Ravitch: Big Business, Cuomo Have Failed to Lead on Transportation

Richard Ravitch pointed the finger at the business community and the governor's office for not standing up in support of transportation infrastructure. Image: ##http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ravitch_crop.jpeg##Wikimedia.##

New York’s infrastructure is dangerously underfunded and threatening to cripple the region’s economy, warned former lieutenant governor and MTA chairman Richard Ravitch in a speech on Thursday.

Having taken the helm of the transit authority in 1979, at the system’s absolute nadir, Ravitch knows a thing or two about what it takes to bring the MTA back to fiscal health. Unlike in the 80s, he said, what’s missing today is leadership from the business community and the governor’s office.

In the early days of Ravitch’s tenure running the MTA, as he tried to pass the agency’s first five-year capital plan and start rebuilding the system, he needed the authorization of the state legislature. “The Republican State Senate had a very difficult time,” Ravitch recalled. (Ravitch did note that, at the time, “the senators from Long Island were all for it.” Today, Long Island senators like Lee Zeldin and majority leader Dean Skelos have led the fight against transit funding in the form of the payroll mobility tax.)

The turning point in winning over the Republicans, he said, was a phone call to Chase Bank CEO David Rockefeller, whom Ravitch asked to accompany him on a 5 a.m. tour of the subway system. When Rockefeller said yes, Ravitch pressed his luck and asked him to invite the chairmen of MetLife and AT&T as well. All three showed up for the tour, where they observed crumbling tracks and aged subway cars. Recalled Ravitch, “David Rockefeller called Warren Anderson, who was the majority leader of the State Senate, and said ‘Give Ravitch what he wants.'”

The business leaders of today, Ravitch argued, lack the public spirit of that earlier generation, and he expressed little optimism that they would eventually become advocates for the infrastructure of their city. “Their preoccupation on the whole is, honestly, keeping the Bush tax cuts, keeping the government from regulating them and making sure they’re too big to fail,” said Ravitch. Indeed, who has heard current Chase CEO Jamie Dimon ever mention the MTA?

Ravitch also subtly criticized Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has reduced dedicated transit funding multiple times while leaving the MTA’s capital plan unfunded for three of its five years. In response to a question about why Albany hasn’t adequately funded infrastructure, Ravitch began by contrasting Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful attempts to pass an increase in the gas tax with Ronald Reagan’s successful passage of a larger gas tax hike in 1982. When the press tried to attack Reagan, who’d promised to cut taxes, for the gas tax increase, Ravitch said, “Reagan turned to the reporter and said, ‘This is not a tax, it’s a user charge.’ It got reported as a user charge.”

Concluded Ravitch, “It takes leadership. It takes executive leadership. And I’m not going to say anything more.”

Ravitch also specifically criticized the end-of-year deal to cut the payroll tax by $320 million a year. “It’s the first time in the history of this state,” he said, “that after having enacted a revenue to support capital borrowing they have reduced that revenue stream in a subsequent year.”

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