We Can’t Go on Living Like This

We’ll have more on the details of the MTA funding deal as they emerge. For now I’d like to focus on its most salient feature: The failure to impose new fees on car commuters, whose daily trips would slow to a standstill without a functional transit system.

Here’s a taste of what New Yorkers can expect as a direct result. Neighborhoods will suffer from heavier traffic as more drivers opt to take free bridges. Bus riders will sit through slower rides and worse gridlock. Straphangers will absorb more of the cost of transit through higher fares. And the long-term health of the transit system will remain a big question mark.

We’ve emerged on the other side of the immediate crisis, but the big problems that led there in the first place are still staring us right in the face. To paraphrase Governor Paterson, responsibility has been shirked to live for another day.

I stole the title of this post from Mikhail Gorbachev, who saw the writing on the wall for the USSR in 1985. Like the Soviet empire in the 1980s, New York City’s transportation system is groaning under the combined weight of skewed incentives and stale political leadership. Instead of bread lines, we have traffic jams and drivers cruising endlessly for parking spots. Like the special privileges handed out to Communist Party apparatchiks, we bestow our public servants with parking placards and toll perks. The Eastern Bloc had the Kremlin. We have Albany.

Which is where this analogy breaks down. No one in Soviet Russia ever voted for the Glasnost candidate. One day, the head of the Communist Party just decided that something had to change. Well, as we’ve witnessed over the last 12 agonizing months, a decision from on high won’t get it done in New York, not as long as the Carl Krugers remain in Albany. You see where I’m headed. Like Aaron said back in March, reforming transportation policy is now, above all, an electoral project:

Sustainable transport advocates need to build political clout. Period. At this point, almost nothing else matters.

  • Glenn

    I’ve been trying to calculate the winners and losers in this deal and as far as I can tell this punishes people that are doing good and provides no incentives for bad actors to change their behavior. The only bone is that mass transit service will not be cut.

    People who commute by walking or cycling or work from home have had their income taxes raised not insignificantly – about $150-500/year for most people in the middle to upper middle classes.

    People who take the mass transit system who already have to contribute a higher percentage of the total costs than any other mass transit system in the nation will have to pay even more.

    People that own cars that they only use on the weekends for special trips at 3-4k miles per year will be taxed at the same cost as people who put 30k miles on their car every year. Same for gas guzzlers vs. highly efficient cars.

    People that don’t own cars, but occassionally rent them may pay even more in yearly taxes than automobile owners do for yearly registration fees & taxes.

    To boot, the people that politicians talked about protecting the most – daily commuters from the outerboroughs – now face a stark choice: Higher tolls on the MTA bridges or Longer waits on the “Free” East River Bridges.

    It’s not a comprehensive transportation plan, it’s a stop-gap funding band-aid to maintain service.

  • Glenn

    Sorry, that should be “daily CAR commuters from the outerboroughs”

  • anonymous

    Why would people want to take a free bridge to get to expensive parking, instead of taking a subway trip that’s $2.25 instead of $2.00?

  • zz

    We can start by ending our memberships in ineffectual organizations like the NYPIRG’s Straphanger’s Campaign, and create a real, new grassroots transit advocacy organization.

  • Glenn

    Because they have free parking provided by their employers or they are just moving through the city instead of taking the two alternative routes around the city – Verrazano/Goethels or Triboro-GW combos from Long Island, Brooklyn & Queens to NJ.

  • fdr

    The newspaper headlines all say the Doomsday scenario was avoided. The politicians will put that in their mailings to their constituents, who will be relieved that there won’t be the threatened $3 subway fare and say $2.25 isn’t so bad. The drivers will grumble about the increase in bridge tolls but figure at least the East River bridges are still free. Everybody wins.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It may be more nebulous, but might I suggest that the “electoral project” be expanded to include “generational equity” in general just to appeal to those with broader concerns?

    o Infrastruture investment vs. being stuck with past debts.

    o The environmental future vs. current convenience.

    BUT ALSO

    o Funding for teachers in the classroom vs. earlier retirement for those that left.

    o Taxes on retirement income relative to wage and self-employment income, particularly for those that have less.

    o Subsidies for shrinking old-line companies vs. taxes on new companies.

    o A second wave of Social Security payroll tax and retirement age increases for future beneficiaries, with no shared sacrifice by older cohorts, possibly used to fund current spending (once again) rather than actually saved for those future beneficiaries.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/05/AR2009050503850_pf.html

    o And, most importantly, health care finance for at least basic and proven services for everyone at the federal level, including those still paying Medicare taxes, not just more enhancements to the existing Medicare program for those who get it and no longer pay.

    I wish those concerned with all those other issues showed the fighting spirit I see from many on this blog, because the inequties and future deterioration are as great.

  • J. Mork

    So, Monday June 1 is “Drive to Work” day, right?

    Can I borrow a car from someone? (I’d take a Zipcar, but I can’t afford the 18.75% tax!)

  • Respect the Past

    What about developing a transit approval score for local politicians, such as the environmental score the National League of Conservation Voters has for national politicians?

    I’m really care about transit policy, so I spend time researching politician’s views and voting record regarding mass transit. Yet, I don’t think that most people, even those who care about transit, spend as much time as I do researching political candidate’s transit credentials. Therefore, we need an easy rating system, which could help solidify support for pro-transit politicians. Maybe state politicians will start to care when they realize they are flunking with an important constituency.

  • It’s clear that Albany continues to be very corrupt. One difficulty with an electoral approach is that nobody in “the community” wants to piss off the incumbent by backing a challenger. They could probably put up with the frosty looks at the Lions Club meetings, but they can’t run the risk of getting their “member items” cut off.

    In response to a discussion we had last year on this topic, I came up with a proposal for someone with a little money to spend on this. The total member items for most legislators actually comes out to a relatively small amount – under $200,000. Just pick a member, commit to donating as much or more for the next five years (say), and watch their power dwindle!

  • dbs

    Speaking of learning from the Soviets, Dmitry Orlov always has something interesting to say, like here:
    “An American’s two greatest enemies are his house and his car. But try telling that to most Americans, and you will get ridicule, consternation, and disbelief.”
    http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2009/01/perestroika-20-beta.html

  • There needs to be large-scale ad campaign that advocates for the creation of a funding mechanism that’s kept independent of the political cycle.

    Something along the lines of “you wouldn’t change your mind on whether to defend america every year; you’d only quibble over the direction. So why are we always changing our mind on how to make this city work?” Obviously I don’t work in advertising, but you get the idea.

    If we can get people to think about transportation spending in the same way they think about 15 year defense contracts (i.e. long term strategic value, and a shared agreement to decouple the political cycle from the value of a given project) then there is a way forward. Without doing this the transportation lobby will be stuck in sniping mode – always reacting to *this* project or *that* initiative.

    The nature of the debate has to change. Right?

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