Home MTA Politics Rockland, Orange Counties want out of MTA

Rockland, Orange Counties want out of MTA

by Benjamin Kabak

West of the Hudson River lies an area of New York State far removed from New York City. Rockland and Orange Counties have far more in common with Northern Jersey and Pennsylvania than they do with the other, closer regions in the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District.

For years, those two districts have had a love-hate relationship with the rest of the state over the MTA. The station at the rural end of the Port Jervis line is over two hours away from Penn Station, and the rolling stock belongs to New Jersey Transit. On paper, Metro-North is responsible for the stations and the service, and as such, Rockland and Orange Counties contribute generously to the MTA.

In fact, these two counties carry more than their fair share of the tax burden. Some studies have reported that Rockland County pays $42 million more to the MTA than the service it receives is worth. Orange county carries a similar burden.

Since these two counties have some access to Metro-North and general MTA services, the payroll tax soon to be levied among business in the 12 MTA counties is heading to Rockland and Orange as well. County representatives are very unhappy about it, and politicians in both Rockland and Orange Counties want out of the MTA.

Duchess County officials are not too happy about it either. Duchess County receives more service than Rockland and Orange Counties and won’t be able to talk their way out of this one. “The passing of the payroll tax is absolutely unacceptable,” County Legislature Chairman Roger Higgins said. “It’s the talk of the town and I think representatives in Albany rally need to hear from us.”

East of the city, the general consensus sounds similar. Officials in Huntington on Long Island expressed their dismay with the taxation impact of the MTA rescue plan as well.

This is, in the end, a messy political issue, and the two counties’ endgames are questionable. Rockland officials say the payroll tax will cost the businesses in the county $18.5 million a year. They want something in return. In the past, more service has been a good enough carrot for those counties, but this time, they may want out.

It’s highly doubtful that anyone in Albany will heed their complaints. The MTA, after all, needs the money, and as long as the state refuses to implement sensible transit reform within New York City, the counties outside of it will carry a disproportionate tax burden.

For now, this is just another in a growing line of stories about the flawed rescue package. Eventually, these pleas won’t make headlines, but the dissent will sit there. Next time the legislature has to address transportation issues, these upstate counties won’t be willing to shoulder more burden, and this problem will merely grow and grow and grow.

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget about the 10 a.m. liveblog. I’ll be covering the MTA Board as those overseeing the transportation authority vote to rollback the service cuts and fare hikes. I’ll be taking reader questions then as well.

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15 comments

Alon Levy May 11, 2009 - 1:55 am

I don’t remember precise numbers, but I believe both counties are running tax imbalances of hundreds of millions with the federal government. The whole region runs a tax imbalance of $93 billion a year. Are these counties going to secede from the US, too?

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Benjamin Kabak May 11, 2009 - 1:56 am

Nah. Just Texas.

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Benjamin Kabak May 11, 2009 - 1:57 am

Ok. As a serious answer, generally, when these two counties start complaining, Albany either ignores them or tosses a few more trains their way. Truthfully, they deserve more service, but that’s what the (misguided) Stewart Airport extension and the Tappan Zee project are all about.

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Josh K May 11, 2009 - 9:51 am

The Tappan Zee project would be very useful. A lot of the commuters over the bridge aren’t headed into the city, but are headed into businesses in Westchester, such as White Plains or the huge corporate office parks in Elmsford. So reserving the space for future commuter rail projects while designing the bridge now, is a good idea. Something that should have been done with the Verazzano Narrows bridge.

If Orange and Rockland were smart, they would insist that their tax revenue to the MTA be put toward projects that benefit their counties, such as the rail portion of the Tappan Zee bridge.

The Stewart Airport extension has been stuck in a catch-22 for a while now. Not a lot of flights out of that airport, because it’s inconvenient to get to for a lot of people. So until it’s easier to get to, the airlines don’t want to shift service from the other airports, but the politicians don’t want to build the transport infrastructure until the airlines show a bigger commitment. On a related note, the Thruway Authority is in the final stages of reworking the entire I-87/ I-84 interchange, so that you don’t get dumped onto local streets anymore to get off the Thruway to get on I-84 to get to Stewart. This should make getting there by car easier, but does nothing for long term sustainability.

The NYSDOT has mentioned the possibility of using the median of the I-87 Thruway right of way for high speed rail (like, the real kind of high speed rail, not this “slighlty faster than current speeds” high speed rail that Biden has just poured funding into). Though, the political ramifications of this might be an nightmare, as that would mean that the high-speed rail would fall under the jurisdiction of the Thruway Authority, thus continuing the rivalry between the MTA, the Thruway and the Port Authority.

