Highlights from Today’s RPA Regional Assembly

The ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria is packed right now for the RPA’s 2009 Regional Assembly, where Richard Ravitch just accepted a lifetime achievement honor. Many luminaries from the worlds of transportation, planning, and politics are here, and I’ve got a few minutes to post some interesting exchanges from earlier in the day, so here goes.

At a morning workshop about the challenges to funding transit during an economic downturn, Ravitch spoke about the current impasse in Albany that’s putting New York’s transit system at risk:

The difficulty, politically, in my judgment, is very obvious. There are very few short-term dividends, for people who run for office, in long-term investments. They don’t get the benefit out of it. It doesn’t have the same electricity to it as keeping the fare low. The benefits may not be realized until future generations. That is a political problem.

People are going to have to bite the bullet, in terms of usage charges and various taxes that will generate the revenue streams we need in order to build.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who served in the state legislature when the MTA was emerging from the financial catastrophe of the 1970s, added this perspective:

The 1970s crisis allowed us in the 80s to put new revenue streams in place and implement the original MTA capital plan. We had the ability to do these things because people remembered the bad times. But then you start to get complacent.

The politics in the legislature is more difficult now than it used to be. The Senate has switched parties; Republicans would like it to go back the other way. The Republicans won’t vote for anything and the Democrats can’t unite. The only way around that, frankly, is for a few Republicans to step up to the plate. How do you do that? The leadership could step up and do a deal. It takes delicate political negotiating behind the scenes, and whether the public-spiritedness is there, I’m not at all sure.

During the Q&A, federal funding for transit service came up. Veronica Vanterpool of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign asked the panel about the budget crisis now facing transit agencies across the
country. The feds used to fund transit service, she noted, but they don’t anymore, and the stimulus bill failed to include operating assistance for transit. She asked why the federal policy changed in the first place, and what are the
impediments to operating assistance now.

Nadler explained:

The Republicans who took over Congress in the 90s were ideologically opposed to operating assistance; they killed it. We’re going to try to do it again. (The House passed a bill last year that would have granted some operating assistance, but it did not clear the Senate.) There is a fixed determination in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to restore operating assistance at this point.

New York City DOT chief Janette Sadik-Khan, who also heads the National Association of City Transportation Officials, said that words matter when pushing policy:

Language is important. When we talk about operating assistance, you would think we were talking about giving crack to cities. If we start to talk about energy independence grants, it starts to resonate a little better on the Hill.

Here’s another highlight from Sadik-Khan, which she delivered during a plenary session about how federal policy needs to adapt and improve:

For 50 years we have had no national vision for transportation. We are
working under an outdated mission, with outdated institutions. Our
competitor nations are not saddled with that. We are increasingly a
metropolitan nation, but our institutions do not reflect that. NYCDOT
is larger than two-thirds of the state DOTs, and yet we do not have direct
access to federal transportation funds. I am hobbled by the fact that
we can’t access the funds that we need.

  • “The Republicans who took over Congress in the 90s were ideologically opposed to operating assistance;”

    The Republicans have always been remarkably successful with their anti-urban agenda. I have to wonder if the Democrats can actually get their act together and reverse some of it. So far, they seem preoccupied with continuing the previous administration’s handouts to bankers and auto executives instead.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The 1970s crisis allowed us in the 80s to put new revenue streams in place and implement the original MTA capital plan. We had the ability to do these things because people remembered the bad times. But then you start to get complacent.”

    “Whether the public spiritedness is there, I’m not at all sure.”

    Hence the inevitability of, and perhaps need for, a real Doomsday. The generations in charge will insist on continuing to grab until it comes.

    To listen to the Staphangers, that subway ride is worth 80 cents at most, meaning the riders would be better off without it. Listen to the TWU, and they feel the same way about their jobs. The rest of the state feels the same way about New York City in general. And senior citizens believe they can run up public debts, allow the infrastructure to deteriorate, and still sell their house to some younger person for enough money to fund their retirement, even if the debt service would consume 40% of their income.

    I’ve written about what should be done on Room Eight. But what is a politically realistic alternative?

    Cancel the fare and service cuts. Run down the MTA’s cash balances, while conducting audits to find “hidden billions.” And then when the money is gone, shut the transit system down, laying off every single employee MTA except for a few in accounting. The dedicated tax and toll revenues would be used exclusively to pay for pensions and other retiree benefits, debt service, and unemployment payments (benefitting, it should be said, mostly people OUTSIDE New York City where MTA employees, ex-employees and other well of retirees seeking tax-free investments live).

    After a decent interlude, whoever is left at the MTA would beg permission from the overlords in the state legislature to restart that portion of the transit system that is likely to be able to cover its own operating costs — the subway, excluding overnight and perhaps weekend service and with 40% of the stations closed at all times for example (including the whole Rockaway line), requiring people to walk farther. Not one cent of subsidy. Those living further out would be told they could drive to work in Manhattan over free bridges, and fight the placard holders for parking. That level of subway service would probably allow the region’s economy to function well enough to allow a gradual decline rather than immediate collapse.

