With the next three years of the MTA capital plan officially moving forward — even without dedicated funding from Albany — it’s time to start talking about 2015. That’s when the next MTA capital plan starts. And distant as it may seem, on the political calendar it’s just around the corner.
In fact, in Albany, the discussion about how to pay for the next round of repairs and expansions to the transit system has already started. Assembly Member James Brennan, who chairs the committee responsible for the MTA, has just introduced a bill calling for a $4.5 billion bond issue, split evenly between transit and roads statewide.
The bond issue, which would go before the voters in 2013, would differ from the bonds floated by the MTA for the current capital plan. Without a dedicated funding stream, the MTA can pay back the debt it takes out in two ways: raising fares and tolls or cutting service. But the bonds proposed by Brennan would be the responsibility of the state, payable out of income taxes or spending shifted from anywhere else in the state budget.
“Everything the state pays for, that the MTA doesn’t have to pay for, helps the riders,” said Brennan.
Both the $4.5 billion pricetag and the 50/50 split between transit and roads, said Brennan, are calculated to help transit as much as possible while keeping the proposal politically viable. “There have been some bond issues that have been defeated,” said Brennan. “The public is concerned about debt.” The last state transportation bond, passed in 2005, provided $2.9 billion, half of it going to the MTA.
That said, even Brennan acknowledged that $4.5 billion wouldn’t be enough to fully fund the MTA’s next capital program. Based on past plans, Brennan guessed that the MTA would need another $6 billion or so to fully pay for its construction and maintenance work, not including federal and state support that would also have to come in. “This nowhere near addresses the shortfall,” he admitted. “Obviously the state has to step it up.”
Though the burden of paying back the bonds wouldn’t fall directly on MTA riders, the lack of an accompanying revenue stream is less than ideal. In 2005, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign supported the bond measure, but argued that user fees on driving, such as a gas tax increase or road pricing, would be preferable to more debt.
“It’s easy for me to be in favor of it,” Gene Russianoff of NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign told Capital New York. “It’s a way to ask the voters to come up with the bucks to fix the infrastructure, and the debt service would not accrue to the M.T.A.”
“We support this proposal to issue new transportation bonds as part of a package that includes new revenue sources to pay back the bondholders,” said a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives.
The legislation authorizing the referendum has 17 co-sponsors in the Assembly. All are Democrats. They hail from not only New York City, but also its suburbs and regions farther upstate.
The person whose support is needed, of course, is Governor Andrew Cuomo. When asked whether he’d heard from the governor’s staff about his proposal, Brennan, whose transit lockbox legislation was “eviscerated” by Cuomo, responded wryly: “Immediately after sending out the press release I got a call from the governor. He said, ‘Jim, you are the true leader, and not me.’ No, there’s been no response.”