Home MTA Economics Can Sen. Gillibrand save the MTA?

Can Sen. Gillibrand save the MTA?

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Marc Shepherd January 27, 2010 - 12:36 pm

I still do not understand why fare increases weren’t put on the table.

I realize that the MTA committed not to raise fares again till 2010, but the State committed more funding than it has actually provided. The MTA could legitimately say that its fare assumptions were based on state promises that weren’t kept.

The MTA ought at least to say what level of fare increase would allow current service levels to be maintained.

AK January 27, 2010 - 12:44 pm

“The MTA could legitimately say that its fare assumptions were based on state promises that weren’t kept.”

You are absolutely right, but I think we all know that the MTA doesn’t sell these facts very effectively. The predicatble response from the riding public would be rage at the MTA, not adequately-directed anger at public officials. It will be a long-term goal for the MTA to cease being the public’s (as well as the legislature’s) favorite punching bag.

Russell Warshay January 27, 2010 - 1:10 pm

The very wordy, and unnecessarily long, question that I’m asking is, “can an appointed Senator, with one year of Senatorial experience, who does not serve on any relevant subcommittee, and who has poll numbers so poor that she might be challenged in her upcoming primary, and who, if she wins that primary, will be up for election in an off-year when her party controls the White House and do so amidst a very strong ant-incumbent sentiment, be able to get $15 billion added to a budget when “budget freeze” seems to be the federal policy du jour?”

I doubt it. Sen. Schumer has the clout to get something like this done. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sen. Schumer had Sen. Gillibrand make the public request, while he makes it happen behind closed doors. He might want her to get the credit so that she has a major accomplishment for election season.

Scott E January 27, 2010 - 2:52 pm

I don’t think it’s unnecessarily long at all. Nor do I think she has any expectation of getting the $15 billion. I believe this is a move to make her look more favorable and more “in-tune” with the voters.

Eric F. January 27, 2010 - 3:07 pm

“Sen. Schumer has the clout to get something like this done.”

Really? What exactly has NY’s party loyalty gotten NY or Senator Schumer? He has been a champion of Farley Station for how many decades now? Where is that project? Upstate he’s championed the Peace Bridge replacement, which has been in the “championing” stages since roughly Clinton’s first term. If he does have the clout he certainly isn’t using it to get our infrastructure into the modern ages. That may be mainly because modern politicians don’t see the transformative power of these types of projects anyway. Chuck seems more concerned with getting like minded judges onto courts than actually making sure someone can get from Fairfield County to Nassau County in less than three hours.

E. Aron January 27, 2010 - 6:07 pm


That’s a month by month look at 2009. His accomplishments both as a Congressman and Senator are impressive and too numerous to list here. Perhaps he hasn’t gotten a few of your favorite things, which appear to be roads roads and more roads, done, but if Gillibrand becomes half the senator that Schumer is, NY would be in good shape.

Niccolo Machiavelli January 27, 2010 - 8:46 pm

Sen. Schumer was in charge of the Democratic Senate Election Committee when the Democrats achieved the 60 vote majority so he deserves some sort of props for that. Riding that tiger is a little more problematic however.

But when it comes for pitching for mass transit who can forget his tireless advocacy for the most expensive project that will actually decrease total mass transit options for New Yorkers the Lower Manhattan Rail Connector the fantasy “one seat ride to Kennedy”. It couldn’t possibly be built or paid for but that didn’t stop the Senator from pitching for it for the better part of the last decade.

Then you have to factor in that his political clout likely saddled New York City with the dubious talents of his wife Iris Weinshall. Ms. Weinshall never helped pull Federal Operating money from Washington despite her direct connection to the Senate. And, during her period as Commissioner of Transportation the City and State contributions to the MTA Capital program withered to her exquisite silence. And, its not like during those boom years she pushed the system to pay off some debts so the Operating budget would have less weight to carry in the bad times to come.

So, when you compare the damage his wife has done, Ms. Gillibrand has been an effective advocate for the rider.

Eric F. January 28, 2010 - 9:57 am

The list linked to is very unimpressive. He has an enormous majority in the Senate, a President of his own party, and Obama is in Florida touting a bullet train from Tampa to Disney World. Put it this way: how impressed by Chuck’s track record of getting useful infrastructure to NY would you be if he were not a Democrat? I think this State has not been well-served by its political leaders in matters of infrastructure. Chuck is way more interested in hot button liberal issues than in building anything, which is one reason why so few things are in fact built.

E. Aron January 28, 2010 - 10:29 am

I didn’t see any “hot button” liberal issues, whatever those are, on that list. Perhaps it is you who is unimpressed b/c he has a (D-NY) next to his name. I, for one, vote for both D’s and R’s, as neither party has a monopoly on good ideas. It does appear that you are unwilling to listen to anything other than your own POV, which is the great tragedy of our times. Anyone can find anything to support their claims on the Internet and thus be proved “right,” and believe whatever they like b/c someone else says so too. I’m just going to stop now b/c anything contrary to your opinion is wrong by default.

Alon Levy January 28, 2010 - 12:00 pm

Obama has no reason to do symbolic things for New York – he should be doing them in swing states. Schumer knows this and prefers that Obama quietly fund important things for the region. For example, the stimulus gave billions to ARC; ARC is expensive crap, but that’s a problem for New Jersey – if anything New York benefits because the extra expenses are all in Manhattan. It also helped fund SAS.

Also: New York’s HSR application was rotten and it’s a good thing it got next to nothing.

Eric F. January 28, 2010 - 2:53 pm

E. Aron: the list is not full of hot button issues, the list is full of unimpressive junk. Chuck seems to gets most excited about left wing social issues,w hich is why he’s on the judiciary committee rather than working to be a leader in transport policy. I don’t expect Ny to elect anyone conservative, but it would be nice to get a return on our slavish loyalty to one party, when it’s the party that actually holds the power.

Alon Levy: “Obama has no reason to do symbolic things for New York – he should be doing them in swing states.” Yes, you are identifying part of the problem here!

” Schumer knows this and prefers that Obama quietly fund important things for the region. For example, the stimulus gave billions to ARC”. You have to be kidding me! ARC was a priority under the last administration. Please don’t treat us like idiots! Most of ARC is being financed by PA-collected tolls, NJ Turnpike tolls and whatever else can be ripped from the pockets of NJ taxpayers, and the federal contribution was approved by the last administration. You know that.

“ARC is expensive crap, but that’s a problem for New Jersey.” Uh, no, spending $10 billion on a tunnel that is of marginal utility is a problem all around. ARC is, by simple math, using money that won’t be available for other projects, so it would be nice if it was as useful as it could be.

Alon Levy January 29, 2010 - 4:10 am

Most of ARC is funded locally, but there’s also a stimulus contribution.

And yes, the fact that it’s useless is a general problem. But Schumer isn’t going to defund a project just because it’s a bad New Jersey commuter tunnel. The reasons ARC is bad are technical, and he wouldn’t know the problems unless he got into the business of auditing those projects one by one. I can almost understand him if he leaves that job to New Jersey’s politicians.

Lake Blonde January 30, 2010 - 1:56 am

She couldn’t find her way out of a paper bag (without Schumer leaving bits of cheese at least). Don’t you people really see what the “date night,” the KSM trial and Obama’s other disruptive visits to NYC are about? He’s marking his territory: He wants us to all know he’s our new master, Wall Street included, and Washington D.C. is the new nexus of the country. I sincerely hope New Yorkers embrace another carpetbagger and put Gillibrand out of her misery via Harold Ford.


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