If Crowded Old Airports Are “Un-New York,” What Are Crowded Old Trains?

cuomo_lga_unnewyork
The governor leaps into action.

Andrew Cuomo’s big infrastructure announcement with VP Joe Biden today was, if nothing else, a tidy encapsulation of how little the governor cares about the big problems facing New York’s transportation systems.

For days the governor’s office had been hyping his appearance with Biden. Was Cuomo finally about to tell New Yorkers how he’s going to modernize the trains and buses that millions of people count on every day? Nope. It was all about a $4 billion plan to modernize LaGuardia Airport, including the plus an AirTrain connection from the airport to Willets Point that’s projected to cost a billion dollars without saving most people any time.

Cuomo’s big pitch: LGA, with its ancient infrastructure, uncomfortable crowding, and chronic delays, is “un-New York.”

Okay, fair enough. So what does that make the subways, with their eighty-year-old signals, overflowing platforms, and chronic delays?

Just a few days ago, Cuomo wouldn’t even entertain the thought of enacting the Move NY plan to cut traffic and fund transit in one stroke. The logical conclusion from today’s announcement is that, in Cuomo’s eyes, Move NY doesn’t address a glaring lack of New York-ness.

New York’s failure to impress tourists who fly Delta is a problem Cuomo wants to personally address. New York’s crushing traffic congestion, unpredictable subways, miserably crowded platforms, and slow buses are just part of the city’s charm.

Classic New York! Photo: Move NY
  • kevd
  • ahwr

    single-family homes, but given the number that exist

    ACS gives 311k detached, 234k attached, 225k two family structures (450k units)

  • ahwr

    However, as a rule home owners tend to be more affluent than apartment dwellers.

    49% of market value, 15% of tax burden. If they’re doing so well why are they given such a large tax break?

  • Bolwerk

    Wow, more than I thought.

    I wonder how much actually is functionally single-family. If I understand housing law correctly, a single family occupant (either a landlord or lessee) can have two unrelated roommates/boarders. All three should be allowed to have a spouse plus dependents, so conceivable three families could live in one single-family home, which may or may not be arranged into separate private quarters.

  • Joe R.

    The purpose of real estate taxes is cover the cost of city services. Forget what the market value is. If the city services a homeowner uses cost the city $6,000 a year then that’s what their real estate taxes should be. Real estate taxes should be adjusted up or down to reflect the annual cost changes delivering these services. If you want to get more money from affluent people then you have sales taxes, incomes taxes, perhaps even wealth taxes. There’s no justification for basing real estate tax on property value. It’s what leads the city to boom and bust cycles where it’s flush with taxes during a boom, overspends, then has to make painful cuts when things go south.

    Where do you get this figure 49% of market value? Really? What about all those skyscrapers in Manhattan valued at hundreds of millions to billions? If we assume 500,000 single and two family homes in NYC (and I think that’s overstating it), and assume an average value of $400K, you end up with $200 billion in market value. The total value of all NYC property was $802.4 billion ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_New_York_City#Real_estate_and_corporate_location ) but that was in 2006. I’m not even sure if that figure is only for Manhattan or for the entire city. Let’s assume the latter. Prices have obviously gone up since then, so maybe now we’re looking at a value of at least $1 trillion. Single family homes by my generous estimate are worth 20% of that. Even if we go with an average value of $600K they’re only worth 30%. Your figures are way off base.

    It’s also worth noting apartment buildings in NYC are often undervalued for what they are compared to homes. I’ve seen 6-story, 24 unit apartments going for under $2 million. If those were valued per square foot of living space the same as many private homes are the going rate might be closer to $5 or $6 million.

    You should also know just in case you’re using NYC Department of Taxation and Finance figures to support your position that the assessed value the city uses often differs substantially from the actual market value. Go by what the properties would actually sell for if you want an apples-to-apples comparison.

  • Joe R.

    In the single family home across the street from us when different people were living at times there were 20 or 30 people living in the home. Some of my mom’s elderly friends rent out a room or two to college students. Lots of people rent out their basements. Still others might have grandparents or other relatives. Very little is functionally single family.

