Cash-strapped, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority will delay planned fare increases for several months as the subway and bus operator anticipates that President-elect Joe Biden and a Democratic-led Congress will deliver additional federal aid.
Those few Hudson Valley residents who are still riding the Metro-North Railroad won’t have to pay more at least for the near future, because the board of the Metropolitan Transit Authority announced Monday it would postpone this week’s planned fare increase.
However, tolls could still go up soon.
Agency board members had been scheduled to vote Thursday, January 14th on fare and toll increases in line with the agency’s policy since 2009 to enact increases every two years.
Instead, proposed fare hikes of as much as four percent will be tabled for the time-being, according to a source familiar with the agency’s intentions.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked economic havoc — devastating the MTA’s ridership and revenues and bringing them to levels far worse than the Great Depression” MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye said in a statement. “It has also hit people of color and low income communities hardest, many of whom are the very same essential workers that have been on the frontlines of this crisis and who are also most dependent on mass transit.
“As part of our biennial review of fare and toll policy, the MTA conducted the unprecedented level of outreach this year required, holding eight public hearings and receiving 2,100 public comments. What we heard at these hearings was that people are suffering and cannot shoulder even a modest fare increase right now.
“Buoyed by President-elect Biden, incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the MTA also has hope for $8 billion in additional pandemic relief and continued federal investment in mass transit in 2021 and beyond. For these reasons, the MTA has decided to postpone the planned fare increase for several months. We plan to move forward with a discussion and vote on recommended toll changes in February.”
Transit leaders made a splash in November when they included the elimination of unlimited 7-day and 30-day passes among their biannual fare hike proposals.
Board members at the time strongly opposed the plan, with some arguing the MTA should actually be lowering fares to encourage ridership, which has cratered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riders Alliance spokesman Danny Pearlstein said a fare increase in the current moment would have hurt New Yorkers still riding, who he said are overwhelmingly working class.
The perennially-broke MTA is slated to receive billions of dollars from the federal government to shore off its pandemic losses.
“Now is not the time for a fare hike that would have hurt working New Yorkers in the middle of a pandemic,” Pearlstein said.
On Wednesday, November 18, 2020, the MTA outlined plans for its 2020/2021 Fare and Toll Policy Review, laying out various proposals for buses, subways, commuters rails and crossings that will be put forth for public review, board vote and potential implementation in the coming months.
“The reason that we increase tolls and fares every two years is to be able to deliver customer service,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye in November.
The MTA hosted eight virtual public hearings in December to receive customer feedback on the proposed changes before voting on potential fare increases in January 2021 and potential toll increases in February 2021.
The postponement comes just as Biden, a longtime Amtrak commuter, takes office, Wednesday, January 20th and as Brooklyn-native Chuck Schumer becomes Senate Majority Leader. The MTA is also poised to get another advocate: Biden on Monday nominated Polly Trottenberg, a former New York City Transportation Commissioner who previously sat on MTA’s board, as Deputy Secretary of Transportation.
“The stars have aligned for them pretty well,” said Howard Cure, director of municipal bond research at Evercore Wealth Management, which has $9.5 billion of assets under management, include MTA debt. “In the short-term there’s an increased reliance and hope of getting additional federal aid monetarily as well as cooperation.”
Biden announced last week an economic rescue plan that would give U.S. public transportation systems $20 billion. The MTA avoided drastic service cuts and layoffs when Congress approved in December $4 billion for the agency.
Along with additional federal grants and aid, a Biden administration may help unlock new revenue sources for the MTA, Cure said. The agency has been waiting for federal guidance to implement a new congestion-pricing program originally planned to back $15 billion of debt for infrastructure needs, but could also cover operating expenses.
Delaying the fare increases avoids putting an added burden on workers in a city where the unemployment rate in November was 12.1%, more than triple what it was a year earlier, according to New York’s Department of Labor.
The MTA also faces an $8 billion deficit from 2022 through 2024, even after factoring in the expected fare and toll increases in 2021 and 2023. Foye and his colleagues will be looking to Washington for more help.
Ridership on Metro-North is still down 80 percent, barely better than when the commuter culture collapsed at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in March and ridership dropped 91 percent. According to the MTA, just 52,500 people rode the railroad Thursday in the Hudson Valley and Connecticut.
Stay tuned to Black Westchester for more on this developing story.