Most New Yorkers wouldn’t recognize Kirsten Gillibrand, the state’s junior senator, if they ran into her on the street. An upstate politician who replaced Hillary Clinton one year ago, Gillibrand is suffering from mediocre poll numbers and may face a primary challenger for her Senate seat later this fall. Yet, Senator Gillibrand might just be the MTA’s last hope.
Currently, in Washington, D.C., Senate Democrats are working to propose another bill aimed at jobs creation. Within this bill would be significant levels of spending on infrastructure including public transit. As Streetsblog Capitol Hill reported yesterday, the current iteration of the bill would feature $14 billion for roads and $7.5 billion for transit. The bill would again allow discretionary operations spending for transit authorities, and the MTA would be able to apply ten percent of any funds allocated toward it to cover operating deficits.
Meanwhile, Gillibrand is lobbying on behalf of transit. As Michael McAuliff of the Daily News reported late last week (with an erroneous take on the news), Gillibrand has penned a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asking him to include $15 billion in spending for transit. Relying on the current financial plight of the MTA to frame her request, she wrote:
I urge you to include $15 billion for transit investments, and include provisions to allow up to 10% of transit funds to be used for operational expenses. This funding flexibility can help alleviate service cuts as the State looks to right its budget during this recession. This funding will not only help maintain employment levels to a system that is so critical to the region’s economy, but will spur job grown throughout the Tristate area.
There is, of course, not a small measure of politics involved here. Gillibrand needs to put forward an effort to fight for the jobs of New Yorkers as she faces a difficult election year. But at the same time, she could be the last best hope for the MTA. As it stands now, the MTA does not expect the state to further fund transportation in New York, and the plan is to move forward with the service cuts come late June. The money would have be in hand before that for bus routes, student MetroCards and a full slate of subway service to remain. If Gillibrand can deliver and deliver quickly, there is hope yet.
Of course, this promise of federal funds and my belief that it could be used on operations stand in stark contrast to my repeated opposition to Gene Russianoff’s calls to use currently allocated stimulus funds to cover the budget gap. In that case, Russianoff’s plan calls for a reallocation of money already promised to MTA capital projects. Here, the MTA would be getting federal funds with the express, original belief that the money would be going to operations. There is a subtle, but important, distinction.
In the end, though, we can’t put too much faith into federal funding. These dollars are the equivalent of a sugar high: It might feel good to avoid the cuts now, but it doesn’t do anything to address the institutional problems inherent in the way the city and state do not provide adequate funding mechanisms for the MTA. For now, if avoiding service cuts this year right now is the goal, it just might do the trick.