Paterson Abandons Long-Term MTA Financing Effort

We’re getting dangerously close to transit Armageddon.

Seeking a quick resolution to the MTA funding crisis, Governor Paterson lobbied over the weekend to get a Band-aid fix through the State Senate. The problem is, Paterson’s plan provides no resolution at all. Fundamental details of the proposal are still sketchy, even as the governor pushes for a vote as soon as today, but there’s no doubt that the numbers don’t add up to a healthy transit system. Consider:

By pushing for a stopgap measure on the Senate Democrats’ terms, Paterson has effectively abandoned the framework laid out by the Ravitch Commission. His proposal does not share the funding burden equitably — car commuters pay nothing to keep congestion-busting trains and buses running. Nor does it address long-term funding needs, risking system-wide decline by leaving even routine maintenance unpaid for.

Observers are in the dark about the most basic aspects of the governor’s proposal, like how much it would raise in total. Does the plan still fund upstate roads and bridges with a surcharge on New York City cab fares? Will service cuts still be necessary even if this plan passes? It’s hard to tell when all the discussions take place behind closed doors.

Advocates aren’t pleased. The Empire State Transportation Alliance — a coalition representing business, labor, and environmental groups — released a statement yesterday stressing the importance of funding the MTA capital plan now, not just passing a temporary fix. 

"In light of what has transpired as well as what has failed to happen to date, we have little confidence that the Governor and Legislature will be able to come together to address the urgent capital needs of the MTA once such a band-aid is applied," said ESTA co-chair Kevin Corbett in a statement.

Delaying action on the capital plan will also affect transit service down the line, because debt payments come out of the MTA’s operating budget. "The two are very closely related," RPA’s Neysa Pranger told Streetsblog. "A good part of the reason they’re in the operating deficit now is that they had to borrow to pay for the capital plan. By 2012, debt service will eat up 20 percent of the MTA’s operating budget. If you don’t do the capital piece now, you run the risk of driving the system into the ground, or the MTA continues to borrow a lot of money which puts additional pressure on fares and service. It’s all part of the same picture."

Politically, passing a sound plan will only get tougher from here on out, as the 2010 elections draw closer. "The MTA will be very constrained by the election cycle," said Pranger, noting that the agency will soon have another budget shortfall on its hands, but the money to cover it probably won’t come from fare hikes. "It’s happened before, Pataki would give the MTA these one-shots — payments out of the general fund. The legislature has got to be wary of the fuzzy math right now, and demand some answers about where the money’s going, before voting on anything."

  • Glenn

    Can I hazzard a guess at what’s going on? Democrats in the state legislature and NY Congressional delegation think that the Feds will fund the capital plan, but not operating costs.

    I’ll call this the Weiner/Smith cop-out on transit funding. And I don’t think we should believe anything like this will happen until the money starts to flow.

    The central question in strategies like this is: If New York is not willing to fund a capital plan at all because of local political opposition to direct funding mechanisms, why should the Feds donate anything?

  • Why isn’t our mayor, who prides himself on riding the subway, busy arm-twisting Senate Republicans (especially the ones whose campaigns he contributed to) to support the Ravitch Plan?

  • Red

    That’s an interesting angle, Glenn.

    Sen. Durbin to champion capital funding bill for nation’s seven largest transit systems:

  • Larry Littlefield

    Who here is ready to concede that Doomsday would be better than establishing the precedents of:

    1. Deferred maintenance in cases when the resulting service collapse would not occur until those “at or over 55” had cashed in and/or moved out.

    2. Having New York City residents pay special extra taxes which are spent elsewhere. Perhaps in exchange for Bloomberg’s city sales tax increase or the city income tax increase Quinn wants, the rest of the state would get 50% while paying nothing?

    3. Raising payroll taxes to “save the MTA” and exempting retirement income, while using all the funds today and none of them for a futrue the retired don’t care about.

    Does anyone really believe after having kindly given all that money (as if they paid it) to the “unaccountable MTA” the legislature is going to actually fund the capital plan? They haven’t done so for 20 years (and the situation for road maintenance is as bad).

    We are approaching the Generation Greed endgame. The goal is to keep hiding the consequences as long as they can. Anyone who cares about the future of this city would vote no. Sheldon Silver, Mr. Obstruction, certainly is in no position to say he “has to” vote yes if this isn’t his doing as well.

  • epc

    W/R/T Bloomberg pressuring the Senate GOP to support the Ravitch plan: I don’t think there’s a mechanism in the NY State Senate for the minority to move a measure. This is what blocked Democrats from introducing measures in years past, even if they had moderate GOP votes to move the measure. If Smith won’t introduce the Ravitch plan into the Senate then there’s no way to vote on it, even if (unlikely) the entire GOP delegate voted in favor of it.

  • epc, the minority party may not be able to move a measure, but if Malcolm Smith knows he has enough votes from Democrat and GOP senators, he would bring the plan to the floor to vote.

  • Car Free Nation

    I don’t think anything comes to the floor unless all members of the delegation agree beforehand that they’ll vote for it (in return for some backhand dealing). In this way, all of nyc is governed, by a small minority of legislators, who won’t consent.

    When was the last time a bill came to the floor that failed.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Sometimes they tell the truth by accident. Paterson in The Daily Politics:

    “Let’s just clear up the issue so that over the next few years the people who ride the subways and use the commuter trains and ride the buses will not have to worry about the fares and the service cuts. Then we can move on to the capital plan..”

    After the next few years? How many is that? If you’ve noticed a large number of signal failures on the IND lately, blame about a seven year gap in signal replacements in the 1970s, pushing those systems to more than 75 years old. And the first bond issue was passed for the Second Avenue Subway in the 1950s.

  • Larry Littlefield

    What is the average age of members of the New York State legislature, including Paterson who is an ex? How many care about anything past “the next few years?”

  • Pags

    The writing is on the wall. They are going to one shot this payroll and fee money and get somewhere between $15B and $18B. Albany knows there is no going back for capital plan money. If they have this much trouble finding money to stave off huge fare hikes and service cuts, why would they suddenly be able to find new revenue to one shot for a five year capital plan? They can’t and they won’t. Assuming an operating deficit of $1.8B/year, the one shot will be good enough to pay for four or five years of current operations with enough left over to pay off the current capital plan. The Second Ave subway is either going to be paid for by the feds or cancelled. In five years we’ll have this discussion again.

  • I don’t think anything comes to the floor unless all members of the delegation agree beforehand that they’ll vote for it (in return for some backhand dealing). In this way, all of nyc is governed, by a small minority of legislators, who won’t consent.

    But – but – the Albany Project kept telling me that all that would change if only the Democrats got control of the State Senate!

  • With Paterson’s poll numbers weak across every conceivable group, you’d think he’d be more enthusiastic about funding transit, even if it’s a losing battle. If nothing else, it would expand his political base in the place where he should be strongest — NY area transit riders. Instead, he’s the governor of a state that’s one Big Mac away from a fatal heart attack, and the best thing he can think of is to ladle on more secret sauce.


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