Stringer: MTA Funding Would Be a Top Priority as Mayor

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said today that funding transit adequately is "one of the biggest challenges we face." Image: ##http://www.mbpo.org/blog.asp?month=03##Borough President's Office##

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer made the state of New York City’s transit system one of his top policy issues in the run-up to next year’s local elections, saying in a speech this morning that finding new revenues for transit would be his top priority in Albany if elected mayor.

“I believe we need to get back to an era in which public transportation is acknowledged as an essential civic responsibility — right alongside public safety and education,” he said. “Today, the MTA is being held together with a combination of unprecedented borrowing, and fare hikes as far as the eye can see… The fundamental problem is a lack of reliable funding streams for transit.”

Speaking to the Association for a Better New York, a civic association tied to the city’s business elites, Stringer called for new dedicated transit revenues (specifically, reinstating the commuter tax), and the creation of an infrastructure bank just for transit, and the creation of new bus, light rail and subway lines. “This is about building the infrastructure for our success,” said Stringer. “It’s about attracting talent and keeping it here. It’s about minimizing the frustration of getting to work and the uncertainties of getting home.”

On the revenue side, Stringer called for bringing back the commuter tax, which would be levied on incomes of suburban residents working in New York City. A commuter tax dedicated to the city’s general fund was collected until 1999, when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver allowed the repeal to pass in order to win suburban support for Democrats. According to Stringer, reinstating the tax at the same rate of 0.45 percent would raise $725 million annually, which he said should be dedicated entirely to the MTA.

Stringer admitted that getting suburban legislators in Albany to agree to tax themselves to pay for transit would be a tough lift, but that doing nothing isn’t an option. “The politicians can put their heads in the sand,” said Stringer. “We’re going to end up collapsing our mass transit system.”

He also promised that it would be his top legislative priority if elected mayor, akin to Mayor Bloomberg’s push for mayoral control upon taking office. “Every mayor, when they’re elected, gets one big ticket from Albany,” he said.

The new revenues would support both the MTA’s operating budget, where they could be used to prevent fare hikes, restore service cuts, or add new service, and the MTA’s capital budget, where they would fund expansions of the system and ongoing maintenance.

A clever, wonky touch was Stringer’s proposal to transfer revenues from the dedicated mortgage recording tax, which currently help fund the MTA’s operating budget, to the capital budget. Because the real estate market has especially pronounced booms and busts, the mortgage recording tax brings in wildly divergent sums from year to year, making budgeting more difficult. “Relying on a source of revenue that can plunge 75 percent over five years is no way to run a railroad,” said Stringer.

Capital budgets are set over the long term, allowing for the swings in mortgage tax revenues to be smoothed out more easily. Stringer proposed putting the new commuter tax revenue toward operations, allowing the mortgage tax to be shifted safely toward capital expenses.

The mortgage tax revenues, on average about $400 million a year, according to Stringer, would seed a new infrastructure bank dedicated to funding transit projects. Stringer hopes to borrow against that revenue, whether with public tax-exempt bonds or through private financing from groups like the pension funds of SEIU Local 32BJ, to raise $10 billion that could be spent immediately. When asked about the advantage of private financing over cheaper public bonding, Stringer said that establishing the dedicated revenue for capital construction was more important than the financing mechanism.

With $10 billion, Stringer has a long list of projects he’d like to get built: the Triboro Rx line (a circumferential subway route from Brooklyn to the Bronx built on existing rights-of-way), new bus rapid transit lines heading to neighborhoods like Flushing and Flatbush, an AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport, and light rail lines on 42nd Street and in Red Hook. At the same time, Stringer argued that the MTA must stop building vanity projects like the Fulton Street transit hub, which he said “will do nothing to add capacity.”

Stringer mentioned other potential revenue streams, specifically saying that Sam Schwartz’s bridge toll plan “deserves discussion,” but focused his remarks on the commuter tax. Stringer supported congestion pricing in 2007.

