The Last Thing New York Needs Is a Tax Break for Drivers

The MTA capital program, which funds maintenance and expansion of the transit system, is on the final year of its five-year cycle. A new plan is being developed, and the big question is how the state is going to pay for it. At a hearing of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, state legislators got briefed on the need to plug the enormous funding gap in the next capital program. At the same time, one State Senator is trying to create a new tax incentive to drive.

The MTA has a funding gap, but State Senator David Carlucci wants a tax break for drivers. Photo: Ben Sutherland/Flickr
The MTA has a funding gap, but State Senator David Carlucci wants a tax break for drivers. Photo: Ben Sutherland/Flickr

The MTA has been increasingly relying on debt to finance its capital program — 60 percent of the most recent capital program used borrowed money — and that burden leads to higher fares for straphangers.

The MTA is setting aside $370 million annually for its capital program beginning next year, but an agency official told the Assembly committee today that it was just “a drop in the bucket” of the authority’s total needs, which are likely to exceed $5 billion annually for everything from new buses to expansion projects like Metro-North stations in the eastern Bronx.

“The 2015-2019 capital program is essentially unfunded. We’re one short year away and we don’t know where most of the money is coming from,” said Craig Stewart, the MTA’s senior director of capital programs. “We’re going to need your support.”

MTA officials deferred to the legislature to come up with a funding scheme, but advocates at today’s hearing backed the Move NY fair tolling plan, which aims to reduce tolls on outer-borough crossings while creating a uniform toll to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street. The proposal, which would raise $1.5 billion annually, much of it to fund the MTA capital program, received a friendly but non-committal response from most of the Assembly members on the panel.

While Assembly members, advocates, and MTA officials were discussing a nuanced response to the state’s transportation funding crisis, State Senator David Carlucci unveiled his latest proposal today in Rockland County: A tax cut for drivers who pay tolls.

Carlucci, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, hopes to enact his $250 state income tax credit — part of the IDC’s “Affordable New York” agenda — through legislative budget negotiations. The tax credit wouldn’t actually save New Yorkers money — it would probably just shift costs from drivers to general taxpayers. Carlucci’s office said it wasn’t sure how much the plan would end up costing or how it would be paid for.

Back in the Assembly, committee members wrestled with the MTA’s funding needs.

“We’ve cut more than $800 million of annually recurring costs over the past several years,” MTA chief financial officer Bob Foran told the panel, but he warned that without concessions from labor unions, rising pension and healthcare costs threatened to swamp what savings the authority had achieved. “If it sounds like I’m trying to raise an alarm, I guess I really am,” he said.

The capital program has higher costs ahead, as well: In response to increased pressure after last month’s deadly Metro-North derailment, the MTA is planning an additional $400 million expenditure on Positive Train Control in its next capital plan, and post-Sandy repair and resiliency initiatives, though covered primarily through the federal government, will also require additional state funds.

While Assembly members recognized the agency’s need for funding, some also focused on improving the agency’s practices. James Brennan, who chairs the committee, asked about the agency’s reliance on consultants and cost and schedule overruns on mega-projects like East Side Access, the project to bring Long Island Rail Road service to Grand Central Terminal.

On that front, there was bad news: Preliminary results from a consultant’s report indicated there are more cost overruns and delays on the way for the project. “It is slipping a little further and it could cost more,” Stewart said.

Given the escalating costs of large rail expansions and the immediate need for transit improvements, particularly in areas not well-served by the subway, advocates have focused on securing an aggressive rollout of Bus Rapid Transit projects. They were joined today by Assembly Member Nily Rozic, who said she wanted to see Select Bus Service and BRT in her eastern Queens district.

Not all lawmakers were as enthusiastic. “You’re talking about taking lanes away from already-congested streets. The problem is that there are cars that just can’t be moved,” said Assembly member Phil Goldfeder. “You’re not going to increase public transit use.” A backer of re-establishing rail service on the Rockaway Beach line, Goldfeder urged advocates to support that project, which he said would have more permanence as transit infrastructure.

Advocates did not commit support to Rockaway Beach reactivation, and defended their interest in dedicated busways. “We see Select Bus Service and Bus Rapid Transit as providing that improved service so as people don’t have to drive,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool said.

