Cuomo Electioneering: Robbing From Transit to Pay Staten Island Motorists

Which governor is worse on transit issues, Chris Christie or Andrew Cuomo? Amazingly, New York’s chief executive could win this race to the bottom. The latest move from Cuomo would cut a guaranteed source of revenue for the MTA that Albany can never raid for its own purposes.

Photo: AP/SI Advance

Ken Lovett at the Daily News had the scoop this morning that Cuomo will soon announce a gift to Staten Island car commuters: Verrazano Bridge tolls will drop to $5.50 from $6.00 or $6.36. (Current tolls vary depending on how often people use the bridge.) Tolls will also be cut for trucks that frequently use the bridge.

Any drop in toll revenue is going to weaken the MTA’s finances. So, while Verrazano car commuters get reduced tolls this election year, transit riders still have nothing but scheduled fare hikes to look forward to.

It remains to be seen exactly how much revenue the toll cut will divert from the MTA. Cuomo is expected to announce it this afternoon, and word is the governor will say that the state will shore up the agency’s budget with general funds.

Make no mistake, though, the governor is undermining the MTA. For one thing, revenue from tolls is the only raid-proof source of funds for the MTA. The money goes straight into the agency’s accounts instead of passing through the state first, so Albany can’t pocket it. Cuomo may commit to “making the MTA whole” at his press conference, but any general funds spent this year won’t necessarily be there in the future. Albany’s support for transit has a way of shriveling up over time.

This isn’t the first time Cuomo has reduced dedicated MTA revenue while substituting general funds. The governor paid for a cut to the Payroll Mobility Tax the same way in 2011. As the Tri-State Transportation Campaign pointed out last month, the amount the state puts in has remained flat, while the PMT revenues likely would have risen if the full tax had remained in effect.

Other likely effects of the Verrazano toll cut: Tougher negotiations with the TWU, which can now point to what appears to be slack in the MTA budget (but isn’t really), and a slightly less compelling case for the Move NY toll reform plan, which swaps higher tolls on crossings into Manhattan for lower tolls on outlying bridges like the Verrazano.

And yet, the City Hall Twitter feed had nothing but smiles and thank yous this morning for Andrew Cuomo, the governor who robs transit riders to win votes.

  • LyleLanley

    The point that the PMT “replacement funds” fall shorter and shorter every year is essential. Streetsblog should quantify just how much the MTA is losing — the Cuomo plan here is to cut transit funds in ways that are hard to see, so we need to fight back by shining that light brightly.

  • Bob

    Yuck. Imagine, for a moment, NY/NJ (just transpo-wise) if Spitzer had not messed up and Corzine had won re-election. In the densest area in the country, we have two extremely car-focused governors running the show. Cuomo has a 100% chance of reelection – I do not understand the electoral need for this move. Worse of all is the break for trucks. SI’ers think they are benefiting from this, but the SI expressway is clogged with 18-wheelers which are just destroying SI air and quality of life. I simply do not understand Cuomo’s love affair with cars/trucks in the NYC area. More missed opportunities that will probably take a generation to roll back

  • Robert Wright

    Because it subsidizes already-subsidized cars, this is yet another way of making it actually a rather bad bargain to ride a bicycle in New York City:

  • Tralfaz

    When is the announcement coming that subway riders will see their fare reduced from $2.50 to $2.00?

  • Tralfaz

    When is the announcement coming for straphangers that their fare is going to be cut from $2.50 to $2.00? (Oh wait, you are INCREASING it to $3.00? Oh, okay….)

  • Robert Wright

    I’ve been taking the subway rather than cycling most of the time recently, out of fear of slippery road surfaces. The system shows obvious evidence of inadequate maintenance. I got stuck underground on Monday because a third rail was on fire. It took me two hours one night to get from SoHo to Carroll Gardens because of faulty signaling equipment in Ditmas Park; I’m making some journeys on 50-year-old trains. Public transit systems are never perfect and it’s easy to grumble about the faults. But it’s hard to see that there’s genuine scope to remove guaranteed funding from the system.

