Russianoff praises congestion pricing’s transit lockbox

By · Published in 2008

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign is something of a subway guru. He is a tireless advocate for riders’ rights and for all things public transit in New York City. When he talks, rail watchers listen.

Yesterday, Russianoff talked and in a big way. In a piece in The Post, not normally a big congestion pricing supporter, Russianoff outlined his support for and belief in a transit lockbox for the revenues from congestion pricing. Usually historical arguments based on the way the MTA has been funded over the last 40 years, Russianoff lays out a compelling case for the security of a lockbox. While many MTA watchers on this blog and elsewhere have been skeptical of the promise that all congestion pricing revenue would go toward transit improvements, Russianoff’s pieces assuages many of those fears.

He writes:

Some still doubt the lockbox will work. But dedicated funds for transit actually have a very good track record of getting the cash where it’s supposed to go.

The MTA has been funded by several such revenue streams (via portions of the corporate-franchise, mortgage-recording, real-property and sales taxes, among others) since the early ’80s, providing tens of billions to run our subways, buses and commuter rail. And the dedicated funds have never been raided to balance the state’s budget or fund projects unrelated to transit.

Indeed, one such fund goes back to the MTA’s birth: Back in 1968, the agency was granted the surplus from the tolls on MTA bridges and tunnels. The funds support both daily operations and the rebuilding of the system.

This year, it’s set to get $334 million from facilities such as the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown tunnels and the Triborough Bridge. In 40 years, the bridge and tunnel surpluses have never been taken and used for non-transit purposes.

Russianoff ends by urging the public and its elected representatives to avoid voting against congestion pricing because of sketpicism over the funds. If the money is earmarked for the MTA, then, as history shows, it will be delivered to the MTA no ifs, ands or buts about it.

Indirectly, then, Russianoff’s piece brings us to another conclusion: The MTA has suffered financially not because they have been denied funds from their dedicated revenue sources but because state and city institutions have not come through with fiscal contributions to the transit authority. For decades, public officials have promised the MTA money to cover budget gaps when dedicated revenue streams can’t cover everything, and for decades, public officials have reneged on those promises. For the most recent example of this, we need look no further than Monday when news came that Albany may not deliver all that was once promised.

As Russianoff urges, New Yorkers need to hold their public officials responsible for this oversight. Too long have our elected representatives siphoned money away from the MTA. If we care about transit, we should urge these officials to fund the MTA. Enough with the wasteful projects and pork spending. Give this city — the economic engine of New York State — the funds it needs to run a state-of-the-art 21st century transit network. It all starts with congestion pricing, but it ends with money that far exceeds those contributions.

2 Responses to “Russianoff praises congestion pricing’s transit lockbox”

  1. Marc Shepherd says:

    I might be mistaken here, but didn’t Russianoff praise the “agreement” rammed through by then-Gov. Spitzer that held the base MTA fare at $2 while increasing fares for the system’s most frequent riders?

    I also have to wonder why Russianoff always describes himself as the “Senior Attorney” (sometimes just “Staff Attorney”) for the Straphangers Campaign, which suggests he’s just a guy on the staff. In fact, as far as I can tell, Russianoff is the Straphangers Campaign. In the years I’ve been following it, I’ve never heard of anyone at Straphangers that outranks Russianoff. So why can’t he just say that he’s the head of the Campaign, instead of perpetuating this farce that he’s merely an attorney on the staff?

  2. Jean Popovich says:

    Yes, Marc, I think Russianoff is the bulk of Straphangers. Further, he strikes me as being a part of the problem. After years of very little improvement (but LOADS of lip service), and without oversight and demands for tolls of every kind, I wonder if he’s actually working for the other side. Instead of lobbying for more government money–state, federal, city, all of the above–he spends his time rallying for more of our money.

    By the way, the current tunnel and bridge tolls do not go to fund our subway system. They subsidize the rather pleasant (indeed, luxurious, compared to any subway line) Metro-North and LIRR rail system–most of which services people well outside of New York City (Connecticut, New Jersey, and Upstate). The tolls Russianoff supports would come from the pockets of New Yorkers from Brooklyn and Queens, i.e., those who already pay city taxes and tolls for tunnels. If we could make sure OUR money from the current tolls stayed within OUR system first, then he might have a case. Until then we should assume he is irrelevant (or worse).

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