Home MTA EconomicsDoomsday Budget Rep. Weiner enters MTA fray with non-resident toll plan

Rep. Weiner enters MTA fray with non-resident toll plan

by Benjamin Kabak

It is odd when a member of Congress injects him or herself into local debates, but as the MTA bailout plan edges toward a resolution, that is exactly what happened late on Monday.

Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from New York’s 9th District and a potential mayoral candidate, threw a wrench into the molasses-like pace of discussions in Albany when he presented his own plan via a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith. The plan would include $4.15 tolls for non-New York City residents and a paring down of the MTA similar to Richard Ravitch’s plan. How this all adds up to the nearly $2 billion the MTA is going to need to close its deficit is well beyond me.

City Room, The Daily Politics and Streetsblog reported on this rather half-baked idea from someone trying to impress New York voters ahead of November’s mayoral race. Let’s go with Elizabeth Benjamin’s reporting. Weiner, the Daily Politics scribe says, expressed his support for five Democratic tolling holdouts but voiced his support for his own plan:

The mayoral hopeful sent a letter today to Smith and Silver telling them that the “time has come for a sober discussion about how to create a plan for the MTA that is sustainable and affordable.” To that end, he proposed:

– Cutting MTA overhead by 10 percent a year for four years.
– “Sensible” tolls on the East and Harlem river bridges to the tune of $4.15 – slightly less than Ravitch called for, but more than Silver’s $2 – but, and this is a big but, ONLY on non-city residents. (Weiner says this would generate an estimated $391 million annually – exactly the same as the commuter tax used to bring in before it was eliminated in 1999).
– Giving control of the MTA to the city by giving four more votes on the board to the mayor, taking away two from the governor and three from the surrounding counties.
– Opening the MTA’s books, which to Weiner means making every dollar “contained in a digitized, searchable form.” Weiner said he does not support the payroll tax Ravitch proposed.

So Weiner wants to fill a budget gap that, when last reported, was at around $1.8 billion with a plan that will draw in $391 million annually while cutting another 10 percent off of the MTA’s overhead each year. I wonder if he passed third grade math. One Streetsblog commenter wondered if “a scheme that privileges one set of residents over another would be unconstitutional.”

Outside of the main purpose of the MTA ballout tax-and-tolls plan — to fund the MTA — Weiner’s plan also doesn’t reach another aspect of the toll plan. People should be paying for the resources that they’re using. Bridges aren’t free. Driving exacts a social and environmental cost on society, and municipalities have to expend a lot of resources to maintain roads and bridges as well as other vital transportation networks. Those who use the bridges — either by choice and luxury or by necessity — should shoulder the costs of doing so. I ride the subway, and I pay for it. So should drivers.

Weiner’s plan simply shifts the burden to those outside the city, and it does so in a politically infeasible way. While city represented may prefer this plan to a blanket toll, no one from outside of the five boroughs would be caught dead supporting what is a commuter tax in sheep’s clothing. This is just another dead-in-the-water diversionary contact designed by a politician to make headlines. Meanwhile, the MTA’s Doomsday date draws ever nearer.

Letter from Anthony D. Weiner to Sheldon Silver and Malcolm Smith

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Josh K March 10, 2009 - 7:28 am

Setting aside this congressman’s ridiculous grandstanding, would Sheldon Silver’s reduced tolls even cover the cost of upkeep on those bridges?

The bridges are currently maintained (sort of) by NYCDOT, who has money in their budget for doing that and isn’t facing a giant budget shortfall. If the bridges are transferred to MTA control, then the MTA, which IS facing a budget shortfall, is then responsible for this additional infrastructure, which it doesn’t have the money to maintain right now. This means that in order to get any benefit out of tolling these bridges, the MTA needs to toll enough to cover maintenance AND operations of the bridges, as well as what ever additional amount they need to subsidize transit operations. There’s no way that $2 tolls will cover that.

