At the same time, the MTA also asked the state government in Albany for a financial bailout package that, if passed, would subsidize a reduction of the proposed fare hike.
If the state doesn't come through with a bailout, the MTA's proposed 23 percent fare increase would go into effect next summer. Base subway fares would most likely rise from $2 to $2.50, and unlimited monthly rides would jump from $81 to around $104.
At a roundtable conference one day after the budget was released, MTA's CEO Elliot G. Sander said the authority will urge state lawmakers to adopt the Ravitch Commission's recommendations for a rescue plan.
The state-sponsored commission has recommended a plan that would impose a toll on the East and Harlem River bridges which experts estimate would generate approximately $600 million a year. The Ravitch report also calls for a payroll tax on businesses in the region that could bring in an additional $1.5 billion a year.
"These are very, very painful choices," Sander said of the proposed bridge toll and payroll tax. Still, said Sander, if the state doesn't adopt those measures, and the MTA is left to close its deficit on its own, it would have no choice but to raise subway fares by the full 23 percent called for in next year's budget.
"What's particularly crucial is that the MTA get the money from the state,” Sander said. Either way, he said, New York City residents can expect difficult times ahead. "In an ideal world the MTA would have adequate funding and people would not have to pay."
At the roundtable discussion, Sander offered an explanation for why the MTA is in the red despite the billions of dollars the authority collects each year through tolls and fares.
An average one-way subway fare in the city is $1.34, said Sander, but the MTA's single fare operational cost is $3.13. To meet operational costs, Sander said the authority relies on a combination of state and city funding, real estate revenue, and money from bridge and tunnel tolls, among other things.
"The reality is that transit basically all around the world requires a subsidy," said Sander. Each year, the MTA must raise cash to meet costs and pay for renovations and future building projects, known as capital plans, said Sander.
The MTA's recent financial woes, he added, are the result of decisions made by state politicians starting in 2000 to reduce state and city aid for the authority's capital plans.
From 2000 to 2004, the state and city cut their combined MTA capital plan funding from 9 percent to 2 percent. (During the 1980's, the state and city funded 26 percent of the authority's capital plans).
This drop in outside financial support, said Sander, forced the MTA to borrow money to pay for upkeep, maintenance, and for new building projects. Because of this, said Sander, today the MTA spends approximately 20 percent of its annual $10 billion-plus operating budget on debt servicing payments.
"If we didn't have to commit roughly 20 percent" of the budget to pay back debts incurred in the early 2000's, said Sander, "we would not be having these apocalyptic financial circumstances we are having right now."
In the next months, as the MTA lobbies Albany for the help it needs to balance the budget, Sander asked mass transit riders to remember all the progress the authority has made in the past two decades.
"We feel a little bit like we're a punching bag" for criticism from lawmakers, officials and MTA riders, said Sander. Yet despite problems that still plague the system, like overcrowding and delays, Sander said the authority is now the best mass transit system in the country.
"This organization has accomplished a lot and there's pride in that," said Sander. "The system overall is operating the best it ever has."