  • QueensWatcher

    Cheap pandering that is backwards thinking. At a time when automobile and truck use needs to be discouraged this makes no sense. Not only should the tolls stay where they are, but the S.I. Ferry should be charged. NYC DOT, which runs the ferry and MTA could work out an agreement for Metrocard use and charge the same $2.50 fare as bus and subway, with MTA and DOT sharing in the proceeds. Both agencies need the money and a free ferry makes absolutely no sense. S.I. commuters would pay either no more than they already do if they usually transfer to a bus or subway in Manhattan, or would simply being paying the same as every other transit user for their commute. Meanwhile millions of dollars would be collected from tourists who use the ferry as a free tour boat. Meanwhile express bus service should be expanded to/from S.I. over the bridge.

  • Voter

    Vision Zero and increasing the number of cars and trucks that enter Brooklyn and Manhattan are completely at odds. Developing and expanding BRT, another signature de Blasio campaign promise, will also be diminished if there’s less money for the MTA.

    But, hey, the mayor’s office thanked Governor Cuomo for this pandering move.

    Thanks for standing up for the majority of New Yorkers, Mr. Mayor.

  • rubysoho

    a free ferry makes sense because Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens all have free bridges you can walk or bike over. People already pay for the bus and train to the ferry, so you would either be double charging ferry riders (not cool) or, if counted as a transfer, so many people would be transferring anyway that the income would be negligible. Start tolling East River bridges and then we’ll talk about the ferry fare. Personally I hope the MTa board doesn’t approve the discount–it rides on their green light and I’d rather see them invest in a bike path over the Verrazano–but it stinks that SIers get charged left and right to get anywhere in NYC (and can barely get anywhere in SI on transit) when people pour in from the other boroughs for next to nothing.

  • Charles

    Okay, important to realize that this did not just come out of nowhere. According to the characteristically giddy reporting of the Staten Island Advance, this deal was “a year in the making” involving so-called “behind the scenes” work by Staten Island’s bipartisan representation in the assembly. Apparently the trucking lobby and SI chamber of commerce were also in on it.

    Unless a pol is committed to it, which sadly our current ones are not, transportation tends to be a squeaky wheel issue. Here, there was a lot of prolonged squeaking from a coalition of people with access to leadership, and they got their deal. There is a lesson here.

    On the livable transportation front, we are starting to see faint movement on traffic violence because a coalition is forming around that. Big challenges for the movement are 1) keep building that coalition and keep up the pressure, and 2) build agreement within this coalition around the idea that building up transit and getting cars off the road will also make life better for pedestrians and bring down deaths and injuries. Bottom line: More choices + less traffic = safer streets.

  • MTA Employee

    what a pathetic attempt at patronizing the few at the expense of mass transit. This governor has been undermining the MTA since his election. The commuter rails have been forced to cut spending affecting operations and one look at metro north makes it clear the result. manpower cuts have decimated the rails, forcing less employees to do the work of three people, no wonder its falling apart, The only time we hear from the governor is when he’s grandstanding. matter fact ask any MTA official and they will tell you he has instructed them no news unless he releases it. the presidents of the commuters does nothing unless his office approves. such a sham, the state is being hood winked by another cuomo, lets not forget what we looked like when his pop was done. all politics no substance.

  • Nick

    Stop crying! the MTA will still get hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the Verrazano tolls. The SI discount is a drop in the bucket. The high tolls particularly harm SI businesses that must truck their products off of the island.

  • asd

    Most people use transit on at least one side of the ferry, so unless you don’t give transfers this won’t bring in anything from them. Anyone with an unlimited card won’t contribute a dime either. The costs to install and operate the farebox might be greater than the few extra dollars this brings in. So a free ferry does make some sense. Express bus are notorious for the large operating subsidies they require, generally greater per rider than the SI ferry.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Big picture: as noted in the article today, the Transportation Trust Fund for roads has been raided to death too. It isn’t cars vs. transit. It’s present and past vs. future. Soon we’ll be paying big taxes just for interest, with no money for transit OR road maintenance.

    If the consequences of these priorities were immediate, things would be different. By the time they come due, everyone things they’ll be President or a Senator or something.

    It’s the values of a generation. Generation Greed.

  • Mark

    If you’re so ideologically committed to your views that you don’t recognize how ripped off Staten Islanders get by the MTA and Port Authority, than I give up.

    Why should we, who get awful mass transit, involving waiting hours for buses and only one rail line, have to continue to subsidize the LIRR just to get to Brooklyn the same day we left?

