plan.
"Can the M.T.A. continue indefinitely on this path of steadily increasing indebtedness?" asks "A better way to pay for the M.T.A.", a report by the Citizens Budget Commission, issued Wednesday. "The answer, of course, is no, although the precise breaking point is not easily predicted."
That's because debt ultimately has to be repaid, and the M.T.A. has got loads of it. In 2015, the authority's outstanding debt is expected to hit $39 billion. It could reach nearly $50 billion by the end of the decade.
The deficit, meanwhile, is expected to comprise 18 percent of the M.T.A's overall operating expenses in 2016, and that's including two sets of planned fare and toll hikes, and a three-year wage freeze for unionized employees that may or may not happen.
To forestall that breaking point, the commission is recommending some measures that could prove as unpopular with straphangers and drivers as the payroll mobility tax has proven to be with suburban business owners.
In the plan, subway and commuter rail riders would pay a full 50 percent of the operating budget—the "50" in the "25-50-25" plan—for mass transit, excluding bridge and tunnels. (The "25"s refer to the percentages that would be covered, respectively, by government subsidies and tolls and fees on drivers.)
Right now, they pay less—about 39 percent, by the commission's calculations.
To achieve the 50 percent goal, subway fares would have to rise to as much as $3 a ride, and a monthly MetroCard would have to cost about $140.
"While increases of this magnitude in a five-year period may seem burdensome, a broader time perspective shows them to be reasonable," the report argues.
The report says that, adjusted for inflation, such fares would actually be lower than the system's fares in 1996:
If current fares were increased between 21 and 35 percent by 2016 and use of discount Metrocards continued the current patterns, then the average fare revenue per ride would be between $1.99 and $2.20 in 2016 dollars. Adjusting for projected inflation the figures would be $1.27 and $1.41 in 1996 dollars. Amazingly, after 20 years and seemingly large nominal fare increases, the constant dollar cost to customers of a mass transit ride would be between 11 cents lower and three cents higher.
The proposal, however, would "have the most dramatic implications" for drivers.
The commission argues that not only should drivers' tolls cover the upkeep of bridges and tunnels, which they do now, but they should also underwrite a quarter of mass transit services, thanks to all of the "harmful consequences" that drivers cause but do not pay for, like "noise, congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emission."
To that end, the commission would raise tolls on M.T.A.-controlled bridges and tunnels to as much as $9 in cash. Right now, drivers pay $6.50. Once the 2013 and 2015 hikes go into effect, drivers will pay $7.50.
Further, the commission proposes raising vehicle registration fees, which are now amongst the lowest in the country, and the gasoline tax.
The CBC also says congestion pricing should also be considered, again.
All in all, the CBC says, its plan would raise more than $2.5 billion by 2016, without new taxes.
Opposition to such a plan, needless to say, would be significant.
The system's users are already facing two rounds of fare and toll hikes, in March and then again in 2015.
"The Straphangers Campaign is concerned that the CBC plan would create more pressure to raise fares and increase the burden on the riders," said the Straphangers' staff attorney Gene Russianoff, in a statement, adding that, "If you buy a 30-day MetroCard, your fare has gone up 65% since its introduction in 1998—from $63 to $104."
In a statement, M.T.A. spokesman Adam Lisberg said, "The M.T.A. has made great strides in cutting costs and stabilizing its finances, and has regularly said we need a stable and reliable funding source for the sake of all our customers and the entire New York economy."
And here's a chart from the report depicting the authority's debt load over time.
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