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State comptroller says MTA revenue could come in $500M below projection

Long Island Rail Road ridership remains at around

Long Island Rail Road ridership remains at around 50% of pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels. The MTA has predicted that 80% to 90% of riders could return by 2025. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The MTA’s already perilous financial future could take another half-billion dollar annual hit if lapsed commuters continue working from home most of the week, according to a new report.

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s annual outlook on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s finances, released Tuesday, estimates that the agency’s projected fare revenue for 2022 could come in $500 million lower than expected if workers telecommute an average of three to four days per week.

On the other hand, fare revenue could be $300 million higher than expected if commuters work from home just 1.5 days a week, the report found.

Long Island Rail Road ridership remains at around 50% of pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels. The MTA has predicted that 80% to 90% of riders could return by 2025.

"Even if the economy improves as quickly as the MTA expects, there is a risk that ridership will not return to planned levels," the report said. "If more employees than expected change their behavior regarding work-from-home or other commuting choices, or if COVID-19 variants continue to affect behavior, service utilization may rebound more slowly."

In a statement, MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said "predicting the pace of post-pandemic ridership recovery is difficult" and that "all stakeholders" will need to consider how to fill future deficits.

"For its part, the MTA will continue to identify cost efficiencies while aligning service to meet public needs," Donovan said.

The pandemic dealt the MTA an unprecedented fiscal crisis. Ridership and other revenues plummeted, leading the agency to forecast annual budget deficits in the billions of dollars through at least 2024. The MTA expects to be able to balance its books for the next few years using $14.5 billion in federal stimulus aid.

The federal aid is expected to run out by 2025, leaving the MTA to turn to the "dangerous practice of long-term borrowing to pay for short-term needs like cleaning and maintenance," the report said.

DiNapoli said the MTA could get some help from a federal infrastructure bill that may include more funding for transit agencies, and from the agency’s planned congestion pricing plan, which could encourage more people to ride the train rather than pay new tolls for driving in Manhattan.

Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council, said DiNapoli’s report "highlights just how hard the pandemic hit the MTA."

"Its fiscal future remains uncertain, and how the new normal looks will have a direct effect on the future and fortunes of the MTA, which in turn will have a direct effect on riders," Daglian said.

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