At yesterday’s MTA Board meeting, two sides to an important policy battled emerged. On the one hand were those who supported the so-called Gene Russianoff plan, a call to shift 10 percent of the MTA’s available federal stimulus funds from its capital budget to cover its operating gap. On the other side were those who lived through New York City in the 1970s and experienced first-hand what capital neglect meant to the city’s subway system and what it led to.
Doreen Frasca, a 2008 Paterson appointee, spoke out in favor of shifting the funds. She urged the agency to shift its pay-as-you-go funds to cover its operating gap and wanted to make the move to transfer nearly $90 million in stimulus funds, the maximum allowed by the feds, to the MTA’s operating balance sheet as well. “I will vociferously support transferring 10 percent of that money” to cover the gap,” she said.
Others spoke out against the idea. “I have great difficulty in moving capital money to operating,” Mitchell Pally, the Suffolk County representative, said. “That’s the problem we had in the 70s when we did that and it took us a very very long time to change the negative consequences of that.”
Norman Brown, one of the labor reps from the Metro-North Railroad Coalition, agreed. “The fear is that if capital is flexed to operating, that if federal funds are flexed to operating then the state and the city government will not be forthcoming with the funds they were previously forthcoming with,” he said. In fact, he continued, the state’s shifting of capital debts to the operating ledger is exactly why the MTA is saddled with excruciatingly large debts due to come due in a few years. To do the same in reverse would accomplish nothing.
Despite this burgeoning ideological policy debate, these comments only scratch the surface of the why of it all. On Tuesday, the Regional Plan Association released a statement that explained the policies behind its opposition to the funding shift.
First, the RPA says, there are two specific problems with “bleeding particular sources of capital dollars.” The pay-as-you-go fund allows the MTA to both keep the capital plan moving into the new year before the agency’s next five-year plan gets approved, and the capital budget faces a budget gap of 9.9 billion. To take money from capital today would drastically harm transit’s tomorrow.
The release continues:
2. Capital spending is good for long term economic recovery, which the MTA desperately needs given tax revenues are tied to the economic health of the region. Also, we’re in this operating mess because of past lack of investment. Moving these dollars to operating would undercut the system’s reliability and safety and jeopardize the progress that has been made since 1980 in restoring the system to a state of good repair. And by deferring required maintenance, it would actually increase future costs to sustain the system, requiring even larger investments – and putting more pressure on the fare – in the future. Similarly, halting or deferring projects like East Side Access or the Second Avenue Subway would undercut future economic growth and require returning federal funds that have already been committed.
3. The MTA’s riders and taxpayers are already paying a heavy price for past financing practices brought on by underinvestment (lack of capital spending). As a result of the disastrous system of “borrow now, pay-during-the-next-person’s-term-of-office” used to finance capital programs in the late 1990s and the first half of the current decade, starting in 2012, almost one in five dollars of the MTA’s operating budget is expected to be devoted to paying debt service. Cutting capital expenditures is the same as cutting service, just in the future rather than the present.
It’s important to underscore the interconnectedness of the future with the capital budget. It’s vital to recognize that the capital budget is a separate beast so that the MTA can continue to modernize and grow its capacity through a fund more secure than the operating budget. It’s also important to highlight how the MTA would actually have to return federal funds and how thousands of workers in New York’s fragile construction economy would lose jobs if the capital budget were to dry up. That is an immediate future scary to contemplate.
In the end, the MTA will have to escape from this capital mess by the best means on hand. It could raise fares; it could cut services; it could shift funds; it could ask Albany to institute real, permanent, reliable gap-closing measures such as congestion pricing or East River Bridge tolls. Robbing from the capital future — or even from the capital present — is no way to cover an operating debt. The two budgets are separate for good reasons gleaned from recent history and should stay that way, financial crisis or not.