MTA spooks riders with service cuts talk
By Marlene Naanes
Only months after announcing two fare hikes, the MTA is asking its agencies to develop budget-tightening scenarios that could include service cuts if the economy worsens or local government does not offer more money, an official said Monday.
Even the talk of cuts immediately upset transit advocates, who argued that the systems growing ridership makes service reductions senseless, and suggested the call may simply be a ploy to get more funding for the cash-starved organization.
Its no way to treat your customer, said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.
Each agency, including New York City Transit, must come up with a contingency plan by next month that decreases expenditures by about 10 percent, and includes scenarios that would scale back subway and bus service.
The agencies will also propose a plan to cut management expenses by five percent, and reduce the rest of their expense budgets by almost five percent
This is going to be different agency by agency, said Gary Dellaverson, MTA chief financial officer. I dont know what the outcome is going to be. I think its fair to say that it will be difficult for agencies to find that much savings without affecting the service package, but until I see their responses ... I dont know.The call comes on the heels of the agencys proposed 2009 financial plan that includes fare hikes next summer and again in early 2011.
It just doesnt make sense to cut service when your ridership is up, said Russianoff, the staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign. They have several subway lines that are over capacity, and bus lines have severe crowding.
Other straphanger advocates believe that the MTAs announcement may be an effort to stir up funding from state and city governments that have decried their own budget problems.
There is some degree of sending a message here this is what could happen if we dont get resources, said William Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Council to the MTA. They want people to know what the situation is going to be if they dont have the funding to provide resources.
The agency is expecting almost $1 billion in deficits next year, largely from unanticipated jumps in fuel and energy costs and drops in real estate revenues, and has planned on or already implemented more than $200 million worth of belt-tightening actions. It is unclear what if any of the contingency plans would be included in the MTAs financial plan, which will be voted on later this year.
The real estate market, implications from failed financial institutions and the amount of additional government funding offered to the MTA will all play a role, advocates say.
I think were just going to have wait and see how it shakes out, Henderson said.
Either way, MTA board members Monday said that they have to consider all options, given the agencys gloomy financial forecast, but service cuts would be the last on the list. Cuts can drive riders, and the revenue they produce, away and do not save substantial amounts of money, some said.
Its really counterproductive, board member Andrew Albert said. It just enrages people. This is not the time to be making service cuts. We need more service, not less.
The MTAs recent budget-balancing acts:
July 2007: Proposes fare hikes and promises service enhancements in return.
March 2008: Fare hikes take affect, increasing the price of unlimited ride MetroCards.
June 2008: Announces that a majority of the service enhancements will not go forward.
July 2008: Proposes fare hikes for next year and in 2011.
September 2008: Asks its departments to come up with potential cost-cutting proposals, including possible service cuts.