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Marcellino gave no indication of how he would fill the gap if the tax were repealed but told Walder: “You have to find an alternative, and I take issue with it’s not your problem to find the answer.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.