If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed new budget recognizes one political reality this election year, it might be widespread dissatisfaction among New York City commuters.
Indeed, Cuomo recommends a 7.5 percent operating increase for the giant Metropolitan Transportation Authority to fix its crumbling bus and rail system.
But upstate transit systems now say they are shortchanged as downstate benefits disproportionately in the new budget.
As the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and other upstate agencies stare at significant capital assistance cuts in a tough budget year, officials in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany are attempting to make their case.
“The executive recognizes the MTA has a problem and needs more funding, but it’s not just the MTA,” said Bill Carpenter, chief executive officer of Rochester’s Regional Transit Service and president of the New York State Public Transit Association. “We have to educate the Legislature to fix transit across the state and not just the MTA.”
NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel told authority commissioners Thursday that after several years of adequate funding from Albany, the state’s latest budget difficulties now pose a significant threat to local transit operations.
The NFTA stands to lose $1.7 million in overall funding stemming from Cuomo’s new spending plan, Minkel said. She added that while transit across upstate can expect a 1 percent increase in operating assistance in 2018-2019, funds for NFTA capital projects will decrease by $2.2 million in the authority’s $234.2 million budget.
“That makes it a challenge,” she said, adding that specific ramifications are yet to be determined.
Carpenter explained that several years ago the Legislature adopted a five-year capital plan increasing upstate capital assistance from $84.5 million to $104.5 million annually.
“But this year, he’s just asking for $84.5 million again,” he said of the governor. “That’s $20 million that was built into the upstate base that gets taken out and really feels like a reduction.”
In the meantime, Carpenter said the budget proposes a 7.5 percent increase in operating assistance for the MTA but only 1 percent for the upstate systems (while capital assistance decreases). He agrees with MTA Executive Director Joseph J. Lhota’s testimony at a legislative hearing this week calling for a “sustainable funding model.”
“If there’s a long term solution for the MTA, make it a New York State solution,” Carpenter said.
Budget Division spokesman Morris Peters noted the new proposal includes $205 million in operating support for upstate transit systems, including a $524,600 increase in “core support for NFTA.”
“Last year’s enacted budget included a one-time legislative add for transit systems, and the Legislature will have the same opportunity this year,” Peters said.
The NFTA already is looking at that possibility. Minkel noted that the authority has controlled expenses with a .2 percent growth rate over the past five years. The authority still anticipates significant increases in workers' compensation and health insurance costs, she said, as well as costs from new labor contracts that were unsettled for years. Paratransit costs are also increasing, she added.
“We’re working with the Western New York delegation to advocate for increased funding,” Minkel said, adding that authority lobbyists and NFTA Director of Public Transit Thomas George addressed the shortfall earlier this week in Albany. But she said consequences can be expected if the early budget proposal stands.
“We’re currently reviewing all our options,” Minkel said. “At this point we’re looking at delaying some of our capital projects, or an involuntary reduction in force and other options so we have a balanced budget.”
Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, who is often vocal about transit matters, said Cuomo’s proposal marks “just the beginning of the budget process” and that increases for upstate were added in 2015 through 2017.
“Obviously this year is more difficult, given the fact that we must address a deficit with the state budget,” he said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues in the Assembly to ensure continued investment in our upstate transit systems.”
Carpenter said the upstate authorities will argue that adequate funding remains an important economic development component for people trying to reach jobs.
“It’s a difficult budget year,” he said. “But I think the legislators we are talking to are recognizing more and more that transit must be a priority.”