The Hidden Debt of New York’s Transit

Issue 7, Volume 112

By Riya Sundaram 

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“We move this goddamn city, night and day in the middle of a pandemic,” president of New York’s local chapter of the Transport Workers Union of America Tony Utano said in May 2020. This statement was a response to the MTA’s (Metropolitan Transportation Association) lack of change after the deaths of over 130 transit workers due to Covid. The organization’s inability to enact change is a result of budget cuts from accumulating debt, a debt not discussed nearly enough yet that affects everyone.

Pre-pandemic, the MTA was an essential part of our everyday lives, transporting 5.2 million people a day and creating jobs while getting people to their jobs. During the pandemic, most people stopped taking public transportation, cutting a significant portion of the MTA’s source of revenue. This loss of revenue led to them borrowing money that they couldn’t pay back, plunging them into massive debt.

The MTA has been in debt for a long time. The MTA owed $11.4 billion in 2000, but the number has only grown as the organization has improved more subway lines to fit the population of an ever-expanding city. The number tripled to $38.5 billion by the end of 2020. The dwindling number of people on trains and buses meant the MTA had less money to work with. Still, they had vehicles to keep running and employees to keep paying. The MTA has strong union representation in its workforce, so when the workers felt unsafe during the pandemic, they organized a rally in Staten Island for better wages. They also pointed out the lack of necessary COVID safety supplies and asked for higher work-related death benefits. However, the MTA has no money to spend on its workers. The workers’ slogan was “Heroes to zeroes.” Though they are considered heroes as essential workers, they are treated terribly and were unable to get pay raises despite working during a pandemic.

While the MTA receives money from the government, this funding is only enough to barely avoid massive short-term cuts. Most of the money is swallowed by debt repayment and therefore cannot go toward improving many of the organization’s agencies. The MTA covers not only the city’s transit but also the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, and certain bridges and tunnels. The organization has been planning an improvement of all its systems called the 2020-2024 MTA capital program, which will allocate $54.8 billion to creating a better transit system across all of the MTA’s agencies for years. More than $40 billion of this money will go into New York City’s buses and subways.

Due to the pandemic, the debt of the MTA is rapidly increasing and the MTA’s ability to pull off the ambitious 2020-2024 capital program has dwindled. There have been estimates that it will take until at least 2024 for the MTA to recover financially from the pandemic. While one might hope that the city or state is able to help out, both governments are already financially struggling themselves.

However, there may be hope from the federal government. There is an expected $10.7 billion of relief from the federal government for the 2020-2024 capital program. This aid, coupled with the beginning of the return to public transportation in New York City, could revive the MTA in this time of need.

The MTA has been around for over 55 years and has seen many of the crises of NYC, but the pandemic is certainly one of the worst, bringing many businesses and government agencies to their knees economically. Yet we so rarely notice the effects that it has had on us. The MTA has been bombarded with hardships during this pandemic, from the increase in debt to empty subway cars to rallies for better working conditions. The MTA has always supported New Yorkers’ commutes. Now, it’s our turn to try and support them. We must take public transportation and keep in mind the people who run this city by cleaning, driving, and maintaining the buses and trains that connect us all.