By Patrick J. Foye
It’s clear the COVID-19 pandemic is still far from over. Cases are surging nationally, and here in New York, the crisis continues to batter the MTA and its finances. But for the first time in a while, we have some hope about the future: a new president who prioritizes transit will take office in January.
The election of “Amtrak Joe” Biden, the country’s most dedicated and famous rail commuter, bodes well for our agency. A longtime champion of public transportation, the president-elect has made sustainable infrastructure and clean energy a pillar of his “Build Back Better” transition platform.
President-elect Biden knows the role mass transit and its heroic workers played in keeping essential personnel like doctors, nurses, pharmacists, grocers, and food delivery workers moving during this once-in-hundred-year pandemic. He also knows the resulting financial crisis is not the fault of transit agencies like the MTA and state and local governments.
But while this has injected a degree of much-needed optimism into our efforts to secure the $12 billion in emergency federal funding that we so desperately need, we are not so naive as to believe Biden’s victory will solve our problems overnight. We’re still facing the prospect of divided government, and Senate Republicans have made clear that unlike the incoming President, they don’t understand the critical role mass transit plays in not only powering the economy, but in promoting clean energy and addressing racial equity. If they maintain control of the chamber, their indifference will continue to be an obstacle. We must plan for the worst and hope for the best, as we put together a budget in the wake of a crisis that has done more damage to our finances than even the Great Depression.
That mindset guided the development of our November Financial Plan, which MTA Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran will present this week at our monthly Board meeting. Without question, it is one of the most difficult budgets we have ever had to craft, in one of the most uncertain and challenging times ever for the agency and for the country. It includes the potential for massive service cuts of up to 40 percent on the subway and 50 percent on the commuter railroads, thousands of layoffs, and other actions we desperately want to avoid.
We know these cuts will hit hard the people who rely on us most, hurt employees, and further depress the economy. A report by the consulting firm Appleseed and the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation estimates these draconian measures could lead to a reduction of approximately $65 billion dollars in the regional GDP in 2021 alone. But without the certainty of federal dollars, there is no recourse. The MTA is required by statute to deliver a balanced budget every year, and we have a fiduciary duty to do so regardless of the unprecedented public health emergency.
Hopefully, under the President-elect’s influence, Washington will come through for us and we can amend our doomsday plan and get back to our core business of moving New York so that the region can begin its recovery. There’s so much we want to accomplish in the next few years: implementation of the long-awaited Central Business District Tolling Program, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, and improving accessibility, just to name a few.
President-elect Biden can also single-handedly on day one reverse a devastating order from the current administration that prohibits the Federal Emergency Management Agency from funding important cleaning and disinfecting efforts being undertaken by mass transit systems and school districts in the midst of this global health crisis.
We look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration and everyone who wants to advance a pro-transit agenda that will help not just New York rebound economically, but the country as well. As I’ve said repeatedly, transportation is not a red or blue issue. We all need to get from point A to point B safely and effectively, now more than ever.
Patrick J. Foye is the chairman and CEO of the MTA.