New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority proposed a balanced operating budget for 2010 yesterday but set aside additional reserves in case its assumptions prove overly optimistic.
“We have achieved now a measure of stability,” said MTA chairman and chief executive officer Jay Walder. But “we’re far from out of the woods. That narrow context of stability may well be an illusion.”
A rescue package passed by the Legislature in May staved off draconian fare increases and service cuts by creating new revenue streams for the MTA, but the final proposed $11.98 billion 2010 operating budget counts on $85 million to be generated by cost savings in the current year to augment an existing $38 million operating reserve.
Gov. David Paterson proposed cutting MTA funding in 2009 by $115 million to help close a $3.2 billion state deficit in the current fiscal year. Talks are ongoing in Albany as the Legislature meets in special session.
The MTA also faces higher labor costs due to an arbitration award to the Transit Workers Union. That award exceeded projected labor costs in the preliminary budget released in July and would add additional costs of $90 million in 2010, $200 million in 2011, and $250 million in 2012. The MTA is trying to overturn the decision. To help close current and future gaps, the agency plans to eliminate 1,586 jobs through 2013.
The MTA also faces uncertainty over its capital program. Last month, Paterson said the authority’s proposed $28.08 billion 2010 to 2014 capital program was unaffordable. The proposed program relies in part on $6 billion of bonds backed by new revenue streams, primarily a payroll tax, but left an unfunded gap of $9.91 billion.
Money has begun to flow into accounts established for the new revenue streams. So far, $720 million has gone into those accounts and about $600 million has already been transmitted to the MTA, which in turn has made it unnecessary for the agency to delay payments to its pension fund as a potential cash-flow measure.
The proposed 2010 budget includes assumptions about future borrowing, and previous borrowing projections for 2012 and 2013 have been scaled back. Yesterday’s budget projected the MTA would sell $8.97 billion of bonds in 2010 through 2013 compared to a projected $10.32 billion in the July plan.
“There will be a capital plan discussion in Albany about how does the state choose to finance highways and bridges and the remainder of the MTA capital plan,” said chief financial officer Gary Dellaverson said. “When that happens, there may well be additional sources of revenue that come as a result of that overall scheme.”
Fitch Ratings analyst Chad Lewis said the uncertainty about capital funding was nothing new.
“Think back over the last couple of capital programs — they typically submit the first round of a program up to Albany and then see what type of funding they might receive on the state side and then go on to pursue other avenues,” Lewis said. If the funding doesn’t come through, “they have choices to either seek out other funding sources or scale back their capital program.”
The budget proposal assumes the MTA will be able to sell bonds next year at fixed rates ranging from 6.07% for transportation revenue bonds to 5.19% for dedicated tax fund bonds and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority debt. The authority also assumes variable rates of 4%.
The MTA expects to sell $2.57 billion of bonds next year.
Walder said the authority needs to stop assuming the state will bail it out when it runs into fiscal difficulty.
“I don’t think we’re in a place where we can look to Albany for money to support us,” he said.
Walder said he wants to head a working group to examine the authority’s operations from top to bottom, adding: “We need to let people see we have done everything we can to examine the cost structure of the MTA.”