When it comes to finances, the Port Authority finds itself in the same spot its customers do: out of the driver's seat.
So reports our very own Lauren Daley, who took one for the team by attending a public meeting of the transit agency last night.
Here's Lauren's take on what's shaping up to be a challenging year for the authority:
At a meeting yesterday, transit officials said that the current draft of the operating budget for 2011 anticipates a $25 million deficit, largely due to increased health care, pension expenses and fuel costs. But the deficit could be twice that large if a state effort to toll I-80 fails, chief financial operator Claudia Allen warned.
The state is seeking federal approval to convert the interstate to a toll road, but the toll revenue is already included in Act 44, the state law establishing a funding stream for transportation projects.
"Even if I-80 is tolled and that [budgetary] hole is filled, overall funding in Act 44 grows at about 2 percent," said Stephen Bland, Port Authority CEO. "We see no change, no real increase in funding."
The state's application for tolling I-80 -- opposed by many officials whose communities are served by the road -- is under review.
Allen noted that the authority's budget could be affected, for better or worse, by other outside factors as well as well.
The Jobs for Main Street Act, a second round of federal stimulus funding, includes $8.4 billion for mass transit projects. It has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but has not been acted on in the Senate. If the bill becomes law, Allen estimated the authority could receive between $75 million and $81 million.
Diesel fuel prices are also not yet locked in, and an unfunded state mandate calls for the authority to operate with a 2 percent bio-diesel. Allen projected additional costs due to the mandate at $324,000.
The draft operating budget calls for $95.7 million in revenues, and about $333 million in expenditures. It relies on approximately $212 million in state and county operating grant, which would still leave that $25 million hole.
Allen noted that the current year's spending plan is projected to end $8.9 million overbudget due to increased pension expenses. Revenues, meanwhile came in $3.7 million below budget "due to ridership being below budget levels and also current economic conditions," Allen said. "We did introduce a fare increase on Jan. 1."
Port Authority leaders cautioned that it was early in the budget process: A final budget won't be adopted until June.
"We don't want people to push a panic button at the moment," Bland said. "Internally we'll keep working on what we have control over."