  • Andrew

    I’ll also add my bias here stems from the fact Manhattan to EWR is typically 100% rail, whereas any travel to LaGuardia involves buses.

    A lot of the unreliability with buses comes from the closely spaced stops. The Q70 and M60 don’t have closely spaced stops. Try them – you may be pleasantly surprised.

    Also worth mentioning is how close to the terminals do those buses go versus rail?

    They stop at the curb directly in front of the terminals. Probably a shorter walk than EWR AirTrain, although it’s been a long time since I’ve been to EWR so I could be wrong. Definitely a much shorter walk than JFK AirTrain at most terminals.

  • Andrew

    BTW, the bus to downtown Flushing from me typically takes 40 minutes once you count the normal waiting time. It’s so bad whenever I go to Flushing I just walk, figuring it’s probably not much slower than the bus. I can often be nearly to Penn Station taking the Q64 and E train in the same amount of time just going the 3 miles to Flushing takes.

    And the Q48 from Flushing to LGA takes less time than NJT + AirTrain takes from Penn to EWR, so you’re still ahead with LGA.

    Or, if you prefer, take the Q64 to the E to Roosevelt, where the Q70 makes the quick trip (nonstop) to LGA.

    And then you have the wait time for the Q48, which it wouldn’t surprise me if it was 15 or 20 minutes.

    It’s 20 minutes most of the day on weekdays, less during rush hours. Similar frequencies than NJT, but more evenly spaced.

    It’s all moot though because I flew for the first and last time in 1991. I had no need to fly after that for any reason. With all the crap air travelers have to deal with nowadays I wouldn’t fly if someone paid me to.

    Hey, I hate flying too, but some places are impossible or impractical to get to any other way, and I’m not willing to forego visiting them just because I have to fly to get there.

  • Andrew

    I’ve never found any of the region’s airports remotely pleasant. I’ve never found LGA any worse than EWR or JFK. If I have a choice of airports, I pick my airport based on airfare and convenience.

  • ahwr

    The purpose of real estate taxes is cover the cost of city services.

    In your world. Maybe in some other cities. But why do you think that’s what NYC property taxes are for? And how narrowly are you defining city services?

    There’s no justification for basing real estate tax on property value.

    The city’s public investment increases the value of your home. Why shouldn’t you pay in proportion to your benefit?

    There’s no justification for basing real estate tax on property value. It’s what leads the city to boom and bust cycles where it’s flush with taxes during a boom, overspends, then has to make painful cuts when things go south.

    Real estate transfer taxes got the MTA into trouble because real estate transactions dried up in the bust. Is that what you had in mind? That’s not how the city property taxes work. Given the goofy assessment system the city uses even when real estate prices dropped assessments were still rising for a lot of people, since they were being taxed for less than the price of the new market value anyway.

    Where do you get this figure 49% of market value?

    From the Furman center report I linked below. Here it is again.

    http://furmancenter.org/files/sotc/Distribution_of_the_Burden_of_New_York_Citys_Property_Tax_11.pdf

    Their source is the NYC DOF, from 2011. It’s all class I, including most residential properties with less than three units and condos under four stories. Coops and larger condos sometimes are treated comparably. Rental buildings get whacked hard though.

    If we assume 500,000 single and two family homes in NYC

    From census 2009-2013 ACS: 311k detached SF, 234k attached SF, 225k two family structures (450k units), almost one million total units in one or two family homes.

    you end up with $200 billion in market value.

    If you don’t like DOF, 2009-2013 ACS gives aggregate value of owner occupied housing units of ~1.5 trillion. Breakdown by housing units in structure is:

    1, detached: 914 billion

    1, attached: 133 billion

    2: 127 billion

    3-4: 49 billion

    5+ 267 billion

    The Fruman report got to 49% by including non residential properties as well.

    It’s also worth noting apartment buildings in NYC are often undervalued for what they are compared to homes. I’ve seen 6-story, 24 unit apartments going for under $2 million. If those were valued per square foot of living space the same as many private homes are

    What’s your point? You think that the market overvalues your property, so renters and some condo/coop owners should pay a higher effective tax rate?

    You should also know just in case you’re using NYC Department of Taxation and Finance figures to support your position that the assessed value the city uses often differs substantially from the actual market value.

