Andrew Cuomo’s Transit Plan: Worse Than Nothing?

Andrew Cuomo announces his urban agenda and proceeds to promise more austerity for the MTA. Photo: Transportation Nation.
Andrew Cuomo announces his urban agenda and proceeds to promise more austerity for the MTA. Photo: ##http://transportationnation.org/2010/10/21/ny-candidate-cuomo-congestion-pricing-moot/##Transportation Nation.##

With November 2 just 11 days away, it’s probably time to concede that Andrew Cuomo won’t offer any constructive ideas for solving the state’s transit funding crisis before election day. After avoiding taking any stands while outlining his infrastructure plan, Cuomo happily joined in the gubernatorial debate’s MTA-bashfest, trotting out the old and discredited “two sets of books” line. Yesterday, the former HUD Secretary released his “urban agenda,” in which the only item on transit calls, banally, for limiting service cuts if possible.

As Andrea Bernstein documents with both humor and great detail at Transportation Nation, the press corps wasn’t willing to let him stay silent on this critical issue. Unfortunately, his silence turned out to be far preferable to his answers. On the same day that the Drum Major Institute and Transportation Alternatives offered a five-step plan to reinvest in transit and fix the MTA’s finances, Cuomo opted for positions that would lead only to more service cuts, more fare hikes, and more debt. Read the whole, depressing thing — Cuomo even manages to make Marcia Kramer look like a livable streets activist.

After Cuomo offered a few truisms about the need for efficiency, Bernstein asked the would-be chief executive whether he’d consider new revenue sources like congestion pricing or bridge tolls. Cuomo managed to both reject the idea and avoid taking a position:

Congestion pricing was proposed. It was discussed. It was basically rejected by the legislature. I don’t know that there’s been any change in opinion. I think it’s moot. I understand the concept. I understand that it was rejected. I don’t think it would pass if it came up again, unless something changed.

Of course, political leaders have shifted their positions on road pricing rather dramatically over the last few years. In 2008, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver killed congestion pricing by announcing that fewer than 25 members of his caucus would have voted for it. One year later, Silver and his caucus were ready to toll the East and Harlem River Bridges.

One thing that could change the politics of road pricing again is if the state’s most popular politician, who’s likely to be elected by an enormous margin, led a campaign to revive the idea. Andrew Cuomo is running to lead the state and that’s what leadership means.

But a canny pol like Andrew Cuomo knows all that. He even admitted as much when pressed by WNBC’s Melissa Russo. It isn’t that he won’t reopen battles that have been fought before, he said. “My point is that I don’t want to go to revenue raisers first.”

And as his other answers make clear, that’s the real motivation here. Said Cuomo, “Just — more money, put more money on top, just keep pouring the money in, that’s what we’ve done for a lot of years, it’s one of the reasons the state is in 8 billion deficit, it’s one of the reasons taxes are so high, it’s one of the reasons people are leaving the state.”

Cuomo is running on a message of austerity. The problem is that when it comes to the MTA, he’s too late.

If Cuomo really doesn’t understand that, he should just ask his father. When Mario Cuomo came into office in 1983, as the Drum Major Institute laid out in a report last year, the state was contributing $1.5 billion to the MTA’s capital plan, or 20 percent of the total capital budget. Over the course of the Cuomo administration, that total consistently dropped. In the 1987-1991 capital plan, the state only contributed $871 million, or 11 percent of the capital plan. And in 1992, Mario Cuomo cut the state’s contribution right down to zero.

At the same time, New York City slashed its contribution to the capital plan from nine percent of the capital budget down to three percent. The public purse hasn’t been “pouring the money in” to transit for decades. While it’s true that downstate employers are contributing more to transit now, thanks to the recently passed payroll tax, those revenues basically made up for the enormous shortfall brought on by the recession. No wonder there’s a $10 billion hole in the MTA’s capital plan, a hole far larger than any efficiencies will be able to close.

Cuomo also argued against funding transit on the grounds of “fiscal discipline.” But real fiscal discipline — not the miserliness Cuomo’s talking about — would mean millions more in state funding for the MTA.

Take for example, one piece of budget gimmickry started under George Pataki. The state is obligated to match local contributions to the MTA under a program called 18-b. Starting in fiscal year 2001-2002, the Pataki Administration stopped paying that match from the state’s general fund, as it was meant to be, and started paying it out of a pool of taxes already dedicated to the MTA. According to a report by then-Comptroller William Thompson [PDF], that sleight-of-hand added up to a cut of between $161 million and $186 million each year for the MTA.

More broadly, if Cuomo managed to get the broader state budget under control, it would help the MTA tremendously. As long as the state needs money, it will continue raiding the MTA’s coffers to plug other gaps.

If Cuomo wants to lead this state, he needs to start giving straight answers about the MTA and stop hiding behind the decisions of others. “Political realities” are a poor excuse when you’re in the position to shape those realities.

It’s pretty clear that yesterday’s message will remain the candidate’s line at least for the next 11 days — why stop now? The only hope is that Cuomo gives up the act on November 3.

  • Cuomo: “Congestion pricing was proposed. It was discussed. It was basically rejected by the legislature.” No, it was never voted on by the legislature. It was basically rejected by Sheldon Silver. I understand that if Cuomo wants to be one of the three men in a room, he can’t afford to alienate the other two men. But does he have to resort to outright lying about events that are on the public record?

  • Sharon

    The labor union work rules are never brought up. Cuomo calls the TWU workers “struggling”. The lowest TWU tittle is $23 an hour plus $15 an hour in health and retirement benefits. Far above the median NYC income. Bus drivers make $30 per hour plus $15 benefits. TWU salaries are up over 30% in the last 10 years(including health costs). We can no longer afford to allow backwards work rules such as two unions dividing up bus operation causing the mta two have fewer buses on crowded lines while having drivers sitting around doing nothing on others. Si express buses driving back to SI in the morning just to have the same drivers drive the buses back in the afternoon. We are talking nearly $8 million in extra unneeded spending. $600 million for door operators on trains. More than illegal waste needs to be cut at the mta. Criminal work rules needed to be changed to put the RIDERS FIRST

  • Christopher Stephens

    Does anyone really think that Cuomo as governor will mean anything other than business as usual in Albany? He has never gone against the status quo in a meaningful way. If he’s the best we can do, maybe New York deserves the lousy infrastructure, etc., we have to put up with.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Does anyone really think that Cuomo as governor will mean anything other than business as usual in Albany?”

    Business as usual is going to collapse, just as it did on Wall Street.

    Cuomo’s options are to try to make a decision on how to allocate the pain, and be the bad guy while the state legislature (who sold out the future that has now arrived) “fights for the people” and accuses everyone of two sets of books and hidden billions.

    Or refuse to make decisions and allow things to collapse.

    Best case — he allows the collapse to happen, blames the legislature, convinces everyone else to do likewise, and THEN tries to fairly decide who should sacrifice how much.

  • bowchikabowbow

    Wow is all I have to say. You New Yorkers are a bunch of babies. I just moved out here from Phoenix, Arizona and I have to say that your public transit is the best I’ve ever experienced. If you guys want to see crumbling infrastructure and horrid public transit then go to Phoenix. Back when I rode the bus out there I would regularly have to wait 30 minutes beyond what the schedule said. Since I’ve been out here the trains are always on time, they’re fast as can be and the rates you guys pay is ridiculously cheap compared to the great transit system you get. Your fares are barely higher than the bus fares in Phoenix where the transit is horrendous.

    So stop complaining Yankees. You have no idea how great you guys have it.

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