With today’s speech, Stringer becomes the second major mayoral candidate to lay out a platform for funding transit. In October, former Comptroller Bill Thompson laid out his plan in an op-ed in the New York Post. He also proposed restoring the commuter tax, as well as instituting a new $1 billion a year weight-based vehicle registration fee, but also repealing the payroll mobility tax, which would offset much of the new revenue. The commuter tax is a particularly appealing revenue stream for mayoral candidates, as it would not fall on a single potential voter.

The putative front-runners for mayor, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, have yet to speak at length about transit funding.

MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg said that the authority wouldn’t support or oppose any particular funding proposal at this point, but that he was happy to hear Stringer talking about the issue. “The MTA needs more funding,” said Lisberg, “and the MTA needs a more reliable funding source.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    1)  Make the next generation pay higher debts be incumbering future revenues, but sex it up.

    2)  Claim that you can make someone else pay.  When the whole history is that someone else making us pay for them.

    It reminds me of Paul Ryan’s plan for the federal deficit.   Of course the alternative is to admit “sorry kids, your’s screwed” and face up to fairly distributing the pain.

  • fj

    Curious that at the last CUNY conference the Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer had on transportation; nothing was said about the potential devastating effect climate change could have on the NYC transportation.

    “Climate Change Could Cripple New York’s Transportation System

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/04/17/462000/climate-change-cripple-new-york-transportation-system/  @climateprogress:disqus 

  • Mike

    So… he would bond 30 years’ worth of mortgage tax to pay for how many years’ worth of capital plan? 5?

    And what if Albany, predictably, declined to reinstate the commuter tax?

    It’s a nice vision, but what would he do in the real world?

  • Harry

    Restoring the commuter tax would be ridiculous and unfair, unless commuters also get to vote for the NYC mayor. Commuters already pay outlandish prices for commuter trains and the high salaries and pensions of ticket punchers. So they are already taxed.  They also contribute to the financial well-being of the City by buying over-priced lunches, etc. and paying sales tax.  Their employers pay additional taxes, in the form of commercial occupancy taxes and support the real estate industry in New York.  If you tax something, you will get less of it – so if you don’t want the financial benefit of having people work in Manhattan, and would rather have New Jersey or Connecticut become the financial center of the East Coast, then go ahead and tax away. And guess what – the MTA’s financial obligations will decrease because it won’t need all of its workers with many fewer commuters. 

  • carma

    @85ff0e2ff3df988466fd109fa9d707ad:disqus 
    RIght on.  look at all the jobs nyc has lost over to the other side of the river in jersey city.  i’d hate to see more of that happening.  i would love if my company relocated our division back to NYC.  but guess what, its cheaper taxes over in jersey.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “So… he would bond 30 years’ worth of mortgage tax to pay for how many years’ worth of capital plan? 5?”

    That used to be the game plan. Now they bond three years.

    It’s all a shell game, designed to cover up what has happened by deferring the consequences.  The MTA has plenty of dedicated revenues.  The problem is they are all dedicated to the past, not to the future.

  • JamesR

    Harry, how is the commuter tax unfair? Suburban commuters may spend their days working in the city, but when they go to bed every night, it’s in communities that are essentially tax parasites on NYC. These communities don’t have their own economies; many of them did 100 years ago, but today, they’re essentially commuter dormitories wholly dependent on the city economy. There isn’t even a remote possibility that White Plains or Greenwich is going to supplant NYC as the world’s financial center.

  • Joe R.

    @85ff0e2ff3df988466fd109fa9d707ad:disqus A good compromise on the commuter tax would be a tax credit which entirely offsets the tax if you take public transit instead of driving. This would be fair also. Those who drive into Manhattan from bedroom suburban communities cost the city far more than they contribute by buying “overpriced lunches”. If the commuter tax induces these people to either take public transit, or simply work closer to home, it would be a good thing.

    Another possibility instead of a commuter tax is a residency requirement. There used to be a residency requirement for NYC public employees. Reinstating this requirement, combined with a NYC residency requirement for ALL workers, both public and private, would be a good alternative to a commuter tax. Many of the high-salaried Wall Street workers who live in suburban bedroom communities could easily afford to live in NYC. This would increase the tax base from which the city could fund mass transit as well as affordable housing for those workers who currently can’t afford to live in NYC. The bedroom suburban communities currently dependent on the city economy would die out within a decade. This would be a good thing on many levels. The reclaimed land could be returned to its original use-farming. Local farming in turn would reduce food prices in NYC. It’s a win-win for just about everyone. 