    Fruman says market value, not assessed value.

    ecological footprint

    What does this have to do with anything? Other people’s tax dollars should be used to inflate the value of your asset because you think you’re greener than some other people?

  • ahwr

    Very little is functionally single family.

    Anecdotes aren’t the way to determine that.

  • nanter

    Full cavity search?

    Flights are not smelly. I thought you’ve only flown once?

  • Joe R.

    In your world. Maybe in some other cities. But why do you think that’s what NYC property taxes are for? And how narrowly are you defining city services?

    City services everyones uses and needs should be covered by sales taxes, fees, tariffs, and wealth taxes. Note I’m not including income tax here because I’m fundamentally opposed to the idea of taxing income but since NYC levies an income tax you can include that if you want.

    Taxes on real estate should cover whatever services the city needs to do because that real estate exists which it wouldn’t otherwise need to do. You can include trash pickup. You used to include water/sewer but now there’s a separate charge for that. You might include snow removal although the city will plow streets whether property is on them or not.

    The city’s public investment increases the value of your home. Why shouldn’t you pay in proportion to your benefit?

    First off, the city does very little investment in areas like mine which make the area more attractive. Now if it were building a subway, I might agree. Second, it doesn’t matter if the value of a person’s home rises to $10 million. It’s their home, it’s not a fucking investment. It’s worthless until you sell it, and if you want to get something comparable in a similar area it’ll be an equal trade. Maybe this kind of thinking makes sense where there are apartments. The city builds a subway, the area is more attractive to live in, landlords can raise rents, and the city can get more real estate taxes. Third, even assuming you “cash in” on an appreciated house and eventually do make some money, you didn’t make anything until you sold it, yet under your idea you should start giving the city some of your unrealized profits every year because on paper you house is worth more. Suppose you’re barely making it, maybe have kids in college, or a family illness, or perhaps you just don’t make much. Where is this extra money supposed to come from? This is why the system exists as it does. People need predictability.You can have taxes subject to market whims. You do realize the price of homes in the city greatly outpaced inflation in the last 3 decades? Don’t thank the city for that. It was a combination of real estate speculators plus a national shortage of urban housing causing it.

    If you don’t like DOF, 2009-2013 ACS gives aggregate value of owner occupied housing units of ~1.5 trillion.

    Check your figures. I think they put an extra decimal place for the value of detached units because it comes out to $2.94 million each. The other figures are believable though. Anyway, with my correction you get a total market value of $667.4 billion. This is believable if you’re including 3, 4, and 5+ family units.

    What’s your point? You think that the market overvalues your property, so renters and some condo/coop owners should pay a higher effective tax rate?

    No, my point is when you look at present property values and tax rates it turns out on a per person basis real estate taxes are roughly the same whether you’re talking single family homes or apartments. A $500K house will be taxed at $6,043 per year. If four people live there that’s $1,511 each. A 24 unit apartment building valued at $2.5 million will be taxed at $146,846. If 4 people live in each unit then that’s $1,530 each. You can do various permutations but in the end on a per person basis in a comparable socioeconomic area I’ll bet the taxes per person are within a factor of two regardless of dwelling type. Now you’ll probably give me some silly argument that this isn’t an equitable way to compare things except I feel you would be wrong. In general twice as many people need twice as much trash pickup, twice as much of other city services. The system may not be so skewed as you think.

    What does this have to do with anything? Other people’s tax dollars should be used to inflate the value of your asset because you think you’re greener than some other people?

    Isn’t your biggest beef against homes that they’re not as green as apartment? If not, then exactly what is your beef? Remember done right single family home tracts don’t necessarily have to lead to more auto use or car dependency. The key is you can’t have ridiculous amounts of land. 20’x100′ or 40’x100′ lots like NYC has in most places can give you a reasonable amount of density.

  • Joe R.

    They did one on my brother’s 85-year old landlady when she flew to California. I wasn’t there but my brother bought her to the airport.

    Airports and planes stink of jet fuel. The fumes at airports are nauseating. I’ve only flown once, but I’ve been to airports a number of times to either see people off, or in a few cases as part of my job.

