Start saving up now, Metro-North riders. The fare hike that's coming down in March won't be the last.
The chief financial officer of the MTA, Metro-North's parent agency, told state lawmakers Friday that while the agency is doing its best to cut costs, it's saddled with crippling loans that it has to pay back, forcing the agency to have to seek at least another revenue hike of 7.5 percent for 2015.
"The biennial nature of a fare and toll increase I think is a very good thing," Robert Foran said during a hearing in Manhattan of an Assembly oversight committee. "It's good for financial planning."
Assemb. James Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, didn't think so. Brennan politely interrupted Foran's presentation to offer his own take on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's fourth fare hike since 2008.
"I know you're a financial planner and you're working for an agency that has a revenue requirement," Brennan said. "There may be a different point of view about fare increases being good things, generally speaking, from the people who have to pay them."
"I appreciate that," Foran said. "I would say there's also the expectation that service is there when they (riders) need the service."
According to Foran, the MTA is simply following a formula created by state lawmakers in 2009 when it came up with a bailout plan for the agency. The theory was to enact "modest" increases instead of more draconian 30-percent hikes.
The goal is to produce a 7.5 percent revenue increase from each of the MTA's subway, bus and commuter rail systems every two years. Metro-North alone is trying to increase its annual revenue by $26 million starting this year.
With the most recent hike taking effect in March, Metro-North riders could see ticket increases as high as 16.7 percent, depending on which route they take. For instance, the price of a $226 monthly pass for a trip into the city from Sleepy Hollow will jump $23.
Meanwhile, commuter groups say the MTA has to revamp a funding system that relies too heavily on riders.
"Riders have been asked to pay enough," said Gene Russianoff, the legal director of the New York Public Interest Research Group's Straphangers Campaign. "Our groups and scores of civic and community leaders strongly believe the State and City must take responsibility for providing this funding for the transit system."
Taken together, fare hikes in 2011, 2013 and 2015 are expected to be three times the expected rate of inflation, according to the state comptroller in an October 2012 report.
"More troubling is that for many riders the cost of commuting is becoming unaffordable, as incomes remain flat or fall," said Ira Greenberg, the chairman of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Commission to the MTA. "When the 2013 fare increases take effect, the cost of the most expensive Metro-North monthly pass will rise to $500, a level that seemed incredible just a few years ago."
Foran said fueling the MTA's budget troubles are nondiscretionary costs it can't control, like those for health care, pensions and energy.
"We have significant needs that must be met and those needs have to be funded," Foran said.
To relieve some of the MTA's debt-related expenses, Brennan is pushing for a $4.5 million state bond that would help the agency fund its capital programs. But with the state facing its own financial deficits, lawmakers say it's unlikely such a measure would pass this year.
Foran said the MTA will seek fare increases as a last resort while continuing to pursue cost-cutting measures that already have led to some $800 million in annual savings. Managers' pay has been frozen and the agency is pursuing labor agreements that include a wage freeze.
"We are committed to doing everything we can," Foran said. "If ridership does not give us additional revenue just in terms of people coming in, if the subsidies aren't there, if we can't continue to cut costs, we have to do something to get these nondiscretionary costs under control."