New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority projected that lower returns on pension fund investments would widen out-year budget gaps, officials announced during a budget presentation Wednesday.
The MTA lowered its assumed annual rate of return on pension funds in its final $12 billion 2011 budget proposal, which the board will vote on next month.
The assumptions in the pension plan “have run very much in the wrong direction for us” chairman and chief executive officer Jay Walder said at a board meeting.
In September, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli lowered the assumed annual rate of return to 7.5% from 8% on state pension funds, which in turn increases the contribution government employers need pay.
Though a relatively small number of MTA employees are in the state pension fund, the authority followed the comptroller’s lead and lowered the assumed rate of return on other pension funds.
“There is a trend out there where he recognized that the actuaries are believing that those assumptions have been historically too high and need to be reconsidered,” MTA chief financial officer Robert Foran said. “That is going to dramatically increase our out-year deficits.”
Higher contribution rates would reduce a projected $67 million surplus in 2011 to $8 million. By 2014, the anticipated deficit would increase to $440 million from $141 million projected in July when the MTA proposed its preliminary budget.
The increased pension costs presented Wednesday were one of the few changes made to the earlier proposal.
The agency earlier this year undertook a series of efficiency measures to cut costs.
“We have reduced costs, we have achieved savings that are over $500 million a year on a recurring basis,” Walder said.
The reductions include $100 million in reduced administration overhead and $66 million of overtime costs.
Despite taking those measures, Walder said that “our financial situation remains extremely fragile.”
Late last year the state cut $143 million of aid allocated to the MTA as it dealt with its own fiscal troubles. At the same time, dedicated tax revenue came up short. Those two factors created a $540 million gap in 2010 that, combined with shortfalls at the end of 2009, totaled more than $900 million.
The state Legislature last year enacted a payroll tax — known as the payroll mobility tax — in the 12 counties served by the MTA as a major piece of a rescue package for the authority, whose revenue bonds are rated single-A.
The MTA plans to use the tax to pay for the first two years of its $26.27 billion, five-year capital plan. The tax is projected to generate $1.35 billion this year and $1.42 billion next year, well below the $1.5 billion originally projected for 2010.
Asked about published reports of a proposal from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the MTA to extend a subway line to New Jersey following the cancellation by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie of a tunnel under the Hudson, Walder said that it was “very exciting.”
However, the agency has no capital funding available for projects not already underway, Walder said. The proposal would add to the costs of a $2.1 billion extension of the No. 7 Subway line now underway.
“We’re looking at — and open to discussing — creative, fiscally responsible alternatives to the original tunnel project,” Andrew Brent, spokesman for deputy mayor for economic development Robert Steel, said in a statement.
“Extending the 7 line to New Jersey could address many of the region’s transportation capacity issues at a fraction of the original tunnel’s cost,” he added, “but the idea is still in its earliest stages.”
A spokesman for Christie said in an e-mail that the governor was open to hearing new ideas.