  • KillMoto

    Oh! A weight based vehicle (tax) registration fee?  Can we require that the fat motorist be in the car when it’s weighed? 

  • Larry Littlefield

    I wonder why no one suggests anything useful, such as eliminating Albany subsidies for downstate bus systems (transferring that money to the all rail MTA), and transferring both responsibility for buses and paratransit and the payroll tax revenues (if they want it) to NYC and the counties. 

    Cut a little fat and the 87 percent of the payroll tax revenues collected in the city, plus the non-station maintenance city payments to the MTA, would probably come close to the net operating subsidy of the NYC bus system.  The payroll tax revenues could allow counties like Westchester and Rockland to improve their bus systems, while counties like Suffolk could drop it and get off our backs.

    Assuming this deal would be a net win for the suburbs, it could be offset by eliminating the municipal aid from Albany for most of them (except those poorer than the city) the way it was eliminated for NYC.  NYC would probably have to come up with a little more money for transit, particularly if it wanted to pay the MTA to keep the free bus to subway transfer (which perhaps outer areas would no longer take for granted if it were threatened), but it would be for transit it operated itself.

  • Joe R.

    @c44dc01f8107c1b33104b538f33b734d:disqus Any weight-based registration tax should be proportional to weight to the fourth power since that is how weight relates to road damage. Normalize the registration fee so a 2000 pound car pays about the same as they do now. That would mean a 6000 pound SUV will pay 81 times as much. Conversely, a very light 1000 pound vehicle would only pay 1/16 as much.

  • Joe R.

    I agree with Stringer on the so-called “vanity projects”. Train stations should be safe and functional, nothing more. Any money spent building a super fancy station could be better spent adding route miles to places in the system which currently don’t have good subway access (i.e. outer Queens and Brooklyn). Save the bling for a time when the system serves all New Yorkers well, and there is still a surplus of money.

  • Mike

    That’s gotta be the Joe R. comment of the year.  Why not just build a 50-foot-tall fence around NYC, with armed guards?

  • Mark Walker

    Stringer deserves a lot of credit for making MTA funding his key campaign issue — and without the usual MTA-demonizing boilerplate about supposed waste. He’s got my attention. Thompson’s proposal about the vehicle registration fee was also constructive. Few of the comments below were. To Harry in particular: I propose that the city government pay for all “over-priced lunches” of NYC commuters — in exchange for commuters paying income tax just as all other workers here do. Of course, that’s not a comment worth taking seriously, but neither was Harry’s.

  • Joe R.

    @2a15ea2c09af9bca9fa0232039062265:disqus People on this site constantly complain about how the cars driven by suburban commuters adversely affect the city on many levels. If you have any of your own ideas for dealing with this problem, then let’s hear them. A residency requirement actually existed at one time for NYC public employees. As far as I know this didn’t violate the constitution. Neither would such a requirement for everybody working in NYC. You wouldn’t be forcing people to live in NYC unless they decide to take a job in NYC. Anyone who doesn’t like those conditions is free to look for work elsewhere. The idea here is that a person who lives in a place has a vested interest in their community, whereas someone who just drives through every day really doesn’t.

    Even though your comment about a fence is facetious, on many levels, NYC might be better off as a separate nation state, complete with the ability to determine who or what can enter its borders. We certainly generate enough economic activity to be self-sustaining, unlike the surrounding suburban communities. As a separate entity, we finally would be free to toll the East River bridges without Albany’s permission, or even ban the entry of private cars from outside the city if we wished.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    The Payroll Mobility Tax.  The tax that made the Commuter Tax look good to the suburbs.

