Every five years since the mid-1980s, the MTA has presented a five-year capital plan to Albany for approval. Designed to keep the subways up and running while allowing for necessary improvements and expansion, these five-year plans have been vital for the renaissance of the New York City subway system. Coupled with a generally sunny economic outlook, the MTA has never had a problem securing the billions it asks for every half a decade.
Now, though, the MTA is in trouble. Already enjoying the fruits of a multi-billion dollar bailout package that covers its operations budget deficit, the MTA has a giant $10 billion hole in its $28.1 billion 2010-2014 capital plan. When the transit authority went to Albany for the bailout, the state legislatures were well aware of this capital problem, and instead of passing a package that would have funded the capital plan, they put it off for another day when the economy improved.
As the credit markets have not improved as quickly as Gov. David Paterson’s economic team had hoped they would, the governor is now warning that the MTA’s capital plan — and NYDOT’s own five-year $25.8 billion capital plan — are “unaffordable” right now. In a statement about DOT’s plan, he lobbed a grenade at both of these capital programs:
“Today the State Department of Transportation submitted their proposed 2010-2015 five year capital program as required by the MTA financing legislation I signed into law earlier this year…
Unfortunately this plan, and the plan the MTA submitted on October 1, are simply unaffordable given New York’s current fiscal condition. I will not agree to raise taxes, which would be required to fund these plans, as Congress has not renewed the federal multi-year transportation program and State revenues continue to decline.
If the Legislature does not work with me to address the budget deficit, it will become increasingly difficult to enact a necessary and affordable road and bridge plan for New York. We cannot afford a multi-year plan until the economy improves, the federal government provides adequate multi-year funding, and the Legislature joins me to seriously address the structural imbalance in the state budget. This plan must be need based; fiscally prudent without relying heavily on bonding; balance transit, rail and highway needs; and support the economic growth of New York.”
For coverage on the non-renewal of the federal transportation program, check out Transportation for America and Streetsblog Capitol Hill. We’ll focus on what Paterson said about the state’s commitment to its transportation infrastructure.
Now, Paterson’s comments are alarming for the simple reason that he is deeply unpopular and shouldn’t be afraid of a using his veto. He may face a primary challenge next year, and electorally and politically, he may be a lame duck right now. If he doesn’t feel the state can afford these programs, he can veto the eventual Senate and Assembly approval.
For their parts, Assembly members are more willing to explore funding alternatives. Although upstate Republicans were complaining about preferential treatment for the MTA at the expense of roads, downstaters recognize that both systems need to be funded and maintained. “Our infrastructure is the backbone of our economy, and we cannot allow it to be crippled,” Westchester Democrat Richard Brodsky said.
The Senate Transportation Committee too sounds as though it will pass both spending plans. “While I understand the state’s fiscal predicament, and applaud Governor Paterson’s efforts to remedy it, I cannot condone actions on his part to undermine the legislature and be both the judge and jury on an issue as important as statewide transportation,” Martin Dilan (D-Brooklyn) said. “If the Governor wanted a ‘need-based’ priority plan, he should have asked the executive agency responsible for drafting one to do so.”
I am hopeful that the MTA will not be left out in the cold, but if the state fails to guarantee its spending plan, it may be left with having to make some hard choices. The agency will either have to reduce the plan to around three years from its current five-year term or choose to cut some projects. Threatening to eliminate station renewal plans could spur political action as constituents complain to their representatives.
When push comes to shove, Paterson is probably engaged in a bit of politicking. It is, however, dangerous to play with the infrastructure upon which this city is so dependent. Playing with funding will only get him burned.