The perennial attempt to hike subway and bus fares is one of the more ritualistic political dances in New York. Any leader of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority who ever tries logic (fares, adjusted for inflation, are virtually the same as in the mid-1990s) is inevitably met with a blast of criticism. Politicians decry the move. Riders voice disgust. Protests ensue. The M.T.A. just doesn’t get what it does to the little guy.
Such is the position of Jay Walder, the M.T.A.’s still-new leader, who has many an innovative, rider-friendly idea (Countdown clocks! Cell-phone service underground! Fast buses throughout the city!), but who has spent much of his nine months on the job cutting costs, scouring for efficiencies, rolling back service and, now, increasing fares.
On Wednesday, July 28, the M.T.A. chairman and CEO is expected to plunge into an inevitable public swamp when he unveils the agency’s latest set of hikes, to be implemented in January, including a $10 jump, with new restrictions, for the monthly unlimited card-a 7.5 percent overall increase that Albany legislators initially gave a nod to last year.
“Notwithstanding the shortfall in resources that have come, we have held to the number that had been previously agreed [on],” Mr. Walder said, speaking from behind a worn wood conference table in the M.T.A.’s midtown offices Monday, wearing a white shirt with subway token cuff links. “The speaker of the Assembly, the Senate majority leader, the governor-all stood together and said we expect a seven-and-a-half percent increase on the transit system in January 2011. That’s what we’re doing.”
The question for Mr. Walder, then, is whether he will ever be able to unshackle himself from fiscal issues sufficiently to install more noticeable, meaningful changes-an undertaking that would take time and money-or will he continue to have to put out these fiscal fires, started long before his arrival, with viciously unpopular actions?
A bit of background on M.T.A. finances: Even within the context of a state government barreling toward fiscal ruin, the M.T.A.’s financial situation is especially problematic, as the elected classes treat the agency a bit like a sick patient never given enough nourishment to stand on its own.
Rather than devote to the M.T.A. enough long-term funding sources so that it can sustain itself over time on fares, tolls and specific taxes, New York has settled on a system where funding runs dry for capital projects-repairs and new construction-about every five years. At that point, the M.T.A.’s chief either goes hat-in-hand to Albany, seeking some sort of new M.T.A.-specific tax (this happened last year, to some success), or to the general public, attempting a referendum to allow the agency to essentially borrow from the state’s general fund (this happened in 2005).
And when one or both fail (like in 2000), the agency-semi-independent from both the city and the state-simply resorts to borrowing billions, often beyond its means, leaving the next M.T.A. chair to worry about how to pay for it.
Add to that an economic crisis that has drained revenues, expansion projects that are billions over budget and $800 million in unexpected shortfalls that have emerged within the past year, and you get the situation in which Mr. Walder, who left a nice job at consulting giant McKinsey & Company, finds himself.
“When I heard that he was possibly going to do it, I said, ‘There’s no way this guy is going to want to take a pay cut to take this,’” said an M.T.A board member.