MTA Stares Down Billion-Dollar Deficit as Liu and Weiner Mock Bridge Tolls

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MTA chief Elliot Sander announced this morning that the city’s transit agency is up against a $1.2 billion budget deficit, and needs government aid or new sources of revenue to avoid fare increases or service cuts. But an expected recommendation by the Ravitch Commission to toll East River bridges is already taking heat from the usual suspects.

Congressman Anthony Weiner and John Liu, chair of the City Council Transportation Committee, competed this weekend for best populist sound bite. Said Liu: "East River bridge tolls get bandied about every time there is a fiscal
crisis. The mayor tried to impose them during the dire fiscal straits
in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and even then it went over like a lead
balloon. This time it will sink equally fast — to the bottom of the
East River."

And here is Weiner’s entry: "Tolls on the East River bridges are just congestion pricing by another name. It is a regressive tax on the middle class. It’s a way to increase the traffic burden, and frankly it’s simply unfair to residents outside of Manhattan."

Naturally, the pandering pols didn’t have to go looking for microphones, as reporters also fanned out across the city for quotes from beseiged drivers and doomsaying business owners, who obliged by "blasting" those who would "drop the hammer on everyone" by "slapping" on the "wallet-busting" tolls.

As for funding alternatives, coverage included Liu’s reference to an unspecified "broad-based revenue source." And Weiner? As usual, the congressman was all talk, no stick.

Image: WCBS-TV

  • andrew

    we should put a toll on weiner & liu’s mouth!

  • pundit

    Congressman Weiner should go back to DC and fight to put some federal money where his fat mouth is.

  • An annotated guide to the Weiner comment (sorry, I can’t help myself):

    “Tolls on the East River bridges are just congestion pricing by another name.” And you’re saying that’s bad…because…?

    “It is a regressive tax on the middle class.” Presumably the 95 percent of commuters who don’t drive into Manhattan are members of an entirely different class.

    “It’s a way to increase the traffic burden” — bikes and subways and buses don’t count as traffic? — “and frankly it’s simply unfair to residents outside of Manhattan.” Except for the 95 percent who don’t drive in?

    If Weiner would like to demonstrate leadership to his many constituents who ride the subway, he might come up with a concrete proposal to find a billion bucks in revenue to replace the East River tolls.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Why pay tolls and higher fares when past decision by people like this have doomed the future anyway?

    The non-decision they are in fact advocating? Wait until the MTA runs out of money and then shuts down, taking a good part of our economy with it, while the geezers in the state legislature move to Florida.

    Perhaps it’s time to embrace the inevitable.

    After laying off all but a few financial staffers, the MTA wait a few weeks and then re-open only those services that can break even, at current fare levels until the lack of capital spending causes them to collapse.

    That would be the subway, minus about 40% of the stations (with every-other one closed you’d have to walk farther) and the money losing Rockaway branch, with no overnight operations.

    So what would “middle class” residents of more distant parts of the city and the suburbs get for their MTA taxes? Well, presumably that’s where the MTA pensioners and people who hold MTA bonds live. And THAT is where all the money is going from now to enternity.

  • “frankly it’s simply unfair to residents outside of Manhattan.”

    What isn’t fair is that I have to face heavy auto traffic queuing up for free bridges into Manhattan (or zooming off of them) when I am on walking to the subway (which costs money, by the way) or riding a bicycle. If they insist on the luxury of driving over the alternatives that the rest of us use almost exclusively, they should have to pay for the privilege of polluting my neighborhood and endangering its residents.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ll expand the scenario in a way Weiner and Liu might approve of — as part of the collapse of the MTA why not get rid of all tolls on MTA bridges and tunnels to Manhattan? We can keep them for the outer boroughs — the “middle class” doesn’t seem to mind those.

    Then ban motor vehicles on the Brooklyn, Queensboro and Willis Avenue bridges and their approaches, so people can walk or bike over.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    It could be the steel cage death match I’ve always wanted. Mayor Bloomberg v. Anthony Weiner for Mayor and bridge tolls in the balance. If Bloomberg wins you get tolls if Weiner wins you don’t. How you actually fund the MTA will not necessarily be decided at that point as you still have the Governors election coming after that, conceivably an even more interesting match-up Benito Giuliani v. David Paterson. Congestion pricing could be part of that one as well.

