Will Council Members Who Want Transit Improvements Back Toll Reform?

At yesterday’s City Council transportation committee hearing, chair Ydanis Rodriguez hoped to engage the MTA and DOT concerning areas of the city that need more transit options. But despite being invited, according to Rodriguez, the MTA refused to send anyone.

Instead, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg promised to pressure the MTA to invest in transportation projects to improve commuter times between Manhattan and the edges of the city.

A bill introduced by Rodriguez and Daneek Miller would require DOT and the MTA to assess transportation availability in neighborhoods identified as “transit deserts.” Another bill would mandate that the two agencies study the feasibility of a new light rail system. Trottenberg requested that those proposals be folded into a study already underway, commissioned by the council earlier this year, on options for improved bus rapid transit.

Since Mayor de Blasio has upped the city’s MTA contribution, the administration is in a position to “exert pressure” on the MTA “to see that they are equitably serving the parts of the city that have traditionally been so under-served,” Trottenberg said. “That is very high on our agenda.”

Council members expressed skepticism that the MTA would pull through on outer-borough transit projects. Miller said that new Hudson Yards subway service, a capital project funded by the city, serves far fewer passengers per day than proposed projects in eastern Queens. “We want to make sure the services are being provided equitably, and I think right now they are not,” he said.

Bronx rep Jimmy Vacca urged Trottenberg to act urgently on improving express buses. “People in my district, and people in the Bronx, are asking for relief,” he told Trottenberg. “Now that we’re having this discussion, we can’t wait for long-term plans. We have to do what we can do now.”

Among the specific projects discussed was expansion of the MTA CityTicket program, which makes commuter rail tickets cheaper for city residents. The council is currently considering a resolution calling on the MTA to equalize the cost of commuter train travel within city limits with the cost of a subway ride.

Trottenberg endorsed the proposal, and said she would push MTA to implement it. After the city increased its MTA funding commitment, Trottenberg said, “One of the first things they’ve agreed to do is sit down and really talk to us about CityTicket, and work with it.”

Even as she agreed with the need for a transit desert study, Trottenberg said the city and the MTA would be hard-pressed to pay for improvements. She pointed to the lack of federal investment in particular, a point re-emphasized by the testimony of Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who attended to support the reopening of the Long Island Railroad’s old Rockaway Branch Line. Speaking about the transportation bill currently being considered by the House of Representatives, Nadler said the bill’s funding levels are “completely inadequate.”

The only plan on the table that would provide the MTA with a stable revenue infusion is the Move NY toll reform proposal. The plan is backed by de Blasio and other city and state electeds, and recently picked up a key endorsement from Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. Unified council support could send a message to Governor Cuomo, the one official who could make it happen.

  • com63

    Shouldn’t the city have negotiated with the MTA about the projects they wanted before coughing up the extra money?

    “Miller said that new Hudson Yards subway service, a capital project funded by the city, serves far fewer passengers per day than proposed projects in eastern Queens.” I think that is probably true today, but give Hudson Yards 5-10 years and it will be a very different story.

  • dave “paco” abraham

    Um, for Streetsblog to cite a vague mention of East River tolls as proof that the DeBlasio administration is pro-Move NY is un-constructively hyperbolic.

  • HamTech87

    While I applaud an improved CityTicket program, can it please include the low-income people living just over the border in Mount Vernon and Yonkers? Bee-Line Bus routes parallel to the MetroNorth lines are slow and overcrowded, but are chosen over MetroNorth because of the lower price and free transfer to the subway. Those Bee-Line routes dwarf MetroNorth station boardings.

  • bolwerk

    Interesting. Any boarding data about the buses handy?

  • HamTech87

    Nothing official that I can find, but I’ve heard unofficial numbers (which is what I’m referring to). There is also this report on the Bee-Line (Westchester.gov) website. On pages 47-50 of this report, it shows that the largest cohort of ridership is going to and from the Bronx, and 40% are transferring to NYC subway or bus. Few are transferring to MetroNorth, which would probably increase with a CityTicket reduced rate.


  • HamTech87
  • Larry Littlefield

    The Council already backed toll reform. The problem is the state legislature. And not just with regard to toll reform.

    The problem is no one is going to be willing to pay anything for what is in reality the metro area’s top state and local government priority, the one that trumps any other need and renders any improvement in public services impossible, difficult, or temporary.

    Debt service and pension contributions.

    So the politicians put those off leading to more debt service and pension contributions later, in an ever accelerating downward spiral. Often voting in pension increases as part of deals with unions while not fully funding the pensions that had been promised to begin with.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    pensions are never going to be paid. any gov’t employee is a fool to think they will get their full pensions 10-20 years from now.

  • Jonathan R

    Can you name one legislator who is willing to endorse your view? If you can’t, I will continue to look forward to receiving my pension.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    current pensions are likely to be paid in the short term. However, in the medium term, there will be all sorts of manipulations to reduce future pension payments. It isn’t up to legislatures, the market will decide. Long term – The next big downward business cycle will likely see hundres of city and county systems file for reorganization ( aka bankrupcty ).

    All one needs to do is examine a typical big city system and realize its unsustainable. City of Chicago is a well known example. City of Chicago is already insolvant. Pension and post retirement medical is the driver of the dire situation.

    The Feds are most certainly not in a position to bail out cities and counties. The Feds can barely pay its own debr much less take on any new debts.

  • bolwerk

    The Feds can bail out whomever they want almost effortlessly because they can “print” the money to do it. They just aren’t typically in the business of bailing out blue state big cities. It’s a handout, dontcha see? Sandy relief was also a handout. (But not Katrina relief!)

