Andrew Cuomo Can’t Ignore Transit in 2012

Photo: ##http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/19/nyregion/governor-andrew-cuomo-eagerly-attends-an-auto-show.html##Robert Stolarik/New York Times##

New York City transit riders might have taken some small measure of satisfaction from the sight of Carl Kruger resigning from the State Senate earlier this week. Pleading guilty to federal corruption charges, Kruger became the third member of the “Fare Hike Four” — the gang who killed a 2009 plan to fund transit by putting a price on NYC’s free bridges — to exit Albany in disgrace. Two others, Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate, were run out of town by voters and their fellow legislators under clouds of scandal. Ruben Diaz, Sr. is the only one who remains, reduced to irrelevance now that marriage equality is the law of the land and the Republicans control the Senate.

So you can blame the Fare Hike Four for the 2010 service cuts (and you can also blame the Assembly Democrats, who killed congestion pricing in 2008), but these aren’t the guys who are going to write the next chapter in the MTA funding story. If New York is going to fix the transit mess that Kruger and company bequeathed to us, don’t look to the state legislature just yet.

First, Governor Andrew Cuomo has to show some glimmer of understanding that New York’s transit system matters. So far, he hasn’t displayed an inkling.

2011 began with a $100 million Albany raid on dedicated MTA funds. It ended with a tax deal where Cuomo used $320 million in annual transit funding as a bargaining chit to gain suburban Republican votes. In both cases, city residents were sacrificed to achieve the governor’s political ends. That seems to be the Cuomo MO.

Meanwhile, millions of New York City transit riders are left with a diminished system and few prospects for any sort of improvement. If you ride the bus or the train, then you know all about the longer waits and additional crowding since the 2010 service cuts took effect. Does the governor?

Cuomo didn’t cause the cuts, but he should be making it a priority to restore that service and add more. (Remember when we were talking about hundreds of millions of dollars for additional bus service?) Instead, the MTA is limping along, its budget patched up with Band-Aids.

Yesterday the MTA Board approved a 2012 budget that manages to preserve current service levels even though the agency’s CFO doesn’t know how he’ll find the money. They also voted to fund most of the gap in the agency’s five-year capital plan with $4.5 billion in new borrowing. The official line is that the MTA can handle the debt because it will be paid off with revenue from the (recently slashed) Payroll Mobility Tax.

But with each passing year, debt payments swallow up a bigger chunk of the MTA’s budget. And every dollar spent on debt is a dollar that can’t be spent to run trains and buses. In the last two years alone, according to a recent report from Moody’s, “the MTA’s outstanding debt supported by operations has increased by nearly 14%.” By 2015, the amount the MTA spends on debt service each year will grow nearly 32 percent compared to 2011, according to the transit agency’s forecasts [PDF, page 102].

The projected increase in debt service works out to around 30 cents more per ride by 2015, according to transportation analyst Charles Komanoff. Wondering why the fare keeps rising while the economy stagnates? That’s a big reason.

Does Andrew Cuomo understand that New York City’s transit system is the engine of the state’s economy? Does he care about the millions of people who depend on subways and buses? If he does, he can’t ignore the MTA funding problem much longer.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I expect that Lhota’s job is to allow EVERYONE to keep ignoring the MTA until no one will lend it money anymore.  In the hopes that some other set of politicians will end up holding the bag as the current generation and their backers decamps to Florida.

    The choice is to face disaster now, or face a bigger disaster later, and to judge by essays pleading for capital funds to be diverted to operating budgets on this site, the preference here is for later too.  In fact, just about everyone seems to prefer later.

    Walder did the powers that be a big favor, and those who expect to live or do business in NYC a decade from now a big disservice, when he proposed funding the rest of the capital plan with debt before leaving town.  If a few items are cut out the plan and some of that debt goes to cover shortfalls, with anyone in a position to know this object?

  • Eric McClure

    Ben, I think you mean $4.5 billion.

  • @EricMcClure:disqus  Indeed

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The official line is that the MTA can handle the debt because it will be paid off with revenue from the (recently slashed) Payroll Mobility Tax.”

    So even if that tax continues, what pays for ongoing normal replacement — including projects deferred — in the 2015 to 2019 MTA capital plan?  That’s far away?  I’ll bet that’s what they said when they passed the debt-ridden plan for 1995 to 1999.

    On the operating side, how about this for a proposal?  Following some sacrifices by the TWU, how about raising the effective fare on the subway back to the level of 1995, adjusted for inflation?  Those out if Fidlerville would like it, since one of the big fare cuts was the end of their two-fare zones, for which they have shown zero gratitutde (like everyone else).  Keep all those revenues for better subway maintenance and service.

    And then, how about demading the commuter railroads increase their farebox recovery rate to the level of the subway?  Or at least the level of the subway excluding the maintenance of the stations, which communities are suposed to pay to subsidize?  Can’t do it?  Shut them down for a while.

