Federal Transit Aid Bill Could Prevent MTA Service Cuts

The $2 billion transit operating aid bill unveiled by Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd today could set the stage to stave off major MTA service cuts slated to take effect next month.

If the bill becomes law and Congress appropriates the full $2 billion, about $275 million in operating aid would be distributed to the MTA, according to preliminary estimates from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. It costs the MTA about $93 million per year to operate the bus and subway service currently on the chopping block.

Maintaining current service levels would be "absolutely feasible" if the bill passes soon enough, said TSTC's Ya-Ting Liu. "Agencies are directed to use this money to restore or prevent service cuts, fare hikes, and/or worker layoffs. The MTA will have the flexibility to distribute how this operating aid is spent."

The MTA gave a general statement in favor of the bill. "We support the bill and we hope it passes," said spokesman Kevin Ortiz. The agency is not commenting at this time about how it would spend an infusion of federal operating aid. The Senate bill won't be enough to eliminate the need for all the cost-saving measures the MTA is contemplating, since the agency is staring at a total budget gap significantly larger than $275 million.

Before the MTA can decide how to allocate the funding, the bill has to pass Congress. The legislation could be attached as a rider to a war spending bill the Senate is expected to pass this week, said Liu. Or it could be attached to a small business tax credit bill the week of June 8. (The transit aid measures would also have to clear negotiations in conference committee.) Either option would presumably allow the MTA to avoid enacting service cuts scheduled to take effect at the end of June.

"It comes down to our region's senators being the champions for this on the Senate floor," said Liu, who praised Dodd and the Senate delegations from New York and New Jersey for sponsoring the bill. "We just know we have to keep up the public pressure."

Update: A clarification courtesy of Elana Schor -- in addition to authorizing the transit aid package by attaching it to a larger bill, Congress must appropriate the funding for it. The toughest lift could be the appropriation, which will likely encounter lockstep opposition to new deficit spending from Senate Republicans.