Following a month-long public comment period, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Board of Commissioners approved the agency’s $7.2 billion 2021 operating, capital and debt service budget, a 15% reduction from pre-COVID plans and well below the amount necessary to deliver the projects in its 10-year capital plan. In particular, the $2.4 billion allocated for capital construction spending is 33%, or $1.2 billion, below the level contemplated in the agency’s 2021 capital plan. The 2021 budget comprises $3.2 billion for operating expenses, $2.4 billion for capital expenditures, and $1.6 billion for debt service and other expenses.
As a result of the projected $3 billion in lost revenues over 24 months due to COVID-19, the 2021 budget is $1.3 billion, or 15% lower when compared to the 2020 budget adopted by the board in December 2019. The agency also reported that it slowed capital spending in 2020 by $1 billion to align with reduced capital capacity, which has been significantly impacted by the historically low volumes across Port Authority facilities during the pandemic.
When combined with the projected capital underspending in 2020 of $1 billion – also a result of COVID-19 — the two-year reduction in capital spending is $2.2 billion. Additional capital spending reductions in 2022 will follow if federal aid is not forthcoming.
Since posting the proposed 2021 budget in November, Port Authority staff recommended one technical modification. This adjustment of a $65 million reduction to both 2021 operating revenues and operating expenses is related to two series of JFK Terminal 4 Special Project Bonds which were called and are therefore no longer outstanding. The change has no impact on the agency’s net revenues.
“The board has approved the Port Authority’s 2021 budget, which balances operational needs with significantly reduced revenues and activity in response to the global pandemic,” said Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole. “While dramatically reduced, the 2021 budget continues to support major capital construction projects already underway while prioritizing the safety and security of the region’s transportation facilities.”
“In the absence of federal aid, our $3 billion revenue loss has forced us to slash our capital spending budget for 2021 by 33%, making it harder for the agency to contribute to the region’s economic recovery,” said Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton. “The budget approved by the board today is an austerity budget, and it required aggressive and prudent cuts for 2021. It will allow us to continue serving the region and operating our facilities at our high standards but, without federal aid, creates the real possibility of compromising the agency’s ambition to transform the region’s legacy infrastructure.”
The agency’s ability to make capital investments as originally envisioned in the $37 billion 2017-2026 Capital Plan is severely reduced as a result of COVID-19 unless substantial federal assistance is provided to the Port Authority. The agency estimates a revenue loss of approximately $3 billion for the 24-month period beginning in March 2020 compared to budgeted amounts. This is in line with the revenue losses of $1.5 billion the Port Authority has incurred through November 2020, as well as the assumptions in the 2021 budget. Before consideration of the technical modification, the Port Authority projected a $980 million revenue loss in 2021 with lower gross operating revenues as a result of lower activity levels continuing through 2021 and significantly reduced passenger facility charge collections as a result of lower aviation activity. The Port Authority continues to advocate for federal support to offset its unprecedented loss of revenue; however, the 2021 budget does not assume any new federal COVID-19 stimulus aid to the Port Authority.
The 2021 operating expense budget of $3.2 billion responds to the changed environment, reducing operating expenses to 2018 levels to balance operational needs with significantly decreased revenues and activity. This budget carries forward approximately $190 million of the cost reductions instituted in 2020 as well as other reductions necessary to offset unavoidable contractual increases elsewhere in the budget, while also providing the necessary funds to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, maintain current service levels, and adjust to projected increases in activity across facilities in 2021.
Building on a series of measures from 2020, the Port Authority’s 2021 cost-saving initiatives include significantly reducing contract, consultant, and materials and supplies spending, reducing operating overtime hours 15% (253,000 hours) below the 2020 budget, and reducing 626 positions, a 7% headcount reduction.
This will be achieved primarily through the elimination of vacancies created by a 2020 hiring freeze that will carry forward to 2021, targeted voluntary severance programs completed in the last six months of 2020, expected retirements through the first quarter of 2021, completion of time-limited assignments, and efficiencies that result in the elimination of certain positions.
The 2021 operating expense budget preserves funding for the agency’s operational, safety and security priorities, including several enhanced cleaning measures and technology across facilities:
2021 Capital Budget
The 2021 capital budget reflects a reduction of 33% or $1.2 billion in the planned investment in critical infrastructure across all facilities versus the amount planned in the $37 billion 2017-2026 capital plan. The significant decrease is a result of reduced capital capacity caused by the impact of COVID-19 on net revenues. This planned decrease comes in addition to the $1 billion underspend in 2020 compared to the budgeted capital construction spend for 2020 of $3.6 billion – an underspend also driven by the 2020 revenue collapse caused by the pandemic.
Decisions about how to allocate the $2.4-billion 2021 capital allocation are part of the agency’s ongoing reexamination of its capital plan. Final decisions will await greater clarity on the federal response post-election and as the new Biden Administration takes office. Further capital spending reductions in 2022 are anticipated in the absence of federal aid.
The 2021 budget also includes debt service of $1.6 billion, an increase of approximately $160 million compared to the 2020 budget due to additional issuances required to fund the 2021 capital budget.
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