Cantor: MTA must keep trains on tax tracks

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the mega-agency that controls the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North commuter lines, subways and buses in New York City, hasn’t had a good few weeks. And when the MTA has a bad week, the negative impact on commuters can’t be far behind.

First up are the new LIRR schedules, including the new Grand Central Madison. Rather than garnering praise, it drew anger from Port Washington riders over the elimination of rush-hour express trains and the increased difficulty of reaching the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, leaving commuters screaming about the extra trains they will have to take, as the trip takes longer to reach their destinations in New York.

However, when the commuters finally board the train, they will be back to the future. The train cars will be the older M3s, first put into service in 1985 and scheduled to be retired in 2016. It appears that delivery of the last 76 of 202 M9s, the next generation of LIRR cars, will be delayed until at the end of 2023. , three years later than planned. Hard to believe that the $734 million given to Kawasaki wasn’t enough that they didn’t have faulty manufacturing issues in making the M9s. It’s not so bad to ride the M3s until late next year when the new cars arrive, but another snag looms on the horizon with the next-gen M9-A train cars for which the MTA was to award a contract.

The contract was put on hold because all offers were submitted with higher prices and longer delivery times. So commuters can expect to use M3s through 2027. As fares continue to rise, the MTA would like commuters to believe that older M3s are worth the fare increase. A recent report from New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli suggests commuters seem to think otherwise.

Data from May 2022 indicates that MTA ridership and fare box revenue have not recovered from the impact of the pandemic on transit ridership, which for the LIRR is less than 60% pre-pandemic ridership levels. Currently, MTA rate box revenue is 31.9% of revenue, down 8% from budgeted 40% and 39% lower than 2019 rate box revenue of 52.8% total income. The Achilles’ cure for the MTA’s budget is the historical overreliance of fare revenue on total budgeted revenue. With a looming $2 billion budget shortfall for 2026, the MTA should avoid any knee-jerk reaction to raise commuter fares or issue more MTA debt. Rather, the MTA, which is a state agency, should seek stable, recurring financial support from a cash-bloated state budget. However, this is not the case. With the MTA’s 2025 financial plan having a $500 million deficit, issuing debt seems like a simpler alternative. However, hidden in the shadows and adding to the MTA’s fiscal insecurity are the $1 billion in new annual revenue from congestion pricing.

Some lawmakers, rather than using congestion pricing revenue to fund capital projects as intended, are considering the revenue to fill MTA budget shortfalls. However, this would leave a financial void in the capital program for which MTA debt would be required.

With so much at stake, the MTA needs to get it right before the tax train goes off the rails.

Martin Cantor is director of the Long Island Center for Socio-Economic Policy and former economic development commissioner for Suffolk County. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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