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DiNapoli: MTA faces historic fiscal crisis because of COVID-19

"The MTA's financial condition is dire," state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, seen on 2019, said in a report released Tuesday. Credit: Jeff Bachner

ALBANY — The Metropolitan Transportation Authority faces "the greatest crisis" in its history because of the economic shutdown forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli stated in a report released Tuesday.

"The MTA’s financial condition is dire," DiNapoli said. "With ridership down, debt burden rising and no additional help likely from New York state or New York City, the MTA desperately needs an influx of federal funds or unheard-of service cuts and workforce reductions will happen. … More than a reliable subway or commuter train ride is at stake. Washington needs to step up to help the MTA if our regional economy is going to fully recover."

The annual report stated ridership on the LIRR reached 91 million in 2019, its highest since 1949, but ridership is expected to drop 67% this year. An increase to 94 million riders isn’t forecast until 2023.

Ridership also reached a record last year on the Metro-North Railroad, to 86.8 million riders, but the MTA forecasts that will drop 67% this year before reaching 88 million riders in 2023, according to the report.

"The return of ridership on the MTA’s commuter railroads might be impacted if white collar workers decide to continue working from home," the report stated. "Although ridership on the commuter railroads has improved since the City reopened, these riders are more likely to telecommute than subway and bus riders."

MTA chairman and CEO Patrick Foye said the comptroller's report is "further independent validation that the MTA faces fiscal calamity for years to come" unless the federal government provides $12 billion in aid.

"Massive service and employee cuts, fare hikes, a gutting of our historic capital plan, and more unsustainable debt, which will only put future pressure on the fare box, are all on the table without help from Washington," Foye said. "Continued inaction by Congress will not only hurt our customers and employees, but also the economic rebound of New York and the nation."

DiNapoli said Tuesday the crisis may force higher fares and tolls, but warned that would be counterproductive to trying to increase ridership in the face of what may become a permanent trend of greater use of telecommuting, particularly for Long Islanders. He noted that fare and toll increases are already proposed.

"To go much beyond that and exceed the rate of inflation could have a diminishing return in terms of people taking advantage of MTA services," DiNapoli said in a teleconference.

The report said that crossings on MTA bridges and in tunnels dropped to 62% of normal levels in April, but by August rose to nearly 90% of normal. Bus ridership is expected to drop 67% this year from recent years, but would reach near normal levels of 662 million riders in 2024, according to the report.

Overall, DiNapoli said the MTA’s projected funding gaps are "historic in nature" and ridership might not return to 2019 levels until 2023.

Foye said in September that the MTA faces a $10 billion deficit next year and a possible 50% reduction in Long Island Rail Road service that could eliminate some branches. Earlier this year, the MTA received $3.9 billion from the Trump administration and Congress, but seeks another $12 billion. At risk are measures including laying off hundreds of workers, cuts in service, higher fares and deferring construction projects to handle more riders.

On Sept. 23, Foye said the state authority is considering borrowing nearly $3 billion from the federal government — the maximum allowed — to continue operating amid reduced ridership, and the cost of full service and constant cleaning of trains and cars to protect passengers and workers from the virus.

The state also has given permission for the authority to borrow an additional $10 billion. "If one of the responses is to go deeper into debt, that will obviously affect fares and tolls," DiNapoli said Tuesday.

The MTA’s long-term debt more than tripled between 2000 and 2019, to $35.4 billion, and the authority expects to raise that level to $50.4 billion by 2024, the report stated. The report said 78.9% of the cost of fares and tolls pay for debt.

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