Albany and City Hall Slouch Toward MTA Endgame

Let’s recap the last week of the MTA funding saga. On Monday, Malcolm Smith and the Senate Democrats introduced a "conversation starter" bill that had already been lambasted as insufficient and backwards. On Tuesday, the MTA finance committee announced that revenues from taxes and fares have plummeted deeper than expected, turning the $1.2 billion doomsday budget gap into a $1.8 billion chasm. On Wednesday, Governor Paterson claimed that he had "some new ideas" to break the legislative impasse. Yesterday, some Paterson staffers started to let slip what the governor had in mind, and today we woke up to the big news.

The governor’s "new" solution is to cave to the Senate Dems.

According to multiple reports, Paterson is prepared to accept the framework laid out by Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, and dilute the proposed revenue streams even further by granting some payroll tax exemptions and halving the surcharge on cab fares.

How it all adds up to a healthy transit system is a complete mystery. Even without the watered down provisions, the plan on the table in the Senate only generates $1.76 billion per year. That sum was supposed to cover the MTA operating deficit, its five-year capital plan, and a five-year road and bridge program for all of New York State. Well, now we know that it will take more money than that — $1.8 billion — just to keep the trains and buses running. So what’s it going to be?

One option — let’s call it "Armageddon" — would be to spend all the revenue to plug the MTA operating deficit. No money for maintenance or expansion. The system spirals into 1970s-style decrepitude and the region’s economy goes in the tank for the foreseeable future.

Another path — how about "Deferred Armageddon" — puts it all on a giant credit card. The MTA capital plan, roads and bridges, AND transit service. Bond every cent of the new revenue streams and borrow to pay for everything — even the day-to-day operations of the MTA. Taxes and fees collected in the MTA service region pay for the whole state’s transportation system, and in five years, we face the mother of all transit crises. (The Post thinks this is where we’re headed.)

There are other ways to go about funding transportation, of course. We could ask downstate car commuters to pay into the system that keeps traffic from totally clogging up New York City streets. We could ask upstate drivers to pay for roads and bridges through higher vehicles fees and gas taxes. Assuming that Republicans in the State Senate would bargain in good faith, these solutions are politically feasible.

I haven’t even reached the scariest part of Paterson’s recent pronouncements, which is that he wants to vote on a rescue deal Monday. With Mayor Bloomberg’s staff deeply involved in negotiations with the State Senate, the endgame could very well play out over the weekend. Is that how the most important transportation policy in New York State will get resolved — while no one is paying attention to the news, and Pedro Espada, Ruben Diaz, Sr., and Hiram Monserrate enjoy sunny Puerto Rico?

  • Larry Littlefield

    A good summary of where we are. And why?

    Don’t blame the recession, with all that debt on the books.

    The question is, can the public be cowed into being grateful to our heroes for “Armageddon” and “Deferred Armageddon,” because the pain is deferred to a future no one cares about, even if it is right around the corner?

    I’ll say it again — if we are going to have Armageddon, let it be now while those who took money out in the past are still around to feel the pain. The more painless it seems to those that matter, the longer we’ll stay on the Highway to Hell.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Is that how the most important transportation policy in New York State will get resolved — while no one is paying attention to the news?”

    BTW the most important transportation policies in New York State have already been made in back rooms over the past 15 years. Not this weekend. And because some goodies were handed out then, including lower fares, no one paid attention to the news.

    The elected officials who somehow feel empowered to vote against any damage mitigation measures that gore their ox had been very quiet during those 15 years, when everything passed the Senate and Assembly 212 to 0.

  • Perhaps the very concept of funding the MTA with dedicated revenue streams is gimmicky and obsolete. It should be funded out of general state tax revenues. After all, the MTA is a state agency. If the state can’t cover the cost of running the MTA and its other operations, it should raise income taxes. All of this might be easier to do if there were an immediate fare hike of a size that would permit no further hikes in the distant future — say $3, with no unlimited cards and no discounts for anyone, ever. If none of that is possible, just shut the system down in slow motion, starting with service to the districts of the least cooperative legislators. Then let them come up with a viable plan for restoring service. It will soon become apparent that without its golden goose, the whole state economy will go from budget crunch to death spiral.

  • Mike

    Perhaps the MTA should announce that they will end subway and bus service in the districts of Espada, Diaz and Monserrate. Maybe then those jokers will get a clue.

  • If i were Bloommberg i would enact congestion pricing/bridge tolls anyway, it was already approved by city council IDK why he would need premission from albany if it is city property and even if he did need the go to from upstate i dont think anyone would acctually have the backbone to stop him could you imagine the headlines “Albany tries to stop Mayor from saving Mass transit leaving millions of straphangers out to dry” they would look like the worst person in the world

  • Glenn

    I think a Summer of Armagedon would help focus the minds of the electorate and subsequently, their representatives.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I think a Summer of Armagedon would help focus the minds of the electorate and subsequently, their representatives.”

    And what would the do in response? Probably change the state election law to make it even more impossible for challengers to get on the ballot.

    After 15 years of “Deferred Armageddon” (and not just at the MTA) how long can Generation Greed keep it up? Long enough to retire to Florida?

    In any event, I waited for the rain to pass so now I’ll ride a bicycle home.

  • Ian Turner

    Jonathan, in New York the state creates cities and gives them their power. If the state doesn’t give New York City the power to tax vehicles for driving on city streets (which power is not granted), then the city is powerless to enforce any violations of a congestion charging scheme.

  • spikex

    Deferring (borrowing) money may be the only solution for the next 20 months until we can get a bunch of new democrats into the state senate with the next elections. (We also need the new redistricting so that the city has its fair share of the senate seats). I grew up upstate and was well aware that the city was sending a lot of money upstate year after year after year. (Drive a highway upstate lately?- no potholes). Until then, the subways will be starved for funds. I’d also like to see them reduce the size of the bloated police and fire departments in the city and spend that money on transit.

  • Tom

    Ah, that’s the problem – not enough Democrats in our state gov’t? Looking forward to these new breed of Democrats.

  • > Jonathan, in New York the state creates cities and gives them their power.

    This absurdity is fundamentally addressed solely by secession.

    Faster, please.

  • MikeyLuv

    When I saw the title for one of the blogs (“Don’t Keep Transit Riders in the Dark, Governor”) I hoped it was a call for the MTA to open its books, which right now only the Governor can see! Everybody is taking the MTA’s figures on face value when it’s clear they’ve been grossly mismanaged for 30 years! What is up with that? The Senate’s plan isn’t perfect, but I really like the call for a complete public audit of the MTA! All these public authorities need to open their books.

  • MikeyLuv

    >This absurdity is fundamentally addressed solely by secession.

    Uh huh. And your drinking water comes from where? Times Square? A little thought, please.

  • Ian Turner

    Mikey,

    The MTA’s detailed balance sheets and income statements are audited and published on their web site at http://www.mta.info. What “books” are you looking for?

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