THE COMMUTE: MTA funding always seems to be in the news. Another fare hike is scheduled for January 2013. The MTA’s continuing money woes are primarily due to the large debt it has to repay on the money it borrows through its bonds. Repealing a portion of the payroll tax, reduced state funding, and the MTA’s own inefficiencies did not help either.
Last January, I wrote how the MTA has the opportunity to refinance a portion of its debt at lower interest rates. It was also revealed at that time that whenever the MTA takes on debt, it must also pay the state a fee of $8.40 for every $1,000 it borrows. The fees can be substantial considering how much the MTA needs to borrow. These fees may have once made sense to discourage unnecessary borrowing, but do not make sense today with very limited federal, state, and city aid. The Staten Island Advance has a well-written editorial on the subject.
The MTA has been granted a temporary reprieve. Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to waive the bond fee on bonds issued in 2012 and 2013 to refinance old debt, but not for new debt. The MTA will save $54 million but will still have to pay the state approximately another $20 million as a fee for additional borrowing over the next two years. Since 2006, the MTA already paid the state $105 million in state bond fees. When the MTA repealed a portion of the payroll tax, the governor promised that he would find alternate funding to replenish the funding lost to the MTA by this act. It still remains to be seen if he will keep his promise.
Meanwhile, in 2010, the MTA made the largest service cutbacks in its history, saving the MTA $51.2 million annually in bus service cutbacks and another $16.6 million annually in subway service cutbacks. Due to poor publicity and inadequate media coverage, which primarily focused on the proposed cutbacks to student passes, the devastating effects of these cuts such as on the B4 and B64 bus routes were not immediately realized. Only now are some communities mobilizing to get these service cuts restored. The money saved by the MTA gives them the opportunity to restore some of these service cuts. But will they? I am not optimistic.
Save The Date
Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay are mounting campaigns for restoration of the B64, which had its service cut to Coney Island, and the B4, which lost evening and weekend service to Plumb Beach, respectively. The B64 campaign is being led by Assemblyman William Colton. The Plumb Beach Civic Association has already received more than 500 signatures in just a few weeks to have the B4 service fully restored to Plumb Beach. A similar petition is being circulated among former users of the B64. In conjunction with Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, Transportation Alternatives, and Sheepshead Bites, a town hall meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday evening, May 17, to gather support to bring back the B4, and to discuss other transit issues. Details to follow.
Besides the MTA’s debt from borrowing, another money pit has been Access-a-Ride, the legally-mandated system required to transport those individuals not physically able to use the buses or trains. These trips cost the MTA upwards of $50 per trip, for which the individual pays $2.25. Since its start more than 20 years ago, the cost to provide this service has steadily increased. At first the MTA did not publicize this service, so few were aware of its existence. Once vehicles, which are subcontracted out to individual operators, were painted in MTA colors, ridership soared and costs increased as potential users heard about the system.
Years ago, the MTA switched from automobiles to accessible vans to reduce costs by combining trips for which one day of advance notice is required. However, most vans still carry single occupants and a caretaker. The system is plagued with many inefficiencies and problems; riders use it only as a last resort. The MTA now will pay for taxi rides to reduce Access-a-Ride usage; however, the fact that few taxis are wheelchair accessible is a major problem for some users.
In another attempt to reduce Access-a-Ride costs even further, the MTA decided this week that it will hand out free monthly MetroCards to Access-a-Ride users in the hopes that 15 percent of Access-a-Ride users will switch to the subways and buses saving them millions. Board Member Allen Cappelli can see no downside to offering free MetroCards. I can. First of all, if you cannot negotiate the subway stairs, a major reason for using Access-A-Ride since many trips cannot be made with a bus alone, a free trip will not change your mind.
Second, how stringent are the rules allowing someone to qualify for Access-a-Ride? Does a simple doctor’s note suffice? We are all aware of the widespread abuse regarding the use of handicapped parking placards. If it is too easy to qualify for Access-a-Ride, would scammers apply merely to receive free MetroCards? That is a possible downside. Although there is a potential to save money, this idea could also blow up in the MTA’s face.
B44 Select Bus Service
In other news, B44 Select Bus Service (SBS), originally scheduled for 2011, and postponed to December 2012 or January 2013 with construction scheduled to begin this summer, has been postponed yet again to either September or October 2013, according to MTA documents [PDF]. Page six shows the new schedule for B44 SBS implementation. No reason is given for the delay. Transparency anyone? Just like East Side Access, which had been postponed numerous times, B44 SBS always seems to be just one year away.
SBS, originally touted in 2003 as a “quick” alternative to new subway construction, is now taking twice as long to implement as it took to build the first subway from South Ferry to 145 Street in Manhattan in 1904.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).