Cuomo’s Transit Budget Is a Confusing Jumble of Raids and Transfers

It’s state budget season! Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget is chock-a-block with raids of dedicated transit funds, questionable transfers, and toll cuts doled out as election-year favors. It’s a mess that doesn’t answer how the state will close the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA capital program.

Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr
“So how can we make this MTA budget as confusing as possible?” Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Cuomo’s attempts to satisfy MTA haters in the suburbs, shuffle bits and pieces to the capital program, and squeeze money out of the agency as surreptitiously as possible — without a noticeable effect on service — create a confusing blur in his transit budget. The overall effect is a lack of transparency, because it’s difficult to tell whether funds are being used for their intended purpose.

Here’s our guide to the tangle of transit funding proposals in the governor’s budget, starting with MTA operations.

Stealing from operations to pay for capital. In what the Tri-State Transportation Campaign calls “an unprecedented and troubling move,” Cuomo’s budget would shift $121.5 million from transit operations to pay for capital programs. More than 85 percent of those funds would go to the MTA capital plan; the rest would go to other metro area transit operators. This makes the capital plan’s balance sheet look better while harming day-to-day operations.

MTA raids continue. Remember how the governor raided the MTA’s operating budget to take care of debt the state had agreed to pay? In 2013, he took out $20 million, followed by $30 million last year. Now, the governor is proposing another $20 million raid, and more to come in the future.

Extra cash for operations? Even as he’s raiding MTA operations with one hand, the governor is proposing an additional $37 million in operating assistance from the state’s general fund with the other. But is this really coming from general taxes? The State Senate claims that the increase is attributable not to Cuomo’s largesse, but an increase in revenue from the Payroll Mobility Tax.

Falling short on making the PMT whole. In 2011, Cuomo trimmed the payroll tax while promising to fill the hole with a transfer from the state’s general fund. This year, the general fund transfer will total $309 million, in line with previous budgets. But while the MTA expects payroll tax revenues to increase 23 percent by 2018, it projects replacement revenues from the state will remain flat [PDF]. The bottom line: The 2011 deal is on track to hurt straphangers in the long run. It enabled Cuomo to appease suburban politicos immediately while delaying the loss of tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue for transit operations.

Meanwhile, suburban Republicans continue to strongly oppose the payroll tax. The Senate recommends phasing it out entirely and replacing it with one-time cash from the state’s windfall $5.4 billion bank settlement [PDF]. Agreeing to this reckless plan would quickly starve the transit system of funds needed to keep trains and buses running.

Funding Cuomo’s Verrazano toll cut: Last year, the governor announced an election year toll cut for Staten Islanders and commercial drivers on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, with the state budget and the MTA splitting the tab. Cuomo’s budget does not come up with the state’s half, leaving it to the legislature to find funding for the program or let it expire.

In addition to raiding the operating budget to pay for capital expenses, the budget contains a few more maneuvers related to the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA capital program.

State assistance to the capital plan declines from previous levels. The MTA had not been counting on any revenue from the state, although it was widely expected. Now, the governor has put forth the first of five $150 million installments from the state budget to contribute $750 million of bondable funds over five years to the capital plan. But this amount is actually a decrease from the $770 million over three years provided to the previous capital plan [PDF].

Bank settlement windfall to ease capital crunch. As announced last month, the governor is sending $250 million of bank settlement funding to construction of four new Metro-North stations in the Bronx with service to Penn Station. Cuomo also wants to use $150 million in settlement cash to subsidize parking garages at suburban Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North stations. To put this in perspective, nearly $1.3 billion in settlement money is going to the Thruway Authority and Tappan Zee replacement project to keep tolls low.

Don’t forget the AirTrain. The promised AirTrain from Willets Point to LaGuardia hadn’t been included in the MTA’s capital plan until Cuomo announced it last month. The governor said it would cost $450 million, but MTA chief Tom Prendergast says the cost could go as high as $1 billion. No funds have been publicly identified to pay for this pet project.

The MTA says it is producing a new estimate of the capital program shortfall as it prepares an updated version of its plan for approval in Albany. A joint legislative hearing on the MTA’s budget had been scheduled for last Monday, but was postponed due to weather.

  • JerichoWhiskey

    It would have been worse if Astorino was governor[!]

  • Robert Wright

    That’s setting the bar so low it’s pretty much an obstruction to worms.

  • Bolwerk

    Cuomo’s unscrupulous friends in the financial industry prey on poor New Yorkers
    => State sues, case settled
    => State, rather than victims, get the money
    => Cuomo spends it on perks for his friends in the suburbs, many of whom no doubt work in the financial industry

    Bonus: the economy has positively blown for over 7 years, if not longer, thanks to politicians kowtowing to these types of people. So we make it harder for people to get to work.

  • Alex

    No transit advocate supported Astorino. Teachout was the alternative and she got a lot more support than anyone anticipated.

  • Bolwerk

    I heard her say a few things, but she didn’t really go into detail about transit. That said, she probably never had the resources to really develop detailed policy proposals.

  • Alex

    Yeah, it was less that she was some kind of transit champion and more that she was (safe to say) not anti-transit in addition to being not Cuomo.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Cuomo and DeBlasio feel they have the right to do what all the politicians before them did. Sell the future to reward your interest groups and advance your career.

    It’s looking more and more like Mr. Kormanoff will get half of what he wanted. He wanted $20 billion borrowed, and a $50 billion MTA debt. I don’t. He also wanted congestion pricing. That I agree with, but we won’t get it. So he’s sure to be happier about this that I am.

    On the other hand, at this point perhaps we should be thinking bankruptcy, so it doesn’t matter anymore.

  • orbit7er

    Cuomo is a blatant hypocrite and neoliberal sycophant to the plutocrats and his funders. While Cuomo has repeatedly called attention to the reality of Climate Change in the Hurricanes, and weird weather hitting the NYC area he has
    done nothing serious to curb Auto Addiction which accounts for 70% of US oil usage and directly generates 35% of US climate emissions. Instead he has moved money from the MTA to subsidize cars on the Verrazano bridge instead of supporting the extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail from Bayonne to Staten Island. The worst boondoggle of all is Cuomo’s support for a new
    autos-only Tappan Zee bridge which will cost billions and do nothing to reduce congestion as opposed to putting Rail across which could eventually connect down I87/287 to 11 Rail Lines across NY and New Jersey.
    And Cuomo wanted to steal from Transit and Clean water funds to pay for it, who knows how he plans to pay for it now!
    For a model of how well this works look at the recent 41 car smashup injuring 61 people and killing 1 person on Christie’s $2.5 Billion expansion of the NJ Turnpike. The problem is as with Auto Addiction – they could not clear the snow and ice safely on all the new asphalt. They had a budget to hire 21 more people just to clear that huge swath of asphalt but only managed to hire 15 people. Those 21 slots could have provided train crews for 7 more trains instead of more highway madness…


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