Home MTA Politics Who watches the watchers?

Who watches the watchers?

by Benjamin Kabak

One of the major themes that’s developed on Second Ave. Sagas over the past four and a half years has concerned Albany. Our elected representatives who oversee the MTA and the downstate transit funding apparatus are not very good at their jobs. The MTA was born out of the need to isolate fare decisions from the demands of politics, and politicians have turned that structure around to use the MTA as a favorite whipping boy and political goat.

These days, most representatives in Albany aren’t even trying. Despite the fact that New York City powers the state’s economy, upstaters could care less about downstate transportation policy, and in an era of austerity, politicians prefer to attack funding mechanisms that impose the costs of a successful transit system on those who benefit instead of explaining why the region needs that transportation network.

Right now, for instance, the MTA needs a significant infusion of cash for its current five-year capital campaign. Transit advocates could easily explain why this is a vital investment for our region’s future, but most politicians would have a hard time arguing either for or against it because they just don’t know enough about it.

Recently, as the payroll mobility tax has come under fire, politicians have used the lack of popularity to shine. At a public hearing yesterday on Long Island of the State Senate Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, State Senators grilled MTA officials on the payroll tax, and the exchange between the two sides is telling. William Murphy of Newsday was there. Throughout the meeting, Sens. Carl Marcellino, Jack M. Martins and Lee Zeldin pushed MTA head Jay Walder to, in the words Murphy, “find a replacement” for the $1.4 billion generated by the payroll tax.

Murphy has more:

Walder said it would be difficult to make up for repealing the tax, which raises $1.4 billion annually. For example, severe service cuts imposed last year saved $82 million, he said, and a 7.5 percent fare increase generated $400 million.

“The decision where to place the burdens . . . the decisions about how to fund the MTA, senator, I believe are the legislature’s question, not the MTA’s question,” Walder said. “The MTA cannot answer that question.”

Marcellino gave no indication of how he would fill the gap if the tax were repealed but told Walder: “You have to find an alternative, and I take issue with it’s not your problem to find the answer. . . . If you don’t help us, we’ll find an answer, and you might not like our answer.”

Walder said he would be happy to work with the legislature and the governor on finding other funding sources.

To me, it sounds as though three state Senators took umbrage with the fact that Jay Walder is telling them what their responsibilities are and what their jobs are. Despite the fact that the MTA operates the transit system, it does not have the power to tax, and it is not change of raising the revenue it needs to operate. That is the state’s responsibility.

Essentially, what we’re seeing is a failure of government. Suburban Republican representatives do not like the payroll tax and campaigned on a platform of repeal. They don’t like it because it forces suburban residents to shoulder more of the funding burden for a transit system that led to some very wealthy and accessible suburbs. But now that they are in a position to repeal the tax, they have seemingly recognize that it’s not feasible to take the money away from the MTA, and they have no idea how to otherwise fund transit.

The MTA can’t answer the question, as Walder said, and they shouldn’t. This is the state’s mess, and the state cannot simply wash its hands of the funding problem without thinking long and hard about the economic ramifications of their actions. Unfortunately, Walder knows the MTA is too dependent upon Albany to bite the hand that feeds. Last night, he could only nibble a little bit. Going forward, though, we’ll have to rely on an institution two hours to the north that doesn’t understand transit policies and doesn’t seem interested in learning how to govern.

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Marc Shepherd May 6, 2011 - 9:22 am

Suburban Republican representatives do not like the payroll tax and campaigned on a platform of repeal. They don’t like it because it forces suburban residents to shoulder more of the funding burden for a transit system that led to some very wealthy and accessible suburbs.

It must be noted, though, that the payroll tax strikes equally in some extremely remote areas (relative to transit) that get hardly anything in return. It’s hard to argue, for instance, that north fork of Long Island, owes much of its prosperity to the MTA. Likewise many upstate areas that see only a few trains a day, and aren’t within reasonable commuting distance of the city.

