NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Fitch Ratings has assigned an 'A' rating to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), New York's $967.1 million Railroad Rehabilitation Infrastructure Financing Loan series 2015X. The Rating Outlook is Stable. The RRIF loan is a parity obligation with the MTA's outstanding transportation revenue bonds. Fitch has affirmed the 'A' rating on approximately $20.7 billion (excluding commercial paper [CP]) in outstanding MTA transportation revenue bonds.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
The 'A' rating reflects the gross lien on a diverse stream of pledged revenues, the essentiality of the MTA's transit network to the economy of the New York region, and the demonstrated ability of the MTA to produce near-term solutions for its operating and capital needs. The rating also reflects the need to generate sufficient cash to adequately cover operations of the system despite high debt service coverage ratios (DSCRs).
Strategic Importance: The MTA transportation network is essential to the economy of the New York region, with New York City Transit carrying an average of 8.05 million daily subway and bus riders and Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) carrying another 576,000 daily commuter rail passengers. While an independent authority, the MTA has received significant support from the state of New York in the form of additional tax sources aimed at closing projected operating budget gaps and addressing capital needs.
Highly Constrained Financial Operations: Despite high DSCRs from gross pledged revenues, the MTA's financial position is constrained given its extremely large operating profile and high fixed costs, including significant retiree pension benefits. In addition, some of the MTA's operating subsidies are vulnerable to economic conditions. While the MTA is required to provide a balanced current year budget, some tools available to meet a balanced budget, such as service reductions and fare increases, are politically unpopular.
Solid Security Pledge: The bonds are secured by a gross lien on a diverse stream of pledged operating revenues consisting of transit and commuter fares and excess bridge tolls and non-operating revenues consisting of various regional taxes.
Extremely Large Capital Needs: While the MTA's 2015-2019 proposed $29 billion Capital Program (Transit and Commuter Programs) was vetoed by the Capital Programs Review Board (CPRB), the proposed Transit and Commuter Capital Program assumes around $3.9 billion in MTA related debt. The proposed plan has a roughly $15.2 billion gap in funding which is expected to be funded through a combination of additional federal, state and/or local resources or potentially additional MTA debt. The proposed TBTA Capital Program (not subject to CPRB approval) is estimated to be $3.1 billion with approximately $2.3 billion funded from TBTA bonds. The MTA has historically faced the constant challenge of delicately balancing the large rehabilitation needs of the system and expansion projects while covering operating expenses and maintaining financial flexibility.
Growing Annual Debt Burden: The MTA's capacity to continue to leverage resources to fund expansion projects while meeting renewal and replacement needs may be limited in the future if projected financial performance or additional operating subsidies do not come to fruition.
Peer Comparison: Given the size and breadth of the MTA's network of transportation assets, there is no direct comparison for the entity.
--Inability to achieve future projected operating efficiencies and implement other key elements of the cost reduction initiatives and/or maintain an ongoing state of good repair and other elements of the capital program;
--Significant cost overruns or delays in the capital program's mega-projects that lead to additional borrowing or deferral of core capital projects;
--Receipts in dedicated tax subsidies that are measurably below forecast levels could pressure the MTA's financial flexibility.
--Given small near-term operating surpluses but medium-term projected deficits positive rating movement is unlikely in the near term.
The 2015X RRIF loan proceeds will finance certain allowable costs (defined in the financing documents under the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976) and incurred by the MTA in connection with certain capital projects, including its Positive Train Control Project which will install Positive Train Control on The Long Island Rail Road Company and Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company tracks where required by applicable regulations.
The loan is expected to be fully drawn by 2018 and will have a level debt service repayment schedule over a 20 year period. Similar to the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program, the RRIF loan program has certain conditions precedent to receive loan proceed disbursements. These provisions are primarily administrative and are not viewed material to the MTA's ability to draw on the loan. The interest rate on the loan is expected to be fixed at 2.38%. The loan will be subject to certain penalty rates, as described in the financing agreement, including a ratings downgrade event.