  • Harry

    @JamesR – Really?  Anyone who commutes into NYC is essentially a “tax parasite”?  How’s that?  I pay high taxes.  I don’t use NYC schools.  I don’t use NYC sanitation, police or fire (except via my office building, which already pays huge property taxes and commercial occupancy taxes for these services).  I don’t drive on NYC streets.  And I employ people who live in NYC.  My taxes and high monthly rail pass costs pay for the MTA service in my NY county outside of NYC – both buses and trains, and also roads.  Should you pay taxes to my county every time you want some recreation or passage out of the NYC area?  Or don’t you ever leave?  As time goes by, there won’t be any reason not to tele-commute or just set up shop in another area. And yes, NYC can easily be supplanted as the financial center.  Companies are moving to New Jersey and North Carolina all the time.  It’s also not just lunches.  It’s support of the arts, it’s support of NYC businesses. Etc.  Commuters are what makes NYC important and successful.  If you don’t have commuters, you have an economic Detroit.  This plan is also a tax without any representation.  If I get to vote for or against the bozos proposing to tax me, then it might make some sense.  But if you NYC “service parasites” want my money, then at least let me vote for it.  

  • Harry

    @Mark Walker –  Re “To Harry in particular: I propose that the city government pay for all “over-priced lunches” of NYC commuters — in exchange for commuters paying income tax just as all other workers here do. Of course, that’s not a comment worth taking seriously, but neither was Harry’s.”  Fine, but pay for my county’s taxes too, if you ever want to leave NYC.  This, of course, was taken seriously when the commuter tax was repealed.  It was repealed because it was unfair and because commuters provide the labor and jobs for the city and don’t use as many services.  As it is, NYC taxpayers pay far less in property taxes than those in the suburbs, even taking into account the NYC income tax.  NYC is dependent upon commuters; it’s economy doesn’t function without them.  Suburbs need NYC, but suburbanites can move to New Jersey or CT or Boston or other areas with a financial sector.  NYC’s dominance in the financial arena is not inevitable in an era where physical location no longer matters.  NYC is no longer a port city; it’s ceded that to New Jersey.  It is also losing financial businesses to other cities.  Just look at NC.  If NYC actually had affordable housing and good schools universally, maybe people in the suburbs would be willing to live there. 

  • Harry

    @Joe. R. – The problem with residency requirements is that they don’t work – you will not get enough high quality people to fill the slots.  NYC, also, is already suffering from a shortage of housing.  That’s part of the reason why the millions of people who commute live outside of NYC borders.  If you want to make everyone who actually owns the businesses in New York live in NYC, then you should expect that NYC will lose all of those businesses with people who don’t want the space limitations and high prices of NYC.  The good news for you?  Anyone will then be able to afford a 15-bedroom apartment in NYC because no one will want to be in NYC without jobs.  And farming?  Really?  What we should be encouraging, actually, is a movement away from NYC to sparser areas, with incentives to tele-commute, or engage in 5-10 minute commutes.  The suburbs are perfectly set up for this.  They have good housing, good schools and decent office buildings (people actually do work in commercial settings on Long Island, in New Jersey, in Westchester and Connecticut.  Yes, NYC will then be a ghost-town like Rochester or Schenectady, but the transit systems (and every other system) won’t be stressed, and you won’t have NYCites whining about how “parasites” invade “their” city every day. 

  • Joe R.

    @85ff0e2ff3df988466fd109fa9d707ad:disqus My problem isn’t with suburban commuters in general, but with suburban commuters who insist on driving in during peak hours. Those are the ones who congest the roads, pollute the air, cause accidents, and clean out their cars on people’s front lawns (yes, I’ve had this happen several times already, always it was teachers driving in from Long Island who acted like they had a right to use my front lawn as their garbage dump). If you take the train all the time to work, wonderful, I welcome you with open arms.

    As far as NYC’s housing shortage, if we changed zoning rules and eliminated parking minimums, you would have a lot more affordable housing. Right now all you get are luxury condos because everything else creates only marginal profits for developers. With more affordable housing, you’ll have plenty of qualified workers here. I’m not saying enact residency requirements right now. Do so after the mechanisms are in place to ensure that affordable housing gets built. I’ve little doubt some people will choose to work elsewhere under a residency law. That’s fine. If NYC sets itself up as a model of sustainable living and greatly reduces motor traffic, there will be no shortage of people who will want to live here. If not for high housing costs, NYC would probably have added 5 to 10 million people in the last decade.