The biggest thing looming not too far off in the distance after this budget fight is the MTA’s 2010-2015 Capital Construction Plan. This is the 5 year plan that is supposed to have all the money to finish SAS Phase I, ESA, #7 Extension, LIRR Main Line expansion, buy more rolling stock and buses, as well as all of the smaller station rehab projects.

Where in the hell is this money going to come from? More bonds? Like the ones that are already hanging around the MTA’s neck like an albatross? This budget fight in Albany doesn’t address any of the long term systemic issues with the MTA’s financing, but only postpones the really hard discussion. The Ravitch Commission is a band-aid on the torso of someone with internal bleeding.

Andy March 10, 2009 - 9:09 am

Josh is totally spot on. The 2010-15 Cap Plan is currently budgeted at $30B! $30B in new debt to raise (assuming you can, with some commentators now putting 50% odds on NYC defaulting on its existing debt).

Most importantly, debt service on capital plan money comes out of . . operating budgets.

The tolls issue is important but I think as Josh rightly points out, doesnt really address a much larger issue looming. Right now I cant see how the MTA raises its capital cost needs. Anyone have any ideas?

Streetsblog » Today’s Headlines March 10, 2009 - 8:14 am

[…] Out-of-Towner Toll Plan Gets Some Press (Daily Politics, 2nd Ave Sagas, […]

zgori March 10, 2009 - 9:30 am

Not that we need another proposal at the moment, but it seems that the most fair, and maybe politically palatable, solution is to revive a form of congestion pricing that extends the fees further outward in a series of concentric zones.

This would take into account that the geography of our region should not necessarily be a reason to charge certain drivers more than others, particularly given the reality that the societal costs of driving are more than just maintaining bridges.

So you eliminate all bridge and tunnel tolls and replace them
with a scheme wherein you pay more money to drive closer to the central business districts. Charge drivers, say, $2 when they enter NYC; another $2 as they approach congested areas of the outer boroughs, such as downtown brooklyn; another $2 to enter Manhattan below 96 street; and $4 more to enter midtown or the financial district.

This would be technologically enforced via some sort of GPS based ez-pass device. It places the burden on those who actually clog up the most congested areas (regardless of where they are coming from), rather than on those who cross bodies of water.

Marc Shepherd March 10, 2009 - 10:14 am

I don’t really see how this congestion pricing plan is any more “politically palatable” than the one that already died in committee. The problem is that a few moronic legislators oppose any new charge on auto commuters, even though the vast majority of their constituents use mass transit. It seems that whatever clever proposal you come up with for charging drivers, those legislators oppose it.

Ray March 10, 2009 - 8:04 pm

Can you toll “out of towners” legally? And by out of towners does Weiner mean drivers from NJ and CT? I smell a lawsuit and calls for swift retaliation. Not good policy for a man who wants to be mayor.

Corzine had a similar strategy, he urged NJ residents to accept higher tolls on the Turnpike arguing there was a significant % of drivers from out of state using the route – just passing thru. I thought it was a solid argument, but he failed to convince. I’m sure if the option of only tolling out of towners was available the former Goldman Sachs CEO would have figured out how to make it workable.

If Weiner really wants to “ping” visitors – there may some headroom in Airport Car Rental Taxes – a 2005 study by Travelocity found that Texas cities are significantly more aggressive than New York in this revenue category. How much is this worth? Maybe not enough to fund the capital plans of the MTA.

That said, zgori may be onto something more valuable (and dramatic)… though its not a solution we can use by 3/25. Technology no longer requires us to rely on nature’s barriers and the bridges and tunnels that traverse them. Since drivers are headed every which way – why dump the burden principally on those driving into Manhattan (and mostly on those crossing the Hudson – $8.00). Drive 10 miles pay a user fee, drive 30 miles pay a bigger user fee. Drive during the rush pay more; drive at night pay less. At least $1 per trip hour. Some may say gas taxes are doing this all ready. I’d agree, but I’d say NY has the opportunity to lead the nation in raising these taxes – they are too low!!!

And how to we keep cars out of Central Business Districts? By having the courage to restrict parking and taxing the resources to the extreme.


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