The MTA's February Financial Plan (2015 Adopted Budget 2015-2018) incorporates policy actions previously described as 'below the line' in the November Plan and related technical adjustments. Technical adjustments are generally related to revenues associated with the implementation of fare and toll increases that were effective on March 22, 2015, the release of the 2014 general reserve fund to reduce pension liabilities, reserving for retroactive wage payments, safety and service investments, future toll and fare increases and future MTA efficiencies. Overall, the effect of the technical adjustments from the November Plan slightly lowers the projected fiscal year (FY) 2015 cash balance ($47 million from $64 million), FY2016 is generally unchanged at $102 million positive cash balance, and FY2017 projects a slightly higher cash position ($10 million vs. $1 million). The FY2018 deficit is slightly lower at $305 million as compared to $322 million in November. The MTA's preliminary 2014 net cash balance was $309 million including a $314 million carryover from 2013. This result was $151 million higher than the final estimate in the February plan and will be reflected in the July financial plan.
Risks to the February Plan/Adopted Budget include the ability to achieve savings from identified operating efficiencies, potential volatility in some operating subsidies (real estate related dedicated tax sources), greater than expected elasticity from future proposed fare and toll increases, and uncertainties associated with the final completion and operating costs of the East Side Access and 2nd Ave Subway projects. To the extent that any of these elements fail to reach current expectations, projected year-end cash balances may be materially different than currently estimated. While the MTA has a demonstrated history of closing outer-year deficits, it is Fitch's opinion that the options available for new revenue generation are fewer in the current environment; however, the MTA continues to explore and implement new operating efficiencies and cost reduction measures to these gaps.
Fitch continues to monitor the MTA's 2015-2019 Capital Program approval process. At its Sept. 24, 2014 meeting, the MTA Board reviewed and authorized submission for the $29 billion proposed 2015-2019 Transit and Commuter Capital Program to the CPRB. In addition, the $3.1 billion Bridges and Tunnels Capital Program (not subject to CPRB approval) was submitted. On Oct. 2, 2014, the Review Board vetoed the Proposed 2015-2019 Transit and Commuter Capital Program without prejudice. The proposed 2015-2019 Bridges and Tunnels Capital Program may also be modified prior to final adoption.
The proposed 2015-2019 Transit and Commuter Capital Programs are expected to be funded from a variety of sources, including bonds, state, city and federal funds, and currently project a $15.2 billion funding gap. The projects identified in the approved 2015-2019 Bridges and Tunnels Capital Program will be funded with a combination of MTA Bridges and Tunnels bonds and pay-go. Fitch notes that prior MTA Capital Programs have had significant funding gaps similar to this size ahead of CPRB approval.
The essentiality of the system to the greater NYC area and surrounding counties is demonstrated by the more than eight million daily riders. As previously demonstrated, Fitch expects the MTA will successfully implement its Capital Program with funding from MTA bonds and its city, state and federal partners. MTA bonds across all liens are possible, including transportation revenue bonds, dedicated tax fund bonds, and potentially leveraging the payroll mobility tax for a new credit. To the extent funding is not provided by city, state and federal partners to fill the approximately $15.2 billion funding gap, additional leveraging of the MTA's credits cannot be ruled out in the event that the MTA does not scale back certain non-core elements of the transit and commuter system. Fitch will monitor the carefully arranged efforts and negotiations between partners to meet the ultimate funding needs.
The transportation revenue bonds and RRIF loan are secured by a gross lien on the MTA's operating receipts and subsidies, including transit and commuter rail fares and other operating revenues, surplus toll revenues, and certain dedicated tax sources, state and local operating subsidies, and reimbursements.
Additional information is available at 'www.fitchratings.com'.
Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
--'Rating Criteria for Infrastructure and Project Finance' (July 11, 2012);
--'Tax-Supported Rating Criteria' (Aug. 14, 2012).
Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
Rating Criteria for Infrastructure and Project Finance
Tax-Supported Rating Criteria