The cuts to bus and subway services threatened by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) earlier this year have been called off — for now. The federal stimulus bill agreed upon by congressional leaders over the weekend provides “more than $4 billion” in aid for the agency, according to Senator Chuck Schumer. This will stave off the 40 percent reduction in subway service and 9,000 layoffs that the MTA had previously proposed as necessary measures for balancing the huge budget gap caused by the pandemic-driven decline in ridership.
The 2021 budget that the MTA board already approved last week took something of a gamble by including $4.5 billion in federal aid, even though no such money was guaranteed at that time and negotiations in Congress had teetered on the brink of collapse. While the budget will prevent the agency’s doomsday proposals of just a few weeks ago, it does cut service on the Long Island Rail Road, hike fares and tolls in the spring, and require the agency to assume $2.9 billion in debt to cover operating expenses.
The MTA’s budget crisis is far from over. Even with the federal aid, the agency faces an $8 billion deficit through 2024 and will likely require more federal funding. The incoming Biden administration will be more sympathetic to the MTA’s challenges, but control of the Senate rests on two Georgia runoffs in January that could have a huge impact on how much money the agency receives in the future. And the underlying problem isn’t going away: Subway ridership is at around 30 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, and it’s unlikely to return to historic levels in 2021 given how long the rollout of the vaccine will take.