    And the one bone they do throw at us in the form of Select Bus on the S79 turns out to be basically useless, as the service is still way to infrequent. Not to mention the bus lane placement on Richmond Avenue NB is awful for everyone, and causes tons of near misses and extremely confusing traffic patterns.

    When we start getting something out of the deal besides $6 express buses, and the East River bridge drivers start paying too, than you can complain about the scraps we manage to scrounge from the floor.

  • Mark

    Those of us living on Staten Island aren’t “the few” and we shouldn’t have to subsidize your subway and commuter rail. When the MTA gives us halfway decent alternatives, then we can talk.

    The express buses are a good option for those who live near the routes and commute at peak times into the city. For everyone else, there are extremely limited alternatives to cars.

  • Mark

    So instead we’ll let the Port Authority bankrupt our container terminal and take all those jobs?

    Or we’ll just use the freight rail line to deliver goods…. Oh wait, there isn’t one, and no one has any political capital towards building one.

    What options do you people think we have to using this bridge? Obviously people take the ferry and express buses to get themselves to work, if they work in Manhattan 9-5. But for everyone else and on the weekends, there aren’t any good alternatives. For freight, there aren’t any alternatives at all.

  • nonSIer

    Verrazano tolls brought in 326 million in 2012, not all of that was paid by SI residents businesses needless to say. Transit services on SI have a much lower farebox recovery ratio than the other boroughs. Ferry alone cost 100 million, and brought in no revenue. Express buses have very high operating costs, and SI routes generally lose more money than others in the city. Your toll doesn’t pay for LIRR, it pays for your transit services.

  • nonSIer

    About 35-40% of that funds outflows moving forward is to pay debt service on past road bonds. Another 35-40% goes to operating expenses for roads and the DMV. The balance goes to the capital expenses it was designed to fund. Though when they allowed outflows on certain operating expenses more than ten years ago, they added new revenue sources to the fund. The comptroller’s report said that they couldn’t tell if that was wash or not. Presumably the finances are kept rather opaque. Also the fund receives general fund transfers to help make up for the shortfall, to the tune of $500 million state dollars and growing. I wouldn’t say the fund has been raided as that seems to imply that road dollars were spent elsewhere. They weren’t. And non road dollars were added to make up for shortfalls.

  • The Gobbler

    Cuomo claims this is necessary because Staten islanders have no other choice and it’s not fare they are forced to pay the tolls. Well what about keeping the toll in place and take each portion of that 50 cent break and putting it towards a future subway to lower Manhattan or Bay Ridge? Otherwise we are just looking at no future options.

  • Clifford Carlson

    Why don’t you go take your trashcan island and join the trash heap state of new jersey?

  • neillevine

    Any hope for automation?

  • John

    Should we really be encouraging people to move to a suburban enclave with awful mass transit options and only one road connection to the rest of the city, by lowering the tolls? Instead we should use the money to expand transit to dense urban neighborhoods, to encourage people to move there.

  • Nick

    An S.I. to Manhattan or Brooklyn subway link will never happen. From an engineering point of view a tunnel to Brooklyn is possible but could only connect to the already maxed out 4th Avenue subway. A Manhattan link would be a major engineering feat with it’s own set of problems. In the real world there will never be the Billion$ needed for these projects.

  • rubysoho

    @Clifford Uncalled for.

  • JamesR

    Just to play devil’s advocate, one man’s encouragement is another man’s social engineering. These is a demand for suburban, car-centric living – especially for growing families – that dense, urban neighborhoods aren’t good at providing. Staten Island, as a sort of “Jersey within the five boroughs” fills a particular niche in this city. It will eventually densify, but over the course of decades, not years.

  • John

    Lowering tolls on the Verazzano *is* social engineering. The Verazzano was not some natural free-market phenomenon built to satisfy suburban housing demand before the evil government social engineers stepped in to toll it — the Verazzano was built by the government to encourage suburbanization of Staten Island in the first place. The same with the Long Island Expressway, the Interstates 80 and 87, and tons of other free or subsidized highways and associated suburban infrastructure… THAT is social engineering. Much of the demand you speak of is induced demand created by market distortions.

  • gustaajedrez

    On Staten Island, the express buses are relatively efficient, with a direct farebox recovery ratio of around 50% (which is more or less the same as the local bus system on Staten Island). To give a comparison, the FRR for the local buses citywide is about 80%.