  • Bolwerk

    I’d guess the motivation, regardless of the original purpose, of USAian property taxation is two-fold:

    1) that you cannot really derive a taxable value from a no-income property any other way. When a property isn’t rented, or even meant to be rented, its valuation can only be based on what it can be expected to retrieve on the market.

    2) For whatever reason, probably mostly tradition and commercial regulation, local governments can levy property taxes, but can’t levy income taxes.

    Strange/dated assessments for larger apartment buildings may be cases of “we don’t care because we get the rental income taxes anyway.” The valuations of properties larger than 6 families are easily based more on income than market sale appraisals.* In these cases, it likely pleases mortgage underwriters not to have to collect too much to hold in escrow either.

    * Really, I’d guess a 4-family building’s market value typically matches the value of its expected future net income in most cases. Probably valued as something resembling a growing perpetuity.

  • Joe R.

    You’re probably right but it strikes me that a better system than real estate taxes would indeed just be to charge for any extra city services a property needs at actual cost. An empty lot obviously doesn’t need regular trash pickup while a building does. A 100 unit apartment building needs a heck of a lot more trash pickup than a single family home, so obviously the owner would pay more (although on a per person basis the charge might be about the same).

    To some extent the city has already moved a bit in this direction. There used to be a ridiculously small water/sewer charge. Presumably, real estate taxes were in theory supposed to cover most of that. Turns out they didn’t, so the city now charges home owners by the gallon for water and sewer. That’s fair, certainly more fair than the other system where your neighbor watering his lawn all day pays the same as a person who tries to conserve water. I’ll be all for dumping the real estate tax altogether and just charging home owners for things like trash pickup, snow removal, etc.

    To show how skewed the system is in many suburbs it’s also used to pay for schools, perhaps because as you say it’s the only revenue source a locality can enact. A couple who never had any kids pays the same as a family with ten kids in school. For various reasons charging a family for basic education for their children on a per child basis probably isn’t a great idea but there has to be a better way to do it than having very high real estate taxes for everyone. NYC thankfully doesn’t depend solely on real estate taxes.

  • ahwr

    Property taxes are a wealth tax. They target the largest asset of most households. For those that rent, they pay the tax in the form of higher rent payments. You like wealth taxes. But when your asset gets hit you don’t like them anymore.

    Garbage collection costs per capita are much lower in denser areas in NYC. Twice weekly pickups in Eastern Queens you don’t fill up the truck, but you do closer in where densities are higher. You could cut collection in Eastern Queens to once every two weeks, charge for waste pickups based on size of the can (to reduce volume produced), and more frequent recycling pickups to cut costs significantly (once collected garbage costs money, recycling is at the very least cheaper, if not profitable). But if you try cutting frequency people in your neighborhood (along with unions of course) complain like hell that the tower people are being treated better with more frequent trash collection. (even if you wouldn’t complain, many of your neighbors would)

    If interested in learning a bit more about inefficiencies in trash collection in NYC, you might find this report interesting:

    http://www.cbcny.org/sites/default/files/REPORT_GarbageFacts_05222014.pdf

  • Joe R.

    My idea of a wealth tax is maybe 5% to 10% of any assets over $10 million. The idea of a wealth tax is to encourage people to put their wealth into things where it’s productive. If they just horde it, they’ll lose a certain amount each year. The idea of any wealth tax which hits the middle class is ridiculous.

    While on this subject, I’ll readily admit I’m not a fan of rents rising more quickly than inflation, either. People need predictability, whether they’re renters or owners. That means the city shouldn’t raise anyone’s real estate taxes faster than the general inflation rate.

    If you want to capture some of the price increases in real estate for the city, then maybe do it via a capital gains tax. I have no objections to that. Whether I made money in the stock market or selling a house, I should still be taxed on the gains when I sell it.

    No argument about the inefficiencies of trash pickup but like I said I’m all for charging home owners for it. It will means people in low density areas pay more than in high density areas but so be it. Oh, and I’m fine with trash pickup every two weeks. As it is now they only pick up recyclables once a week and regular trash twice a week. Let my neighbors complain but I’ll gladly go with less frequent trash pickups if it makes things more equitable.