    Speaking specifically of NYS and NYC, while I agree the debt and pension thing is a problem, I really think people who turn it into an apocalyptic hellstorm looming on the horizon are fooling themselves. Certainly the financial markets don’t agree; they’re willing to extend credit at pretty low interest rates. While it’s tempting to take the position that, “Oh, they’re just engaging in their usual risky behavior,” that just doesn’t quite add up because if the financial instruments in question are risky and relatively low-return, why would they opt for them over risky and high-return instruments?

    The debt eschaetologists ignore that, when and if push comes to shove, a lot of the featherbedding could just crumble to pay off debts and pensions that can’t be escaped. It even happened a little under Walder. Unfortunately, it quickly returned as the real estate market heated back up. Idiot Cuomo didn’t help either with his capitulation to the LIRR union.

  • Brad Aaron

    You’re right. That was a goof on my part.

    Copy amended.

  • bolwerk

    Cool, thanks.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    debasing a currency might not be a healthy Long Term solution 🙂

    Actually the spreads for muni & state debt are surpringly wide. City of Chicago is Poster child

    Finally, city and state payrolls can be stashed by 20-75% for certain, I doubt that will happen; ever. These people vote early and often. No pol is going to win on a platform ‘I’ll fire most of my votes’

  • bolwerk

    It should be debased a little. We’re nearly facing deflationary conditions. Debasing it decreases the ratio of debt to money in the economy, which is a good thing. It even punishes bankers!

    All the stuff RWA armchair economists want has been tried in the eurozone. They got a mandatory, continent-wide fiscal “responsibility” regimen (even applies to non-members like the UK), a fixed exchange rate between members, and monetary policy controlled by a technocratic central bank, with no capital controls between member states to boot. Applied to the USA, it would be a neoliberal wetdream. It failed. If they didn’t hate Americans more than they hate Europe, the neolibs would be crowing about that failure.

    Last I checked, I think NYC and the MTA each had ~5% interest on new-ish debt. I think the MTA actually had a slightly lower rate. It can probably be expected to grow if the feds start hiking interest rates.

  • Joe R.

    My take is governments should be doing the opposite of borrowing. They should have investments which give a positive rate of return. In theory, with enough investments governments wouldn’t need to levy taxes at all. I may be wrong, but in general I feel just about all debt is bad. Money is going to give bankers interest, instead of paying for needed goods or services.

    I wouldn’t consider the pensions inescapable obligations, either. These deals were negotiated irresponsibly. Pensions were retroactively increased with no valid way to pay for the increases. The deals could probably be voided just on that basis. Doing so would cut pensions immediately. It would also result in further cuts as pensioners would face a temporary deduction to offset the additional payments they had already received.

  • ahwr

    I wouldn’t consider the pensions inescapable obligations, either. These deals were negotiated irresponsibly. Pensions were retroactively increased with no valid way to pay for the increases. The deals could probably be voided just on that basis.

    How has that worked elsewhere? Reminds me of this passage Larry Littlefield wrote a while back:

    From what I can find out on the internet, Scott Walker is an average guy, no genius and, unlike most politicians, not a lawyer. A below average student, he was unable to complete college in four years and after obtaining employment he left school to start a family. He probably knows about as much law as I do. Perhaps he knows there is a rule against perpetuities, meaning contracts are not valid if they are supposed to last forever. Perhaps he knows that a contract is not valid unless each side gets a valid consideration in exchange for what they give up, which is why Mayor Bloomberg pays himself a dollar a year to be Mayor rather than nothing. Perhaps he knows that fraud invalidates a contract, meaning if the cost turns out to be radically higher than what was disclosed, this was known or should have been known, the higher amount cannot be collected.

    If he knew these things, based on common sense he might not have believed that a pension deal between beneficiaries done in secret, with purported costs many times higher than disclosed, could be enforced against a general public that was not even aware of it and did not benefit from it, forever, no matter how great the cost. But he soon found out otherwise, because labor and pension law is very different – meant to protect workers from being cheated by corporations not citizens from being cheated by politicians and public employee unions.


  • bolwerk

    The only governments that survive more or less on investments tend to be small and control some kind of valued resource (perhaps Alaska, with oil). The economic rules that apply to the MTA and to the Federal government are different, so the prescriptions need to be different. The Feds can change the money supply as it suits them; the MTA obviously can’t. It can only borrow against its future earnings, more or less according to what the market will permit them to borrow.

    I doubt pension obligations can be (a)voided, but there are ways to avoid incurring more. AIUI, seniority rules bollocks this a little, but you can lay people off before they become entitled to a pension. This may or may not require showing cause. A choice like that is one some future governor is likely going to have to make out of necessity, assuming a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis happens. In general pensioners come before current employees, and longer-serving employees come before newcomers.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    debasing the currency punisches savers and rewards speculators – you believe that Is good policy ? 5% interest for tax free debt is very high.

  • bolwerk

    Yes. Most of our remaining savers are hoarders who should be encouraged to spend for the betterment of the economy. The people who should be saving mostly can’t afford to, often because they’re paying down an overhang of debt, sometimes because they don’t have enough income to save. Inflation generally would encourage those things.

    5% on long-term munis does not seem very high, and it’s a good barometer for how investors feel about long-term municipal outlooks. The general attitude seems to be low-risk, but not rock-bottom. Anyway, regarding the MTA it seems to be lower than I remember it being now. http://web.mta.info/mta/investor/pdf/2015/debt_outstanding.pdf (Perhaps investors are betting NYS will always be there to bail the MTA out?)


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