    These numbers are from 2009, but you can get the overall picture:

    But remember that NYC’s transit is significantly more efficient as a whole than other cities in the country.

  • Nick

    Staten Island is one of the boroughs. The toll relief will encourage residents and businesses to stay on Staten Island. What are you saying, that city policy should be to foster growth in one borough over another? Staten Island really is the middle-class borough where crime is low and housing costs reasonable for NYC. Without the toll revenue from the Verrazano and the other TBTA crossings the ‘L’ train would run the way it did in 1977.

  • Nick

    The Verrazano was built by Robert Moses as part of the plan for a needed ‘southern’ route into the city. It was already a suburban borough in the 1950s.

  • Mark

    I’m assuming those figures are accurate for simplicity’s sake.
    First up, The SI ferry is run by DOT and comes out of a totally different budget. That may or may not make sense, but every other borough has a free pedestrian connection to the rest of the city as well. The city also uses it as a massive tourist attraction.

    I couldn’t find a per route breakdown of bus service revenue, but I do find that very hard to believe for express buses at least anecdotally. They are normally quite full, and at $6 a ride the peak hour ones should be close to break even.

    The local buses probably do lose money, again because they don’t present a viable alternative. The service is extremely spaced out on even fairly major routes, and they don’t get you where you need to go in as reasonable amount of time. If there was a plan to make them effective, I’d love to fund it.

  • Clifford Carlson

    Like East Side Access that currently will cost 9 billion dollars total? Or the 4.5 billion for the second avenue subway? The real problem is that the MTA doesn’t realize their success is not from it’s CBD stations but from the hundreds of stations that serve residential areas. Without them the CBD stations are worth nothing. Using cheap cut and cover construction, those billions would go much further in the outer boroughs.

  • Joe R.

    For what the new Tappen Zee Bridge will cost we could probably build a Staten Island to Manhattan subway link which would arguably serve a lot more people. The hard fact is NYC spends something like 5 to 10 times as much as most other places to build subways. If we could get these costs under control, the money might be found for some new subways. That said, I think the biggest problem running a subway to Staten Island are NIMBYs. Every time a Staten Island subway has been proposed, the NIMBYs voiced concerns that a subway would bring “bad elements” into their neighborhoods (or course this concern flies in the fact of logic when a free ferry to SI already exists which the so-called bad element could use). For what it’s worth, a fair amount of the population of Staten Island likes the fact that it’s relatively isolated. I do feel the younger generation would be more receptive to the idea of subway service.

  • Joe R.

    The MTA seriously needs cost containment. Other places build subways for between $100 million to $400 million per kilometer. The $13.5 billion being spend here should buy at least 20 miles of subway, not less than 5 miles. For starters we can and should stop wasting money on grandiose stations. A station should be clean, functional, able to handle the commuter traffic but nothing more. I think given a choice most people would opt for a few miles of subway extensions over a fancy station.

    Before anyone says NYC is special, I’ll remind them that the entire IRT (21 miles of tunnels, 58 miles of track) was built for a cost of $35 million ( ). That’s ~$1 billion in today’s dollars ( ).

    Off-topic but somewhat relevant nonetheless, I noticed looking at the Inflation Calculator site that inflation was practically nonexistant until some countries started going off the gold standard around WWI. Lack of inflation would at least give us more reliable cost estimates for large projects.

  • Joe R.

    The best solution here long term would be a default of all federal, state, and local government debt. Yes, the end result will be some bond investors losing a lot of money, but also consider that the bulk of those investors are from the generation you mention AND many have other sources of wealth. It will be a mostly fair trade in that the generation which pushed costs on to future generations, mainly for things which benefited only themselves, will mostly end up paying in the form of investment losses.

  • qatzelok

    If fears of bad elements entering SI is an issue, then the tolls should be kept high to discourage this group from ever setting foot (tire?) there.

  • qatzelok

    I realize that geology and the presence of bodies of water – among other things – can increase the cost of boring tunnel by a large percentage. But above and beyond this constraint, the various mafias’ skimming of infrastructure moneys can cause unlimited cost overruns.

    Luckily, New York/New Jersey doesn’t have any mafias to pay off so this obviously isn’t an issue when it comes to costs.

  • qatzelok

    You’re regurgitating the marketing memes from the era that the bridge was built. It wasn’t like there was no way to get into NYC from anywhere south prior to its construction.