    As far as actually funding the system though, that pushes things out into the deep end of the pool. How long can the MTA tread water anyway?

  • Before the MTA starts raising fares or undergoing any other measures to raise revenue they need to start cutting costs and reducing the budget. One great way would be to sell defunct assets. 370 Jay Street, the former headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn has been vacant for years and is a complete dump now. They should sell it and collect the $100 million. Instead they are putting $150 million more (that they dont have) into the station (check the budget). Who knows how many more of these valuable assets are sitting around collecting dust and wasting money.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “They should sell it and collect the $100 million.”

    They missed their chance.

    And, BTW, another source finds the MTA is still projecting close to $900 million in real estate transfer tax next year. The only way they get that is if there is a wave of foreclosure sales as investors who bought at the inflated prices that pumped up MTA revenues, now squandered, go under.

    All that extra money. All gone.

  • vnm

    Sell 370 Jay:

    The MTA’s dismal financial situation calls for big solutions. Selling a building for what amounts to chump change ain’t going to do the trick. On a more practical level, since the MTA doesn’t own 370 Jay, how could they sell it?

  • I’m still waiting for Congressman Weiner to save us with that increase in federal gas taxes he promised while helping to torpedo CP.

    It’s time to put up or shut up, Congressman.

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    I agree with vnm. Attention Downtown Brooklyn Partnership: nothing announces faster that a blog is a fake than the absence of new content on a regular basis. How stupid do you think we are?

  • At VNM-
    Im glad you think that the tens of millions is chump change. Thats the kind of attitude that lets millions go unaccounted and leaves you with a budget that looks like swiss cheese. The MTA needs to be paying attention to this stuff. How many other situations are there where there are valuable assets sitting vacant?

    And why are they dumping $150 million into a building that is not worth that much? You might call that chump change but I would call that 10% of the 2009 budget gap.

    Its exactly issues like this that the MTA needs to get a handle on before they start raising fares.

    And practically, you are right, the City owns the land – but the article says that it is master-leased to the MTA. Long-term master-leases effectively operate as ownership. There’s lots they can do with the building – sell it with the city, lease it, whatever. Its vacant, they can certainly get more money out of it than they are now.

    Either way, the MTA’s handling of this building typifies their operations. They allow the building to go to pot because they claim they dont have maintenance dollars while they are sitting on a completely unrealized asset.

  • brent

    If the MTA owns these bridges and the bridges are free, does that mean my subway fare is paying for bridge maintenance so Fresh Direct deliver glazed salmon and people who live in places like “The North Fork” can drive in for free?
    Anyhow, the good news is that bridge tolls are an easy to install solution that will bring results- for all of Weiner’s and Liu’s nifty sound bites, they have no real solutions to offer and this problem has become critical.

  • Cynical

    Why stop at tolling the East River crossings?; put tolls on the Harlem River bridges as well since billions are spent maintaining those bridges too. And while we’re at it reintroduce two-way tolls at all crossings to finally and decisively kill toll-shopping and the free “short-cut” through Manhattan.

    Using the now=free bridges places a higher burden on the city since those approaches are local streets unlike the QMT, Triboro, and BBT which are fed by highways on the Brooklyn/Queens side. Do we need to set the tolls higher on the now-free bridges to force traffic to the highway approaches or will the same toll everywhere result in most traffic on the BQE/LIE, etc?

  • Naturally, the pandering pols didn’t have to go looking for microphones, as reporters also fanned out across the city for quotes from beseiged drivers and doomsaying business owners, who obliged by “blasting” those who would “drop the hammer on everyone” by “slapping” on the “wallet-busting” tolls.

    Were those the reporters from Zagat?

  • Quick Question,

    Does the Mayor as the executive authority of the city with the power to liquidate assets – in other words does he have the authority to sell the E. River and Harlem River Bridges to the MTA for let’s say 1$?