“I do want to ask you not to be dismissive of buses as infrastructure,” Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin said, pointing out that upgrading major bus corridors “makes an enormous difference for riders.”

One proposal that did receive near-unanimous support from legislators today: Requiring employers of a certain size to offer pre-tax transit benefits to their employees. Such a law, modeled on a San Francisco mandate for all businesses with 20 or more employees, could be enacted at the city or state level, Raskin said.

  • anon

    Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Rider’s Alliance should be generating emails to Carlucci and members of whatever committee this was referred to in order to kill the bill before it can get legs.

  • anon

    The argument between Goldfeder and the advocates is disheartening, as they should be natural allies.

    No transit advocate should be against the re-activation of the Rockaway Beach line, except maybe to demand that it becomes part of the subway instead of LIRR.

    Goldfeder, on the other hand, should not be criticizing the taking of lanes. He should just argue that an above-ground right-of-way is the best transit possible, and clearly superior to a BRT-lite bus route like SBS.

  • Kevin Love

    “MTA chief financial officer Bob Foran told the panel… that without concessions from labor unions, rising pension and healthcare costs threatened to swamp what savings the authority had achieved.”

    In other words, he wants to take money away from sick and elderly people. That’s vicious. Particularly nasty would be taking money away from sick and elderly people and giving it to car drivers in the form of a $250 tax credit.

    That’s a “reverse Robin Hood.” Take from the poor and give to the rich.

  • Bolwerk

    It could be Rob Ford’s complex. Toronto neo-cons are posturing to spend billions$ ripping up streetcars and replacing buses because they supposedly congest traffic for the important driving people. Just build subways when we get around to it! Never you mind that Toronto may have the best surface transit system in North America at this point. And they didn’t learn anything from New York’s history of doing the exact same thing starting under LaGuardia.

    Meanwhile. if these people actually studied the matter, they’d see that reducing lanes often improves automobile traffic. They’re basically screwing themselves too.

  • Bolwerk

    The “Independent” in “Independent Democratic Conference” is a noun, not a verb. It is a euphemism for a Republikan who is smart enough to feel too ashamed to admit to being a Republikan, but not empathetic enough to stop supporting the party.

  • anon

    I think before giving car drivers a tax credit the MTA has in mind to fund their capital plan (bringing the system up to a state of good repair, new signaling, rolling stock replacement/acquisition, new buses, expanding the subway network, finishing ESA, looking into PSA etc…) without taking on as much debt as last time. Last 5 year plan was financed with 60% debt I believe. That debt is going to be paid back through higher fares. Forgetting about new subways, they can’t maintain what they have already without taking on debt.

    http://nypost.com/2011/07/13/mtas-too-nice-pay/

    Hundreds of folks more than doubled their pay through overtime and
    other extras, including 53 Metro-North conductors who took home an
    average of $166,494 each and 11 LIRR engineers who took home about
    $169,431 apiece.

    Nineteen foremen on the LIRR, too, took in an average of $164,057
    with salaries, wages and any extra cash payments. Fifteen Metro-North
    engineers took in $156,450 each.’

    Remember pension payments are still based on salary in the last year or two.

    People without a lot of overtime and other extras did just fine,
    too. The average LIRR worker made $84,850, just behind the brass and
    police at headquarters. The average city transit worker — mostly union
    members — took in $69,126.

    These figures don’t even include benefits. With the MTA’s pension
    and health-care payments, averages would be in the six figures.’

    They’re getting paid well. Really you could cut out ridiculous work rules (extra days pay for driving electric and diesel locomotives during the same shift, not basing pensions off inflated overtime salaries from the last couple years) and start to phase in moderate contributions to health care ( remember nationwide health spending is growing much faster that inflation, it is a problem for everyone) and the MTA finances would start to look great. Or do some of that and get the city and state to stop skimping on payments to the MTA.

  • Kevin Love

    Imagine that… cutting over 4,000 jobs means 98 (add them up,,, 98) of the people who are left have to work crazy overtime. To quote the noted philosopher Gomer Pyle “Surprise, surprise, surprise.” See:

    This “problem” has a simple solution. Hire back enough of the over 4,000 jobs cut to reduce the overtime worked by 98 people.

