The MTA said Governor Andrew Cuomo's call on Tuesday for a $100 million cut from its already squeezed budget will be painful but can be done without additional fare hikes or service cuts. Still, riders may see dirtier buses and trains.
Bill Henderson of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA said all the low-hanging fruit has been plucked from the authority's budget.
Last year the MTA cut two trains, dozens of bus routes, added several minutes to most commute times, halved the cleaning schedule for trains, and laid off hundreds of workers. Henderson says he worried the new round of cuts could mean longer waits for riders, postponed maintenance and even less frequent cleaning of stations, trains and buses.
"That's a lot of money, and until I see where the money is coming from that doesn't have an impact on the riders, I'm going to be nervous about impacts on the riders," he said.
Transportation Alternatives concurred.
"The MTA has pledged not to raise fares or cut bus and subway service," said executive director Paul Steely White. "But with $100 million less in state funding, something has to give."
Swimming somewhat against the tide was the Straphangers Campaign in a statement that began, "Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed state budget was mostly good news for New York City-area transit riders in these tough economic times."
What that means, explained Straphangers staff attorney Gene Russianoff, is it could've been worse.
"The bottom line is the state budget cut is not going to force a service cut or fare hike the way there's been for the last three years," he said.
But Russianoff, like Henderson, was wary about where the agency would find further savings given its recent round of belt-tightening. Last year, the MTA saved $400 million by pruning administrative expenses, cracking down on overtime and centralizing departments like legal and accounting.
Russianoff and Henderson warned that, in the past, the authority has saved money through moves like laying off token clerks and reducing cleaning shifts, which it doesn't classify as service cuts.
MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said it was too soon to discuss specific cost-saving measures and referred repeatedly to the authority's official statement on Cuomo's budget.
"We must fill this gap," it said. "And we will fill it without resorting to fare and toll increases or service cuts because our riders have already been hit with these painful measures over the past year. Instead, we will work to find additional cost-savings through efficiencies and improved productivity throughout our company."
The MTA went on to adopt a we're-all-in-this-together tone when raising the subject of what are sure to be contentious negotiations with its unions: "We are hopeful that this year we can work with our labor unions to find productivity improvements that protect jobs even as we reduce costs."
The budget involves some fancy shifting between the capital plan, debt service, and operating expenses, but at the end of the day, the Authority will have $100 million less to spend on riders, more than the entire budgets of most transit systems in the U.S.