'Fiscal tsunami' for MTA as deficit projected of more than $5 billion

Fare and toll increases, wage freezes, service cuts and even a state gas tax were discussed Wednesday as the nation's largest transit agency stared down a gaping budget hole caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority painted a bleak financial picture at its monthly board meeting as it gave a preliminary look at its budgeting for the next few years amid the fallout from the pandemic, which has decimated revenues from subways, buses and rail lines. A final proposed budget is expected to be presented in November, with a vote to follow in December.

MTA officials said Wednesday that even if the federal government, which has already supplied nearly $4 billion in aid through the CARES Act, pledges billions more this summer, the authority will still face a deficit of more than $5 billion for next year.

Before the pandemic hit, the MTA had projected surpluses for 2020 through 2022.

“This is a once-in-100-years fiscal tsunami,” MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye said Wednesday.

Subway ridership, which normally surpasses 5 million daily, dropped by more than 90% at the height of the pandemic in the spring. Bus ridership also fell sharply, as did vehicle traffic at MTA-operated toll bridges and tunnels.

The MTA is also spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean and disinfect all subway cars and stations to combat the virus's spread, and took the unprecedented step of shutting down overnight service to help accomplish that goal.

About 2 million riders used subways and buses on Monday, Foye said, continuing a gradual return by commuters but still far below normal numbers.

The MTA is seeking about $4 billion more from the federal government and has already identified more than $1 billion in savings for next year, Foye said. The initial $3.9 billion in federal aid will run out this month, he said, and he added that even if the government provides what the MTA is asking for, "we cannot cut our way out of this crisis.”

Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran said higher fare hikes than those already envisioned in the current capital plan are a possibility. The last fare increases went into effect in 2019.

Board member Lawrence Schwartz called fare hikes “not a solution — New Yorkers are already burdened by high fares.”

Board member David Mack raised the possibility of implementing a state gas tax similar to one passed in New Jersey in 2016 that funds transportation projects.

Board member Andrew Albert also suggested a gas tax as part of a broader goal of lessening reliance on the federal government.

“We’re relying on people who don’t understand the New York lifestyle, for our lifestyle,” he said.

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