    MTA workers should be paid well. They do tough jobs in adverse working conditions. Public safety depends upon them, so I want the best people doing these jobs.

  • anon

    What do you consider paid well? More than ten percent of the work force makes over a 100.000. A lot of them make more than that in pension payments. At that point you’re robbing the riders, who often make much less than that, to pay those exorbitant salaries.

    The big ticket to go after are work rules. Over twenty years, you could phase out conductors on LIRR and metronorth, replacing them with a combination of fare gates, self ticket machines, and random checks for example. If you get rid of the antiquated work rules and positions like the conductor, you could cut staffing levels, and yea, share some of the savings with the remaining workers. Between buyouts and not replacing all workers who retire, you could do this over a long time without layoffs. But the union still fights it. Ending that will go a long way towards improving the MTAs long term finances.

  • Riddley_Walker

    “You’re talking about taking lanes away from already-congested streets.
    The problem is that there are cars that just can’t be moved,”

    No, the problem is that there are too many cars on the street.

    Removing lanes and replacing them with bike and bus transit will reduce congestion because fewer people will drive there. Congestion charges and tolls on traffic should be used to fund public transport and active transport infrastructure. That way you discourage inefficient transport, and enable efficient transport.

    The same argument was used by traffic engineers when Portland OR removed the 6 lane freeway Harbor Drive. They said you can’t remove a freeway, it will cause traffic chaos, etc. In fact, nothing happened. The traffic just went away.

    Roads induce congestion, removing roads solves the problem.

  • Kevin Love

    Most of that “more than ten percent of the work force” is management positions. The MTA chief makes more than the governor of NY state. Those are not union jobs.

    Whether or not MTA management is paid “exorbitant salaries” is a matter of opinion, but they are in line with similar management responsibilities in the private sector in NY City.

    Do you really want to eliminate conductors from trains? Many commuter rail systems have a POP system and random fare inspections. But they still have conductors.

    Why? Because people have security concerns. It is a matter of social safety. And conductors are far cheaper than police officers.

  • anon

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/03/nyregion/03mta.html

    1/4 of LIRRs 7000 employees earned over 100k.

    There’s a lot of fat to trim in ‘MTA management’ sure. But the union is the 800 pound gorilla. You could have conductors without fare collectors. Most of the fare collectors look like they’d be useless if there was any security concern. They’re not trained for it. Some 15% of LIRR/Metro-north revenue goes to fare collection. That needs to be brought down. Along with ridiculous work rules that allow for tens of thousands in extra payments to workers. The mta is not a welfare agency.

  • Kevin Love

    OK, I figured out why you are quoting from such old articles, the one in your most recent post being dated June 2, 2010. That was the era of the big job losses. As your first article correctly noted, over 4,000 employees lost their jobs through layoffs, buyouts or attrition.

    This, of course, has the effect of producing a massive pay spike. Buying someone out voluntarily isn’t cheap, Neither is the amount we have to pay to lay someone off against their will. Many people who retire have significant backlogs of vacation pay which they take as cash. Finally, losing 4,000 employees means that many of the ones that remain have to work crazy overtime.

    Remember, every hour of overtime worked was requested and authorized by management. Workers do not control this.

    It is my opinion that the base rates of pay of MTA workers are reasonable, given the tough nature of the jobs and the adverse work conditions under which they are performed. If you disagree, I would be interested in knowing what you believe is reasonable to pay these employees.

  • Ian Turner

    Regarding safety, people said the same thing about station agents, but their elimination doesn’t seem to have changed things at all.

  • Kevin Love

    It is the people who feel a little insecure and are not going on transit any more. Typical demographics are the elderly, children and the disabled. In many cases, the duties of the positions cut explicitly include offering assistance to travelers. Assistance heavily used by those demographics.

    I do not fall into those categories, and consider myself a confident transit user. Perhaps someone who does can comment further.

    In terms of “changing things,” it is tough to measure the people who are no longer there.

  • anon

    Overtime scams in the MTA aren’t new.

    http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/nyregion/LIRR/documents/executive-summary.pdf

    Inspector general report from 2006. Give it a read. See how some are abusing penalty and overtime payments.