    If he does, why would you need council support for installing tolls? Just have Mike sell the bridges to the MTA/TBTA, and the MTA/TBTA would install tolls because they already have the authority to do this.

  • I guess 370 Jay is the favorite scratching post of my neighborhood’s angry cats. This came in the mailbox from council member David Yassky, News 2008:

    “For more than five years, the MTA’s old headquarters at 370 Jay Street has sat vacant and abandoned in Downtown Brooklyn. Real estate experts value the building at roughly $100 million, but rather than sell the building and stave off a fare hike, the MTA is now proposing to spend $150 million to convert it into office space for bureaucrats.”

    Oh, where to begin? This math has problems! As pointed out above, the MTA does not own the property, so it’s not clear how the real estate’s estimated market value (by experts!!1) is going to help stave off any fare hikes. And whatever it could do to otherwise leverage the asset, the MTA would then have to find somewhere else to put its terrible, terrible bureaucrats. And you see: this thing, this “office space”, it costs money in New York? So, that is something you have to subtract from the pot of gold that comes from not renovating and not occupying the space. Um. I’m not going to be asking Yassky, or any other 370 crank, to do my finances thanks. And my finances are a lot simpler than the world’s biggest subway system’s.

    What I get out of this simplistic, pointless, detached (Marie Antoinette style) attack on the MTA is that these people are not subway riders. No one that depends on the subway to get to work, or even uses it weekly, complains about the MTA’s above-ground business operations. Our problems are no so abstract: there are too many things to complain about underground and inside of busses and trains, more pressing concerns, to worry about a run down and ugly building. I live a few blocks away and ride by it every day and I’m still not sure exactly which ugly building is 370, nor do I particularly care.

    Annoyingly bad mismanagement of one building is a reason to cut off the transportation organization that our entire region depends on? Talk about spurious reasoning. Actually, if we funded our public transportation like a first world city, there is a chance that its bureaucracy would function well enough to not leave assets idle for years on end. Maybe! In the end, these things happen with gigantic organizations. Is there not a DOT building empty, somewhere in the country, that should be filled with highway building bureaucrats, or sold to donald trump or whatever? Come on. New York is big, its transportation system is big, and with that comes big problems. Apply pressure to solve them, please, but attacking the organization as a whole and working to defund it further (into ever more ridiculous universes of debt) is NOT HELPING.

    Anyway, here are some people that apparently suck: “Together with Assembly members Joan Millman and Hakeem Jeffries, Council member Letitia James and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, David [Yassky] has worked to expose this plan for what it is: a hulking waste of the taxpayers’ money.”

    Eff your anti-transit demagoguery, that’s what this neighborhood taxpayer has to say.

    The hilarious epilogue for those who are not sure that Yassky’s “2008” newsletter was written by motorists for motorists: “Residents of the outer boroughs have long suffered from a lack of community parking.” It’s worse than slavery! Wait—are there shared community cars you guys didn’t tell me about? Because, otherwise, um, the “community”, per se, does not really need car “parking” … ? Yassky continues: “The problem is only made worse by the thousands of people from outside the city who drive into Brooklyn and Queens to park before taking the subway the rest of the way into Manhattan.” Unsavory subway-taking tramps, how dare they occupy my motorist neighbors’ free parking! But here is an idea to fix that: stop giving away spaces for free. Then, self-pitying local motorists will no longer have to suffer the search for somewhere to abandon their hulking machines without paying to occupy the space. Or, I guess they can sell the real estate they park on for a million dollars, according to 370 Jay’s crankonomic experts.

  • Thanks, Doc. Yeah, Joan Millman, Hakeem Jeffries, Joe Chan. You’d think James and Yassky would know better. Let’s hope they elect someone better than these losers next year.

  • gecko

    Yabba dabba doo! These guys are like Fintstones Fred and Barney! There should be a lot more space for cyclists and pedestrians on the bridges serving this town.

    Drivers should pay their fair share for taking up all the valuable space.

    It would be great to have the rental income on the equivalent space of these of mobile pieces of real-estate.


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