    A new Robert Moses could justify building dozens of new suspension bridges all around Manhattan by saying it needs “a SSW” entrance, or a “NNE” one. Infinite compass directions can be used for marketing purposes.

  • Joe R.

    Generally, the bad element they’re referring to are too poor to even afford a car. In fact, that mentality was the reason a lot of suburbs built from the 1960s onwards are only car-accessible.

  • SI…

    Citywide farebox recovery ratio weekday bus routes – 79%. SI routes 44%. That’s just operating costs though. Add in cost of buses, garages etc…and it’s down to 23%, 42% city wide.

    SI express routes farebox recovery ratio weekday at 48%.

    ~1.5 billion revenue for the TBTA’s bridges, 22% from Verrazano, ~330 million. Operating costs for TBTA bridges were 360 million. 2010-2014 capital plan has 500 million spent on the bridge. Between the two you’re knocking TBTA verrazano profit down under 200 million. Local buses lose the MTA some 140 million a year in SI, most riders are likely SI residents. SI Express buses lose another 50 million a year. Again most riders are likely SI residents. Given that a fair portion of verrazano toll payers are not SI residents, you see that the verrazano toll that SI residents pay doesn’t even cover the cost of SI buses. Quit pretending you’re paying for the MTA’s supposed largess.

  • Andrew

    Just as many upstaters honestly believe that their taxes subsidize the city, many Staten Islanders honestly believe their (already highly discounted) bridge tolls subsidize the other give boroughs. Thank you for bringing actual numbers into the discussion.

  • Mark

    Thanks for the links, your point is well taken.

    Regardless of whether the people paying the tolls are SI residents or not, they’re still contributing to traffic and road use here so I don’t think we should try to separate out those costs. If anything those people should have even more other options and therefore less logical reason to use the bridge.

    Definitely agree that most SI bus riders are residents, and using the round numbers from the posts above this one it looks like we just about break even on MTA expenses. ($200 million net profit from the bridge, less $190 million on both bus categories as operating expenses?) How does that compare to other parts of the city?

    The local bus loses come from low ridership. Additionally, a lot of the riders that do exist are students subsidized by student MetroCards. I think there’s a big chicken-egg issue with improving service and increasing ridership to get more people on these well under capacity local routes.

    Also, I’m not complaining about the MTA. Despite its shortcomings, it makes other comparable agencies across the region and country look like jokes. They could definitely benefit from cross containment, but I’ll take them over the Port Authority or the Boston MBTA any day.

  • Mark

    AFAIK the city gives more per capita to the state than it receives, which I think we agree on.

    I don’t know if this makes it any more valid, but I’m more concerned with subsidizing Long Island and Connecticut services through the MTA then the other boroughs.
    Those of us in the 5 boroughs are all paying property and city income taxes to support our other services. The counties outside the city don’t, which is why I would support bringing back the commuter tax and funneling a sizeable chunk of it to the MTA.

  • Andrew

    “SI…” presented the numbers. Not only are Staten Island residents not paying for Long Island or Connecticut, they aren’t even fully paying for Staten Island.

    Express buses in particular, which Staten Island residents rely on much more heavily than residents of the other boroughs, are by their nature quite inefficient. Despite the relatively high fare, they don’t come close to covering their own cost.

  • Mark

    I get that the MTA spends slightly more on us than they take in. Those numbers show farebox recovery rates roughly in the 50% range.

    A quick check of Wikipedia and its sources shows the LIRR and Metro-North and 25% and 36%, respectively. And neither of those has as obvious a dedicated tolled path to offset against.

    If the MTA loses some money on SI, but a ton of money on the commuter rail lines, whose paying the balance? In a system where nothing makes a profit, my point is that (at least as I understand it) we are a lot closer to breaking even then the rest of the city. That means that most of whatever tax funding the MTA gets goes to subsidizing everybody else instead of us. Effectively, that means we get less stuff above what we directly pay for than other areas.

    Does that make sense? Or is there something else I’m missing here?

  • Michael Klatsky

    Any rail link would go to Penn Station via the NEC in Jersey.

  • Michael Klatsky

    There is a lot more at play here – the extremely low property taxes in SI are subsidized by the rest of the city to a very high amount. Try buying the same property in North jersey and see the taxes quadruple.


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