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MTA chairman says agency needs $3.9 billion in federal aid to stay afloat

A commuter walks to a train at the

A commuter walks to a train at the Ronkonkoma LIRR station on March 25. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has lost more than 90% of its riders, including on the LIRR, could take an $8.5 billion hit from the coronavirus, and needs another $3.9 billion in federal aid to stay afloat, MTA officials said Thursday.

The financial request comes a month after the MTA asked for, and received, $4 billion from Congress. MTA chairman Patrick Foye, speaking in a streamed web conference Thursday, said the agency’s initial estimated losses from the pandemic were “conservative, given the information we had at the time.”

A month ago, ridership was down 30% on the Long Island Rail Road and 60% on subways, according to the MTA. Ridership on both agencies since have fallen by about 95% as compared to the same period last year.

“In the weeks since our first request, the virus has dramatically worsened in New York, dwarfing our original estimates of revenue loss,” said Foye, who noted the new projections came out of an outside consultant’s economic study. The MTA’s new projected losses: $7 billion to $8.5 billion.

“The fact is we need substantially more help, and we need it now,” Foye said. “This is not something we can wait for. We need immediate action.”

The MTA has taken several measures to reduce the financial impact of the virus, and to help ensure it has enough money to cover daily operating expenses. Those include reducing regular weekday service, drawing down on a $1 billion line of credit, and repurposing operating funds that were earmarked for the agency’s capital budget.

But more is needed to stop the “financial hemorrhaging” the MTA is experiencing, including from a projected fare and toll revenue loss of as much as $5.9 billion this year, Foye said. Foye added that the MTA does not expect its ridership levels to rebound to pre-COVID 19 levels this year. The agency also has seen a 60% drop in traffic at the agency’s bridges and tunnels.

The MTA also is feeling the pinch from a projected drop in dedicated tax revenue of as much as $1.8 billion, and from higher expenses required for the agency’s intensified disinfecting efforts on trains, buses and stations.

MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran said that while the MTA typically has various options to turn to in financial emergencies, including raising fares and cutting service, none of those are of much use in this crisis.

“With ridership so low, raising fares would accomplish nothing,” Foran said. “Cutting service is another non-starter. We operate an essential service and have an obligation to keep the public in this region moving.”

With the city and state in similar financial straits because of the virus, Foye said it was up to federal lawmakers to “step up and do the right thing for our millions of customers.”

Angelo Roefaro, spokesman for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), whom the MTA has credited with helping secure aid in the first COVID-19 federal funding package, said “he will keep fighting for all of New York — and transit — in legislation to follow.”

The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog group, on Wednesday predicted the financial toll on the MTA could last far beyond the pandemic, including in the form of a prolonged ridership decline, a worsening of its reputation on the bond market, and a deferral of federal funding for infrastructure megaprojects, like the extension of the Second Avenue Subway.

Commission vice president Denise Richardson said the MTA does have more options to lessen the blow, such as working with unions to come up with new efficiencies and to reconsider its $51.5 billion five-year Capital Program to prioritize the most necessary projects.

“The MTA is facing a very difficult circumstance that it has never faced before,” Richardson said. “I think it’s going to be incumbent on … all the transit advocates to work closely with the MTA to help them get through what is clearly going to be a very difficult next few years.” 

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