John-2 May 6, 2011 - 9:40 am

In the end, it’s probably going to come down to the success of the cashless tolling pilot program on the Henry Hudson Bridge to offer up the compromise out for the pols, via the eventual cashless tolling of the East River and Harlem River bridges. There will still be a hue and cry from suburbanites, but it would only be a partial H&C, since the tolls would only come down on people who drive to and from the city, while lifting the MTA payroll tax off the commuter rail users (though it would create more problems within the city, from people in the far outer reaches of the outer boroughs who also drive into work and expect the city to keep the free bridges free).

R. Graham May 6, 2011 - 12:32 pm

And at the same time creating a budget gap for the MTA. The annual take for tolling can’t compete with $1.4 billion. And while $1.4 billion is nothing to sneeze at, it still doesn’t cover the costs of the capital budget that Albany is completely ignorning.

From now on when the City and State wants some sort of expansion, the MTA should stick its hand out while saying so let us know how you’re going to pay for this and keep in mind that amount should have some cost over run dollars thrown in.

Scott E May 6, 2011 - 9:56 am

“The decision where to place the burdens . . . the decisions about how to fund the MTA, senator, I believe are the legislature’s question, not the MTA’s question,” Walder said.

That quote is priceless, and bears repeating. On the 10 o’clock news, the 11 o’clock news, the morning news, the Daily News, Newsday, and the next aspiring state senator’s political ads. It should become a recurring theme in an attempt to teach the voting public how the MTA is handcuffed by state officials.

SEAN May 6, 2011 - 11:24 am

Well said. Of course with cashless tolling you theoretticly could charge drivers from point of entry to point of exit on all highways, but drivers would be up in arms to an extreme these days over such a plan.

Marc Shepherd May 6, 2011 - 12:40 pm

Right: the technology for cashless tolling was already known when the legislature nixed East River tolls and congestion pricing.

R. Graham May 6, 2011 - 2:14 pm

However if I understood the proposal right it would’ve been a relatively low speed technology with the speed limit being 30 MPH over those bridges and depending on where you would set up the tolling readers and cameras.

The boothless tolling at the Henry Hudson would be on the high speed end. Even though the speed limit may be 40 MPH, someone please correct on that if I’m wrong, you have plenty of drivers willing to take that some areas over there and even the tolling at 50+.

R. Graham May 6, 2011 - 1:31 pm

I too love that quote and while I say that I must disagree with Ben on one thing.

Ben states that Walder can’t bite the hand that feeds. I feel he can. First off, the legislature has minimum authority over Walder. The best thing they can do is to ask Cuomo to fire him and Cuomo seemingly doesn’t have any tolerance for that type of nonsense. Walder could speak up and loudly and what’s the worst that could happen? Cuomo fires him? Really? And even if the Governor were to do such a thing Walder’s level of talent will have him landing on his feet at a new job getting paid better than what his MTA salary looks like now. Not to mention he has a golden parachute so it would be very difficult to fire him any time soon.

And even if the legislature were to act against him. It would be well noted in the media and any ramifications to come from it would be a political disaster for all of the legislature. I have my doubts the rest of the body would follow thru on a suicidal vengence pact.

Scott E May 6, 2011 - 6:26 pm

Very good point. If you fire someone (for reasons other than gross misconduct), and don’t replace him with someone better, you’ve done nothing but hurt yourself.

Chris May 6, 2011 - 2:36 pm

The best way to measure how effectively politicians are doing their job is whether they’re reelected, so it’s a little misleading to say that they aren’t doing their jobs well. Our state reps just keep right on getting put back into office, for the most part, so obviously voters aren’t too unhappy with the jobs they’re doing. The post doesn’t seem to consider the idea that many voters would be happy to starve the MTA in exchange for eliminating the payroll tax. Many more are completely indifferent to the question and would be just as happy if their reps didn’t waste time on it.

Bolwerk May 6, 2011 - 6:17 pm

The legislators pick their voters, not the other way around. A huge shift in voting habits could have little or no effect because incumbents often get such a huge percentage of the vote. If you won 75% and suddenly win 50.1%, you have the same power ultimately.

We also have this bizarre trend where everyone else’s legislator is the problem. People like their incumbents, even as they hate the system. The incumbents must love that….


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