DiNapoli: Lagging ridership leaves MTA with tough choices and must adapt to changing demand

According to a report released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

“The MTA’s large budget variances are increasingly in evidence as ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels and federal aid runs out,” DiNapoli said. “Unless there is an additional influx of city, state or federal aid, the MTA faces difficult options to fill its budget gaps that will impact cyclists. The MTA needs to outline the issues and explain to the public what options it is considering to fill budget gaps and how it can adapt to low ridership levels and change service to meet changing demand.

Although ridership remains well below 2019 levels, the MTA has restored subway and bus service to encourage ridership and economic recovery. But because passenger fund revenues have not recovered as well as the MTA had expected, significant budget gaps exist without the use of federal funding. In 2019, fares covered 51.1% of MTA’s overall operating costs (52.8% for NYC Transit). As of May 2022, fares only cover 31.9% of those costs, well below the 40% the MTA had budgeted.

From 2025, the MTA will face growing budget gaps. That year, it plans to borrow to meet a projected $500 million shortfall in its operating costs. Although the loan only covers one or two years of expenses, it will increase the MTA’s debt burden and will not be repaid until 2053. If goodwill does not return, this $500 million gap could increase and even double. After 2025, federal funds will have been exhausted, resulting in structural deficits of $2 billion or more.

How the MTA chooses to fill these gaps in the years to come will likely impact commuters on the subways, buses, Metro-North, and Long Island Railroad. The possibility of service outages, higher than expected rate increases, downsizing or reduced maintenance and capital expenditures looms on the horizon without additional contributions from the MTA’s funding partners or substantial increases in traffic. Additionally, MTA needs to prioritize its capital plan and determine which projects are most critical and increase budget flexibility.

As DiNapoli’s report notes, other cities have changed the service to focus on riders who rely on public transportation the most. The MTA has taken some steps to respond to changes in demand by exploring increased bus rapid transit service in outlying boroughs. But there are other evolving ridership patterns that may present the MTA with opportunities to improve service even as it seeks cost savings. For example, weekend subway ridership in June was at 69% of 2019 levels, while weekdays were at 61%. Meanwhile, bus ridership was higher on weekdays than on weekends. Commuter rail ridership was at or near pre-pandemic levels on weekends in June, but weekday ridership was between 60% and 65%.

Economic and Political Insights: Existential Questions Facing National Transit Systems Create New Fiscal Pressures for MTA

DiNapoli Metro Ridership Dashboard

Track state and local government spending on Open Book New York. As part of State Comptroller DiNapoli’s open data initiative, search millions of state and local government financial records, track state contracts, and find frequently requested data.

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