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Alon Levy May 12, 2009 - 10:50 am

If Orange and Rockland were smart, they would insist that their tax revenue to the MTA be put toward projects that benefit their counties, such as the rail portion of the Tappan Zee bridge.

I’m all for such an arrangement. While we’re at it, let’s also ensure that money from New York City stays in New York City, instead of being siphoned to Washington and Albany to the tune of $10 billion a year each. $20 billion dollars adds up to a lot of new subway miles, a lot of pay raises for teachers, and a lot of new cops.

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E. Aron May 11, 2009 - 12:18 pm

I like how Rockland is “far removed,” when you can get from exits 7 and under down on the Palisades to W 60th street in 30 minutes flat. Can anyone form Nassau county do that?

It’s upstate though, clearly, when Westchester is right across the river, but not upstate.

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AlexB May 11, 2009 - 3:19 pm

I am not sure what the point of this blog entry is exactly. It is not fair that these counties have to pay more than they receive, but 45 million seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the overall budget of an agency like the MTA.

It seems the problem is more cultural. City dwellers need transit and will do a lot more to maintain it. Suburbanites, in particular the ones farthest out, don’t want to pay taxes for something they don’t need as much. What should we make of this? Perhaps there be a tiered membership with different levels of taxes and service provided or should it be an all or nothing deal? These city vs suburb issues have been going on since suburbs first existed.

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Benjamin Kabak May 11, 2009 - 3:21 pm

I am not sure what the point of this blog entry is exactly.

To identify and discuss a source of conflict within the state legislature as it pertains to the MTA.

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AlexB May 12, 2009 - 9:51 am

Benjamin –

When I said I was wondering what the point of the post was, I guess I was asking if you personally prefer any particular solution to the problem. You offered a few ideas, but you didn’t seem satisfied with any of them, and suggested all the future holds is a few counties of embittered MTA contributors (of course, what county isn’t?)

I don’t think you would prefer the counties secede from the MTA, but you don’t seem to think they will get a fair deal from Albany. What do you think would be an equitable amount of service for these far flung low density areas? Would it be enough to run more frequent trains or will they need major improvements such as commuter rail from Suffern to Grand Central and Port Chester? Maybe their contribution to the payroll tax should be reduced somehow?

I’ve never heard of a suburb that doesn’t resent something about the city center or vice versa, but certainly agreements have been reached.

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AlexB May 12, 2009 - 10:02 am

PS – I know it’s a tough question and part of the reason you posted it is because there is no real answer. Just wondering if there is some obvious carrot these counties would want. What would make them feel taken care of by the MTA? Part of my cynicism is that they don’t really need/want these train services and would be just as happy to have them disappear if push comes to shove.

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Rhywun May 11, 2009 - 5:43 pm

These city vs suburb issues have been going on since suburbs first existed.

And the flow of money has been mostly in the opposite direction, largely at the behest of the Federal government. Methinks the counties doth protest too much.

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James D May 11, 2009 - 3:25 pm

Well if all else fails they could always try getting themselves ceded to NJ…

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Ray May 11, 2009 - 9:29 pm

As a regular rider on the Pascack Valley Line, I often find myself sitting in a Metro North branded rail car. I always see Metro North locomotives move up and down the main line with regular frequency. Yes, NJ Transit is the primary operator but costs are shared under a successful contract. Perhaps the taxes from Rockland and Orange can go to fund greater frequency along these well used lines.

Access to the Region’s Core, while NOT YET funded by the MTA Capital Plan will directly benefit Rockland and Orange County commuters by offering them a one seat ride to Penn Station. Perhaps the MTA should contribute to ARC by funding its extension to Grand Central?

Right now the heavy lifting is being done by NJ Transit, the Port Authority and the USDOT and it gets us only as far as 34th Street/Herald Square.

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Larry Littlefield May 12, 2009 - 9:42 am

You don’t know who is subsidizing who unless you know the net cost in excess of fares for each line.

And since the MTA is there primarily to pay pensions, retiree health care, and debt service, not to provide transportation, you don’t know who is subsidizing who until you know where the employees, ex-employees and bondholders live.

My guess is the suburbs want something for nothing. My observation is that everyone in Generation Greed wants something for nothing, no matter where they live.

They have gotten it by selling out the future, which is now here. So everyone is being ripped off by definition. They were happy to be in the MTA while debts were run up, but now they want out when debts need to be paid back. Surprise.

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DMIJohn May 12, 2009 - 12:37 pm

Benjamin,

“Some studies have reported that Rockland County pays $42 million more to the MTA than the service it receives is worth. Orange county carries a similar burden.”

What studies?

I’ve tried to get data on the amount of taxes that these districts pay into the MMTOA account. I talked to the MTA who said they only get a check from the state. I talked to the Office of the Budget at the state and they told me that they do not have that data broken down by county.

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