The MTA’s Finances Work Only When the Subway Is Full. Social Distancing Puts It in Crisis.

Photo: Nicholas Roberts/AFP via Getty Images

You’ve heard it before, but never like this: The MTA, facing a brutal budget crunch, is threatening apocalyptic cuts to subway service. The proposed plan, as reported by the New York Daily News, would enact a 40 percent cut to weekday subway service, eliminate some weekend service in its entirety, and lay off more than 9,000 workers, primarily from bus and subway service. That’s if the agency doesn’t receive $12 billion in federal aid by the end of 2021 to deal with the financial catastrophe brought on by COVID-19. It’s the type of scare tactic the agency has used in the past — as recently as, oh, August, and during the financial crisis in 2009 — to varying degrees of success. The MTA was forced to make cuts in 2010, including elimination of the W and V trains. The agency restored some of the bus-service cuts two years later, and brought back the W train in 2016. But this time, there’s a real disaster in the making: We’re facing less tactic and more scare.

Tactic or not, it comes in response to a very real and fundamentally insoluble budget problem. The MTA, whose ridership is down 60 to 70 percent, has made only minor cuts to day and evening subway service, in part to allow riders to social-distance on trains and in stations. But running a bunch of underfilled trains keeps the agency’s costs high even as the fares and bridge and tunnel tolls that fund the MTA have cratered, along with the real-estate and other taxes that are dedicated to subway funding. The very thing that makes the trains pretty safe to ride right now — their relative emptiness — is the thing that’s destroying their financial underpinnings. The agency has a non-choice: Cut the number of trains way down and start crowding people in, potentially infecting them, or keep service more or less where it is and lose something like a half-billion dollars a month. It’s an impossible situation.

Given all that, service cuts are inevitable, and in the short-term are not only justifiable but impossible to argue with. But cutting too deep will make work commutes longer and costlier for low-wage and essential workers, with ripple effects on the city’s economy. Fares and tolls make up roughly half of the MTA’s annual budget. The rest is mostly dedicated taxes — like the mansion tax — and other state and local subsidies. (Broadly speaking, perhaps two-thirds of your ride is paid for by your fare.) Given there’s nothing the MTA can do about lost fares and tolls, its leaders have successfully diagnosed that the solution will have to be more subsidies, but New York City and New York State are also going broke. That leaves Washington. The MTA received $3.9 billion from the CARES Act passed in March. The HEROES Act — passed by House Democrats in September but rejected by Senate Republicans — contained $32 billion in emergency transit aid through various funds and grants. The election of Joe Biden brings that a bit closer to reality, but with the balance of power in the Senate resting on two Georgia runoff elections, it’s hardly a given that the MTA will receive something. In the meantime, we’ll have to listen to the agency scare the heck out of us with tales of scorched-earth service cuts, and hope that it gets Chuck Schumer to apply as much pressure as he knows how to, and then some.

The MTA’s Choice: Risk Spreading COVID or Lose Tons of Money