    Then let a social and economic adjustment take place over a few years. Businesses gradually leaving Manhattan — not for the suburbs, but out of the region entirely. With a knock on effect, businesses would leave the suburbs too. Those continuing to work in Manhattan would move to subway and bicycle acessible locations, aided by cheaper and more available housing. Property values would adjust — downward — making housing away from the subway very cheap elsewhere. Those not working in Manhattan might take advantage. State and NYC tax revenues would fall — eventually putting pensions at risk (services are going down anyway). But young people and entreprenuers, far more transit-oriented than older generations, corporate and political employees, could choose to make their lives elsewhere. Or stay if real estate prices in convenient locations fell low enough to make it worth their while.

    Perhaps MTA tax revenues would decline no faster than MTA savings due to unemployment no longer having to be paid after six months (the MTA is self-insured), and then the bonds and unfunded pension obligations getting paid down. That would keep what is left of the organization out of bankruptcy.

    After a further interlude, perhaps Gene Russianoff would show up in a chicken suit and beg for fare increases so service could be improved. And the TWU would agree to have its members contribute more to the cost of their early retirement, and their retirees contribute more to the cost of their health insurance, allowing perhaps more subway service and some bus service in NYC to reach break even and be restored. Perhaps at that point the Mayor would say the state via the MTA had reneged on the promises of 1968, and sue to take subways AND the TBTA tolled crossings back.

    And then, perhaps five years in the future, those from outside the city, the New York State United Teachers, Local 1199, the fare hike four, the landlord class, the political class, the executive class, even some senior citizens would begin to ask about doing what was needed to restore the system that supports our economy. Perhaps that’s the “learning” that has to take place.

    “There are very few short-term dividends, for people who run for office, in long-term investments. They don’t get the benefit out of it.”

    Nor do they pay the cost in the short run for long-term disinvestment and running up financial debts. And “they” are only worried about “they.” For the long run, and for those in a position to make adjustments, a short run doomsday may not be be doomsday at all.

    Here, by the way, is some sense on tolls from the Mayor (and to be fair some of the fair hike four too) — everyone pays, or no one pays.

    http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dailypolitics/2009/04/either-everybody-pays-or-nobod.html

  • I really agree with Ms. Sadik-Khan’s

    “Language is important. When we talk about operating assistance, you would think we were talking about giving crack to cities. If we start to talk about energy independence grants, it starts to resonate a little better on the Hill.”

    it really is true…

  • Larry Littlefield

    She may be right about language, but they are a little off on the history of operating grants. I believe that the Clinton Administration’s FTA head, about as pro-transit as could be, was opposed to operating subsidies as much as the Republicans. The reason? It’s in the quote above:

    “There are very few short-term dividends, for people who run for office, in long-term investments. They don’t get the benefit out of it. It doesn’t have the same electricity to it as keeping the fare low.”

    He wanted the federal $ used for capital. So do I. The political pressure from below is always the other way — seeking to have routine maintenance reclassified as “capital,” shifting operating employees to the capital plan, etc.

    This is the very dilemma we face right now. And one reason I prefer a Doomsday to whatever sausage the politicos will produce.

  • Glenn

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to reframe the way people think about the federal budget. It’s not like our personal budgets where I do believe people should save money, spend sparingly and make their budget balence at the end of the year.

    The Federal gov’t needs to be there to help finance big items that small local areas and states cannot afford or have trouble financing even if they are in everyone’s best interest.

    I think of the Feds as like a rich Aunt or benefactor. They aren’t going to just cut you a check every month for you to make ends meet unless you just lost a job or a major event just happened. But they will pay for college tuition, help you make a downpayment on a house, fix a leaky roof or pay for a necessary surgical operation…

  • glenn

    Speaking of all this, where’s Weiner’s billions that he talked about during the congestion pricing fight?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Speaking of all this, where’s Weiner’s billions that he talked about during the congestion pricing fight?”

    Hey, I’m still hoping for the Weiner billions, Brodsky billions, and Hevesi “hidden billions.” Yes I know they don’t exist. But the pols have left no other real options.

    Meditate on this statement a little:

    “The benefits may not be realized until future generations. That is a political problem.”

    What is the problem? The “elected” officials and those who control them don’t care about future generations? Or the majority of Americans in general don’t care about their own children, or even their own future, so great are their perceived “needs” and entitlement?

    Forget doing something that BENEFITS future generations. We are the future generations, and we are facing a wave of fiscal (not to mention envirnomental) HARM due to the grabs of those without “political problems” as evidenced by their 99% re-election rate.

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