    No, for many reasons we should be encouraging moving to denser areas where people can live without cars. The suburban model is unsustainable in the long haul now that cheap energy is history. Since you mentioned NYC property taxes, the reason we pay less here is because the necessary infrastructure serves more people per capita than it does in the sparser suburbs. If a mile of road or sewer or utility line serves 10,000 residences instead of only 1,000, then each residence can be taxed proportionately less, even accounting for the fact that infrastructure in general costs somewhat more in NYC.

    I’ll agree commuters make NYC, if you consider NYC to be mainly Manhattan. However, a good number of those commuters are outer borough residents, not suburban residents. Just look at the numbers who take the subway in each day, versus coming in on NJ Transit, Metro North, or the LIRR. To me it doesn’t matter who lives where. I despise outer borough residents who insist on driving into Manhattan during rush hours just as much as suburbanites who do so, unless they have a very good reason (i.e. carrying more than can be carried by train). NYC has the best public transit system in the nation. There’s little reason anyone who is just bringing in themselves should be driving in during peak hours. Fix that somehow and I’ll drop my idea for residency requirements. As things stand, you have a minority of something like 10% making life miserable for the other 90%. That’s hardly an example of how a democracy, let alone a civilized country, should work.

  • Harry

    @Joe R. – Your clarification is appreciated. But can’t your concerns be solved with congestion pricing that Bloomberg proposed in the past?  It really is about Manhattan, because people don’t commute from New Jersey or Westchester to work in Brooklyn, The Bronx or Queens.  Tax the ACTIVITY (i.e., higher tolls for driving) if you want less of it.  But don’t tax the COMMUTER, unless you want less of it (and less of an economy as a byproduct).  By the way, if one subscribes to the commuter tax argument, then perhaps people who live in the outer boroughs should pay much, much more than the people who live in Manhattan and don’t use the roads or transit as much.  Or, perhaps, people who live in Manhattan and have 24/7 access to subways at a very cheap relative cost, should have much, much higher taxes than those in suburbia or the outer boroughs who don’t have the great public transport and parks amenities.  I’m all for reducing car traffic and promoting public transport and cycling and walking.  But raising the commuter tax won’t solve anything.  As for housing, NYC has been in a “crisis” since world war 2.  To add the number of residential units you are contemplating would take trillions of dollars of investment.  You just can’t “regulate” 5 to 10 million new units, unless, by regulation, you mean that taxes will pay for them entirely. Parking minimums and zoning issues are certainly part of the expense, but the cost of steel, concrete, labor and finishes are still astronomical – that’s a commodity issue not easily solved by regulation.  You want to save the most costs?  Outlaw union labor.  But that’s not practical or realistic.  As for everyone living in the City, there really is nothing wrong with living an exurban life and having a yard and cleaner air and less population density.  

  • Joe R.

    @85ff0e2ff3df988466fd109fa9d707ad:disqus Certainly a congestion tax would be a great way to address my concerns. And yes, it is really about Manhattan because most of the through traffic in my neck of the woods (Eastern Queens) is indeed headed to Manhattan. Solve the Manhattan traffic issue, and you pretty much solve the traffic problems in the outer boroughs.

    My main concern with exurban living is the enormous amount of resources it takes relative to denser living. You use more land and more energy. Even if hypothetically it might in some cases be better (although I can argue to the contrary), at what expense does this come? In my opinion, a good compromise between super dense urban living and exurban living is what we have in the outer boroughs-apartment buildings and townhouses along with single family homes on fairly small (i.e. 20×100 or 40×100) lots. I’m perfectly content with the amount of land on my 40×100 lot. I would never want or need more unless I wanted to grow a significant amount of my own food. Actually, if exurban residents typically used a good portion of their 1 acre lots to grow food, that type of living might be as sustainable as city living but they don’t. It’s really all about putting the land to good use somehow. Either build dense housing or use it to grow food. 1 acre lawns to me seem like an extravagant waste of ever more scarce resources. So do parking lots and megamalls.

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