Home MTA Politics Finding the money to pay for campaign promises

Finding the money to pay for campaign promises

by Benjamin Kabak

Despite a late surge in support for Bill Thompson, brought about by previously undecided voters nearly all picking the Democrat, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will, for better or worse, be New York’s mayor for another four years. A centerpiece to his reelection campaign was a not-so-ambitious plan for a better New York City transit system.

I never believed the plan to be all that original, and I’ve already explored Bloomberg’s less-than-impressive transit record. With four more years on tap, though, Bloomberg can now go about delivering on his promises.

Of course, there’s one little problem: Bloomberg’s plan won’t come cheap. At a time when the city has no money and after eight years of Bloomberg’s cutting city contributions to the MTA, Mayor Mike will have to figure out a way to pay for his transit reform plan. Yesterday morning, Larry Penner of The Queens Courier wrote at length on this very issue. He explores which projects are worth funding and which aren’t. It’s a rather wordy take on Bloomberg, but the overall point is a good one. Someone will have to figure out a way to pay for these upgrades.

Some of the upgrades can be covered in non-MTA monies. The Department of Transportation can reassign roads and convert the necessary space into dedicated bus lanes. DOT can fund the signal upgrades and the construction of physical barriers to separate lanes. The MTA will have to supply the physical equipment and man power to run more buses, but that’s cheap compared to, say, the Second Ave. Subway.

But other plans require a commitment from the MTA. Increased ParaTransit service, for example, would represent a huge cost to the cash-strapped agency. F express service, a potential reality in 2014, would require more rolling stock and more train drivers and conductors.

Other options simply require more money. The Mayor wants the MTA to “fix stations more efficiently and cost effectively to ensure existing stations are in a state of good repair.” The agency plans to do exactly that with its new component replacement plan. However, for these repairs and renovations to go forward at a quick pace, the agency simply needs more money. It needs more investment in construction designed to maintain its current infrastructure.

That is where Bloomberg steps in. He should decide to up the city’s contributions to the MTA. That, however, would require a city nearly in the red to find more money. The mayor isn’t really in a position to raise taxes, and New Yorkers may revolt is taxes go up so soon during a third term.

The answer, as it often does, comes back to bridge tolls or congestion pricing. Bloomberg could try again to lead a charge for user fees for these bridges. It seems likely that we will have bridge tolls within a few years anyway, and his lasting legacy could be one of sound transit investment. It might be a dream, but after running a campaign based in part around reform at the MTA, the least Bloomberg could is deliver.

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15 comments

Scott E November 4, 2009 - 8:25 am

Perhaps operating infrastructure (tracks, signals, trains, electronics) and fixed infrastructure (platforms, bus stops, etc.) should have separate ownership, with the fixed infrastructure going to the particular city/town. I’ve always been surprised that every NJ Transit Bus Stop shelter has a sign that states “This bus stop is owned and maintained by XYZ town and not by NJ Transit”, or something to that effect. Maybe NYC does this with its new Cemusa bus shelters too, I’m not sure.

Why not extend that? If the residents in Forest Hills or Ronkonkoma want a glamorous railroad station, let them buy, build, and maintain it — it doesn’t affect the RR operations any. If the city wants the City Hall/Chambers St station to represent the glory that is City Hall upstairs, they should be free to send some painters or tile-workers down there to fix it up without going through the MTA (provided train operations aren’t impacted).

The MTA wouldn’t have to choose between making things pretty (good PR) and making things work (good OTP); and the city and towns can control these buildings as they establish a character to their neighborhoods. Just a thought…

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Marc Shepherd November 4, 2009 - 11:51 am

That doesn’t so much solve a problem as shift it: the cities don’t have the spare money lying around either. Perhaps what you really mean is that you don’t particularly care whether the station is ugly, as long as the train arrives. By moving station rehab costs out of the MTA, your real agenda is that they won’t get renovated at all…and that would be just fine with you.

You also suggest a false dichotomy. “Making things pretty” is not only done for PR, and “making things work” gets plenty of PR attention (when it happens!).

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SEAN November 4, 2009 - 12:47 pm

Are either of you suggesting that the MTA in some form should be privatized? Look at London to see how well that worked out.

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Marc Shepherd November 4, 2009 - 1:03 pm

I am certainly not suggesting that. To the contrary, privatization would be a terrible idea.

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SEAN November 4, 2009 - 2:25 pm

I agree. Just making sure we are on the same track.

rhywun November 4, 2009 - 8:52 pm

Can you elaborate on that? I look at London and see much more progress than here in NYC. (FWIW, I’m open to the idea of privatization of transit when it makes sense.)

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Alon Levy November 4, 2009 - 9:51 pm

The attempted privatization of TfL fell through, and the government ended up having to assume billions of private debt. The progress you see now is after de-privatization.

rhywun November 4, 2009 - 10:33 pm

Good point. I remember hearing about some of that. Mostly related to British Rail, though, and not TfL. Personally, I believe privatization is possible only if all forms of transportation could be privatized… i.e. autos too. It’s not fair to demand competition (such as it is) among transit operators while continuing to pour billions of public dollars into roadworks.

Alon Levy November 5, 2009 - 12:09 am

Yes, privatization of roads would help. In Hong Kong and Singapore roads aren’t privatized, but the government levies full externality-balancing taxes on cars, gas, and highway use.

But more importantly, the greatest successes of rail privatization – JR in Japan, and Conrail in the US – took decades. Conrail was under government control for 28 years, until it was profitable enough to be sold off to CSX and NS. The mainland JR companies took about 14 years to be fully privatized, as the government gradually sold shares to the public, and the outlying island companies are still not fully private.

Mike HC November 4, 2009 - 10:58 am

Politicians making empty promises? Nooooooo (exaggerated sarcasm), couldn’t be. They are always so truthful.

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E. Aron November 4, 2009 - 4:34 pm

Absolutely must have drivers that pollute the air everywhere they go and generally take up space fork over their fair share. I also firmly believe in charging for parking spots, a topic touched upon in previous posts. Let’s see just how pro-transit Bloomberg and the City Council are in this upcoming term.

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Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines November 5, 2009 - 8:59 am

[…] How Will Bloomberg Pay for His Transit Promises? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

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J. Mork November 5, 2009 - 9:22 am

How much are we sending to Albany? Secession is the clear answer.

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Alon Levy November 7, 2009 - 1:56 am

Who’s “We”? If it’s Manhattan, Long Island, or Westchester, then the answer is billions, as it should be, since those are rich areas. If it’s the Bronx, then it gets more money than it sends, as it should, since it’s a poor area.

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J. Mork November 12, 2009 - 9:37 am

We is New York City, which sends about $11 Billion more a year to Albany than it gets back. What does Albany do for us again?

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