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Tough days for the MTA

If the MTA doesn't get federal aid, the

If the MTA doesn't get federal aid, the agency warns of layoffs, LIRR service cuts and fare hikes in the near future. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

It should be clear by now.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s financial free fall won’t be stopped by trims around the edges, more borrowing, a new tax that will somehow magically appear out of thin air, or even a vaccine that could help end the pandemic.

The nation’s largest public transit agency has never needed help from the federal government as much as it does right now.

And it has never confronted the harsh choices that must be made to survive.

The awful picture the MTA painted last week is the worst-case scenario. And yes, it’s being presented in part to scare people, including federal officials whom the MTA has been begging for $12 billion in funds.

But the scenario is also a very real one — and a very dangerous one for the region, which depends on public transit to fuel its economy, and for the nation.

Massive service cuts and layoffs are on the horizon that could bring pain to commuters and MTA workers alike. More than 9,000 jobs could be lost, hundreds of them on the Long Island Rail Road, and thousands more on city subways and buses. The LIRR of the future could look like a shell of its 2019 self, with far fewer trains, long waits, and even closed stations and branches. And it’s possible that one of the biggest projects Long Island wanted and needed for so long — the effort to connect to Grand Central Terminal via East Side Access — could be completed, and then lie unused, as delaying service could save $250 million.

None of these drastic measures would happen immediately. The MTA board has to vote on the slashed budget next month, and changes might not go into effect until next May. But if federal funding doesn’t arrive, there may be no other choice. The MTA already has borrowed to keep itself afloat this year. Borrowing more will just put off the pain further but the threat of the pain will remain. And, despite what one labor leader recommended, choosing not to balance the MTA budget is not a legitimate option, either.

But all realistic alternative ideas should be considered. The MTA remains a bloated bureaucracy, and the fact that the authority has shed 2,700 jobs through attrition this year is testament to what’s possible.

But none of that will be enough. And it’s troubling, though not surprising, that labor leaders last week took a hard line against the MTA’s budget proposals, rather than understanding that partnering with the authority to find solutions might be a wiser path. Executives and labor leaders must push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to put together a COVID-19 stimulus bill that prioritizes transit. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin seemed to recognize the MTA’s need in an interview Friday.

But if that effort fails, and the MTA has to make tough decisions, there will be an uphill battle ahead, and the MTA will need all of its troops on the same side.

— The editorial board