Are Council Members Ready to Pay for Their MTA Wish List?

City contributions to the MTA, the black line near the bottom of the graph, have declined slightly since the 1990s, while MTA funding from fares and dedicated state taxes have risen steadily. Source: IBO

The New York City Council doesn’t like the MTA’s budget. And really, who would? Fares and tolls are scheduled to rise in 2013 and again in 2015, bus lines cut in 2010 aren’t scheduled to ever come back, and the MTA is assuming net zero increases for transit worker compensation. It’s a product of worldwide financial crisis and Albany fiscal skullduggery, and it isn’t pretty.

Like all New Yorkers, the members of the City Council want a better deal from the transit system than we’re likely to get for the next couple of years, and in a hearing of the transportation committee today, they made that plain. Unlike most New Yorkers, however, the council can do more than talk. When it came to investing more City money in transit — something that hasn’t happened in decades — today’s hearing was a lot quieter.

Council members’ MTA wish lists were long and varied. “I will not be supporting any toll increase for the Verrazano,” declared Staten Island’s Debi Rose. Flushing’s Peter Koo wanted cleaner stations. Transportation Committee chair James Vacca named preventing a fare or toll hike as his top priority, with restoring service cuts right behind it.

“There’s going to be many more seniors in this city over the next decade,” said Gale Brewer, representing the Upper West Side. “What are we going to do about more buses?”

The answer to Brewer’s question was blunt. “When we can afford to run more service, we’ll run more service,” said MTA Director of Government Affairs Hilary Ring.

That’s where the council could come in. According to the city’s Independent Budget Office [PDF], New York City’s contribution to the MTA has been essentially flat for twenty years. In real dollars, city government contributes less to the MTA’s operating budget now than it did in the 1990s. City contributions to the capital budget, too, have been at or below the levels of the late 1980s and early 1990s for nearly two decades.

As Transportation Alternatives Deputy Director Noah Budnick testified, “This year’s City budget investment in transit is flat-funded, again, and last December, the State cut dedicated taxes to the MTA, again. So, no surprise, the MTA’s plan is to borrow billions of dollars to cover its budget shortfall and raise the fare on riders.”

When it comes to MTA funding, the real action is at the state level. That’s who should be funding the capital plan, but isn’t. That’s who’s stealing from some dedicated transit funds and slashing others. And that’s where the policies that could really put the MTA on a sure footing, like congestion pricing, have died.

The city’s contribution isn’t insignificant, however. In 2012, New York City will contribute $782 million in operating funds to New York City Transit. Were the council to boost that funding, they would be in a far stronger position to request the improvements they want to see to the system (though finding enough cash to forestall fare and toll hikes would be a heavy lift — the 2013 fare and toll hike alone will raise $400 million a year, according to Ring).

A spokesperson for Vacca’s office said that increasing the City’s contribution to the MTA is something he wants to look into. Here’s the chance for transit-friendly City Council Members to put their money where their mouths are.