    BTW, I’m surprised how little per person the city spends on trash pickup. It’s under $200 per capita. Even if you want to charge me 5 times that to account for the lower density here, I’m fine with paying $1,000 per per person.

  • ahwr

    From what I’ve read something like 90% of class I properties have an assessment below market value that can increase only at the capped rate of 20% over five years. You might complain that it’s increasing too fast, but you would have a hard time arguing right now that it isn’t predictable.

    The idea of any wealth tax which hits the middle class is ridiculous.

    The rich don’t have enough to pay for everything.

  • qrt145

    Businesspeople and wealthy people who live in Manhattan probably take a car to the airport anyway, not only because it is faster, but also because it is more comfortable, especially if you are carrying stuff. From the UES it is quicker to get to LGA, but from downtown to EWR.

  • Maggie

    People traveling for business usually are not bringing much luggage. No matter how long the flight or trip, the goal is to carry everything on.

  • qrt145

    I know, but even lugging the typical carry-on through two or three transfers to get the NYC airports using transit is a pain. Plus, people traveling for business typically get their employer to pay for the cab ride.

  • Maggie

    What airport profits??

  • Maggie

    Sure – transfers are a pain, adding up wait times for extra trains and buses is a pain, navigating crowded Penn Station is a pain, pulling a bag through subway turnstiles and up subway steps is a pain.

    I just think people – airport travelers, business owners, Queens locals – are jumping up and down and calling for Cuomo to fix this, instead of his stupid “let them take Uber while I award $4 billion in airport construction contracts” approach.

  • J_12

    Agreed that a direct link between a couple of major transit hubs in the city and the airport would be best for travellers (maybe midtown, downtown, atlantic center, and possibly jackson hts.)

    But given that any realistic system is going to need to piggyback on the existing infrastructure – e.g. subway or bus to nearby station, then dedicated transit option to airport terminals – the overall reliability of the system comes into question.

    The subways are pretty reliable except for once in a while when they aren’t. For something like your daily commute, that is ok, as being late once in a while because the train got stuck for 45 minutes is acceptable as long as you are usually on time, so you can play your trip around average travel times.
    For travel to airports, it is an occasional trip with really bad consequences for being late, you you need to plan the trip around the maximum possible travel time.

    Regarding air train, I was referring more to the cost to the rider. The additional $5 for what is the shortest and slowest leg of the trip always seems like an insult.

  • ahwr

    http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/miarticle.htm?id=11220

    In 2013, New York’s three airports generated nearly half a billion in profit for the Port Authority. Even LaGuardia, with its reliance on cheaper domestic flights, kicked in $19 million.

  • fdtutf

    My perception is probably based at least partly on the point I quoted from Joe R. above, but also LaGuardia just seems rundown. “Out of repair,” as the British say. I find it actively unpleasant, rather than just the kind of passive unpleasantness that all airports share to one degree or another.

  • Maggie

    I think Canada and the UK closed theirs. It’s such a huge, wasteful giveaway.

  • Maggie

    Thank you for this link! Nicole Gelinas covers the topic so well. I should read her more.

    I did a quick dive into the Port Authority annual report for 2014. If I’m reading them right (financial accounting is complicated), the annual operating profit for LaGuardia was $19 million, but capital investment was $216 million.

    So that’s about $8 per LGA passenger in capital investment, on 73 cents per LGA passenger of operating profit.

    At JFK it was $2.70 in capital investment per passenger and $3.53 per passenger operating profit, and Newark is $2.06 investment against $6.15 operating profit. All before depreciation. I should really smooth out annual ups and downs in capital investment spending, but I was too lazy to pull back years of their reports.

    Also I guess some $39 million in Port Authority profits were diverted towards PATH operating costs related to Super Bowl regional support activities. from page 60. I have mixed feelings about supporting transit but subsidizing the NFL (ugh!!) and the post-game path operations were a total fiasco, if I recall correctly.

    Gross operating revenues, 2014: LGA $367 million; JFK $1,168 million; EWR $894 million
    Passengers: LGA 27 million; JFK 53 million; Newark 36 million
    Annual report here: http://www.panynj.gov/corporate-information/PDF/annual-report-2014.pdf

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