Gene Russianoff on the MTA’s $17.5 Billion Hole

Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, talks to Streetsblog about the future of transit funding without congestion pricing. Direct quotes are in quotation marks.

generussianoff.jpgStreetsblog: Without pricing, how will the MTA get funded?

Russianoff: They currently have a proposed $29.5B capital plan. The vast majority is for stuff that absolutely has to be done — rehabbing 44 stations, buying buses, signal and track work, and so on. There is a $9B projected deficit plus $4.5B that will not be coming from pricing bonds, plus $4B that won’t be coming in additional city and state money that was promised if pricing passed.

"Traditionally the MTA has raised funds from broad-based taxes — corporate income tax, mortgage recording tax, real estate transaction tax, sales tax, gas tax — and through fares and tolls. With tolls, excess from upkeep of bridges and tunnels is given to the MTA, and a large chunk of that is used for capital projects. Now [without pricing], we can do what [former MTA chief Peter] Kalikow said five years ago and increase all of them a little bit."

But these are all subject to fluctuation, as we’re seeing now with the dip in real estate tax revenues, which had previously allowed the MTA to run surpluses.

"So one solution is the traditional one, which is to raise one or more of those taxes." Richard Brodsky has said relying on a broad-based tax is what he prefers.

Streetsblog: What about this millionaire’s tax proposal?
Russianoff:
"Doesn’t seem like it’s going to pass this time around. Senate Republicans have rejected it. Bottom line is they’ll have to come up with the money from somewhere."

Streetsblog: What about Fidler’s payroll tax?
Russianoff:
"In the 25 years I’ve followed transit, just about every kind of tax has been proposed."

In 1984, the Democrats proposed a version of the payroll tax to support the MTA. Republicans didn’t want it, so they proposed the corporate income tax, which passed. They put in a sunset clause, so now it comes up for renewal every few years. Legislators use it to "extract their pound of flesh from the MTA" — i.e. the threat of lowering the rate or not renewing the tax is used as leverage to get projects they want.

"I suppose you could make the tolls five times higher, but I think that would be even less popular than pricing."

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