    As I said earlier, if you move on the antiquated work rules, you’d save a fortune. You can even share some of those savings with MTA employees. Right now that money is going to people who abuse the system, doubling or tripling their salaries. If you get rid of that abuse, and improve productivity by getting rid of antiquated positions, you can share the savings with the honest workers, raising their base pay, and still have money left over to increase service. Or help bring MTA facilities up to a state of good repair. This isn’t about attacking the poor blue collar MTA employees. They deserve a good pay. The base salary back in 2006 was $64k for engineers/conductors. I’m sure it’s a little higher now. When they double or triple their salary though, it’s a problem. Because that’s not affordable. Especially when they conspire with their fellow workers to allow those near retirement to receive the most penalty payments – pension payouts are based on salary in the years preceding retirement.

    Every year from 2000 to 2008, between 93 percent and 97 percent of
    employees over 50 who retired with 20 years of service got disability
    payments. Experts had to wonder what other workplace, besides the gulag,
    crippled so many of its workers.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/opinion/sunday/payback-on-the-lirr.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/19/nyregion/metro-north-railroad-time-sheets-were-falsified-inquiry-says.html

    Metro-North Railroad
    foremen and repair crews have repeatedly falsified time sheets, spent
    large stretches of work days running personal errands and misused
    agency-issued vehicles, according to an investigation by the inspector
    general for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

    In a draft letter dated Dec. 3, the inspector general, Barry L. Kluger,
    wrote that from April to August, every foreman investigated by his
    office from the agency’s structures department “abused his position by
    engaging in nonwork related activities during business hours” and
    “involved members of his crew in the abuses” while filing inaccurate
    time sheets for himself and his crew.

    Any large organization will have certain inefficiencies. But that’s no excuse to allow this blatant theft to continue. There are good hard-working honest employees at the mta. And they suffer just as riders and taxpayers do when this abuse is allowed to continue.

  • Kevin Love

    OK, I read the Inspector General’s report from February of 2006.

    The report criticized management for failing to keep adequate records justifying substantial overtime and work rules violations payments. As well, of course, for incurring the overtime and work rules violations in the first place.

    I did not see any reference whatsoever in this report to employee dishonesty or abuse. If I somehow missed this, please feel free to point it out. If you cannot do so, then I would suggest that you have engaged in a gross falsification and misrepresentation of the report.

  • Bolwerk

    Conductors aren’t security. They’re another potential victim, in this case wearing a distinctive uniform and known to handle cash. Hell, that’s true of police to some extent; they may have guns, but they aren’t immortal.

    The best security is having a lot of riders. But if we’re going to have security on trains, yeah, it probably is best to use trained professionals.

  • Kevin Love

    Conductors are not security per se. They are part of the Social Safety network. What Jane Jacobs called “Eyes on the street.” Their official status provides a sense of comfort to passengers.

    I was once told that conductors receive First Aid training. Can someone confirm or deny this?

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    At least expanded Bus Rapid Transit projects are being brought up by people like Assembly Member Nily Rozic. It’s great to see some of our representatives trying to support the people. I’ll be in the look out for her to see if she can has the backbone to stand against the dashboard view 1% politicians aground her.

  • Philip McManus

    Why do we have congestion? Too many cars or not enough subways and LIRR. Stop punishing people that have no transit options except their cars. We need to expand the transit system including the Queens Rockaway Beach Line. I support the people who are trapped in a government made traffic nightmare. Why does it take 2 1/2 hours to cross Queens? Why does it take 3 hours to travel to the Bronx or Staten Island? Do you think we should force people to travel 2 1/2 hours on overcrowded, dangerous, dirty, and unreliable roadways, buses and trains? I support the right of the people to freedom of movement. Lets expand our transit system with real improvements. We need to unite our City with faster transportation and save time money and lives.

  • Workman

    Sure and put people who really need a job out of work at the same time… Nice

  • anon

    ‘Between buyouts and not replacing all workers who retire, you could do this over a long time without layoffs.’

    Nobody loses their job. The next generation doesn’t have to pay for a middle class-upper middle class lifestyle for thousands of people who aren’t needed and can instead have lower taxes, lower tolls, lower fares, and better transit. What’s the problem?

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