    If no one is willing to give up anything, I’d rather have the disaster happen right now when you know who is still around to deal with it.  Bankruptcy!  If enough people will sign a petition in favor, perhaps the investors will take fright and the borrowing for ongoing normal replacement and operating costs will stop.

  • Glenn

    Cuomo does seem to want to do small things or one-offs that have clear winners and losers. I think (hope) that when the time is right, he will move in similar to the way Gov. Rockefeller forced the merger of the TBTA and NYC Transit, LIRR and MetroNorth. There are a number of ways to create a win-win (like Sam Schwartz’s Compromise Plan http://www.streetsblog.org/2007/11/05/gridlock-sams-compromise-plan/, along with more red-light cameras, commuter tax instead of MTA regional payroll tax, car registration fees, etc), that could be sold to different constitutencies as a fair compromise. However I think Bloomberg is the main obstacle since he is so associated with congestion pricing. Depending on the economic environment, and a new Mayor’s approach, I think Cuomo could be brought around to a grand compromise.

  • ddartley

    As I keep telling him every time I sign a Rider Rebellion petition, there is no single thing more important to this entire region’s economy and environmental health than reliable and affordable mass transit in NYC.

  • Larry Littlefield

    There are no win-wins. There are no wins and losses.  There are just losses, because up until 2010 there were just wins.  Inflation-adjusted and nominal fare cuts.  Toll reductions relative to inflation and toll removals.  Service increases.  Road construction only at night or on weekends.  Pension increases.  Public employee wage increases relative to inflation (and taxpayer wages).  Higher prices for contractors, with more delays.  Less tax subsidy to the MTA, with funds going elsewhere.

    All funded by debt, advanced revenues, and deferred costs.

    Now, suddenly no one is up to allocate the pain or accept a share of it.  We are seeing the same thing go on at the federal level.  A giant game of chicken, backed by an agreement that future generations are first in line for the losses.  Well across public policy and beyond, there will never be a fair resolution of the future losses unless there is a fair discussion of the past gains.

    That discussion and that allocation isn’t going to make anyone popular.  So they keep selling out so theirs can keep cashing out.  Cuomo can’t win.

  • Glenn

    Larry, there still are wins out there. Tolling the East river bridges and congestion pricing in exchange for reducing/eliminating/rationalizing the toll on the Verrazano and other outer borough bridges, would be a huge win for eliminating congestion in the Central business district and potentially generate more revenue for transit. Combine those with rational curbside parking rates, bikeshare, cracking down on unauthorized placards, increasing more BRT along important routes, etc and you have the makings of a grand transportation strategy that could benefit all city street users with better access and safety and make the city’s air cleaner. The debt squeeze and funding issues are forcing creativity. I couldn’t even imagine congestion pricing or bike share ten years ago, because there was no crisis. Necessity is the mother of innovation – there are plenty of policy tools in the box that can create wins at low cost and tools that would never be used unless there is a feeling of crisis.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Tolling the East river bridges and congestion pricing in exchange for reducing/eliminating/rationalizing the toll on the Verrazano and other outer borough bridges, would be a huge win for eliminating congestion in the Central business district and potentially generate more revenue for transit.”

    It would be a loss for those who drive to the CBD, even if a deserved loss, and it would just offset the debt run up by the inflation adjusted toll cuts they received over the past 20 years.  You may not count their losses as losses, but then again they don’t count transit riders’ losses as losses either. 

    There would be no measurable gain for transit, the revenues would go to costs from the past.  There would be perhaps fewer losses for transit.  But that is where we are, allocating losses to make up for past grabs.

    Just remember, if congestion pricing had passed with a promise of all kinds of transportation improvements when first proposed, we still would have had all the same transit cutbacks and problems as we do now, as it would have brought even less money than the payroll tax. 

    The only “win” is that since it didn’t pass then, the opponents (ie. Weiner) took some of the blame and the idea of congestion pricing was not unfairly discredited.

  • Anonymous

    Is not Gov Cuomo also ignoring the BQE EIS cancellation?

  • Anonymous

    I would expect upstate/downstate and city/suburb tensions to increase going forward because overall tax revenues are going to be lower.  The financial services industry is not going to generate the the kind of tax revenues in the next decade that it did in the previous one, which means continued belt tightening at both the city and state level.

    The general public rarely understands that just because you had a benefit or service in the past does not mean you are going to have it perpetuity.  But in reality, we can not continue to have everything … either there will be less money for transit, or less money for roads and the various enablers of auto-centric living, or more likely, less for both.

    In this context, I think the MTA will need to figure out how to get as much as possible out of a declining capital base.  Spending money on megaprojects, while politically popular, seems like a bad trade for most people who use the transit system.  Preserving service and maintenance on existing lines should be prioritized over projects like the 7 line extension of 2nd Ave line.  (I would rather have a transit system at its current size with trains and buses that run frequently than a system with better coverage but trains that never show up.)

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