Home Public Transit Policy Pondering political priorities as transit withers

Pondering political priorities as transit withers

by Benjamin Kabak

Let’s talk about priorities. New Jersey doesn’t have enough money for the ARC Tunnel, but it can find funds for the Xanadu project or road expansion. Nassau County can’t afford the fund Long Island Bus service, but it can fork over significant tax subsidies for a new sports arena. New York City can’t afford more money for student fares or a subway station at 41st St. and 10th Ave., but Bruce Ratner doesn’t have to pay even market value for the rights to develop the area above the Vanderbilt rail yards.

These are the stories I’ve been following closely over the past few years. Along the way, I’ve been accused of focusing too much on the ARC Tunnel, of giving the city or the MTA a pass on the Ratner deal or simply staying the course in Nassau County. Right now, these can be viewed as isolated incidents, but they are part of a larger problem: The political priorities in and around New York City are conspiring against transit progress, and citizens who are supposed to be represented at various levels of government are simply being ignored.

Over at his site, Cap’n Transit has published the following graphic to represent what transit advocates should be fighting for. It is a rather simple circle that distills potential policy preferences to a signal graph. Take a look:

Lately, it seems, nothing has come of this cycle. Whether you believe transit policies should focus on government or societal efficiencies, cleaner air or water or even a blanket mobility for everyone, investment choices haven’t come to represent those myriad choices.

Take, for example, the news from Nassau County last week. Edward Mangano, the Nassau County Executive, has waged a ludicrous war against the MTA. He wants the authority to provide bus service to his constituents, but he doesn’t want to pay. In a process derided as opaque by transit advocates, Mangano has tried to privatize bus service, and he claims the county can spend as little as $2 million a year on a private solution without sacrificing any service. That pie-in-the-sky dream simply will not come to pass.

Meanwhile, last week, Mangano announced a plan to spend $400 million to rebuild the Nassau Coliseum so the Islanders do not jump ship. The County’s official release is available online, and various media outlets covered the story. Essentially, a county to broke to pay for bus service is going to borrow $400 million against future tax revenues to build a sports arena. It is a terrible investment.

By now, the vast majority of urban economists agree that publicly-financed stadiums never live up to their revenue promises, and Nassau County’s deal is no exception. The funding is going to be realized through a sales tax increment financing (STIF) scheme, and as Neil deMause told me last week, these never work out. The county is going to sell bonds and kick back the sales tax collected at the arena to sell the bonds. If enough people spend — a dicey proposition — the bonds will be paid out. However, these deals nearly always suffer a tax shortfall and the revenue collected would otherwise have gone to other projects. It’s not new financing at all; it’s simply reappropriated revenue.

Meanwhile in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie’s spending plans are leaving commuters high and dry. The New Jersey governor is raising tolls without delivering on the promise to expand cross-Hudson access, and he gave up a few billion dollars in federal funding to do so. It is, in a word, a mess.

Right now, New York is a juncture. Its politicians can continue down a path of ignoring transit problems and solutions in exchange for quick and obvious fixes such as arenas and malls. Else, its leaders can actually lead. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of the former and very little of the latter, and the millions of people who need public transit are going to continue to suffer.

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R. Graham May 17, 2011 - 2:03 am

This in turn is going to make future economic downturns even worse. Without expansion of current service there will continue to be less construction jobs and less new jobs in new locations. The writing is all over the wall on this stuff.

pea-jay May 17, 2011 - 9:00 am

While I agree priorities are misplaced, comparing the Xanadu and stadium loan guarantee/tax deals with cutting transit spending is not quite fair. Spending on transportation NOW involves expenditures of actual revenues and a hit to today’s balance sheets. These real estate deals mostly involve foregoing FUTURE revenues. Doing the latter is far easier politically than the former.

Now dropping a major transit improvement in favor of road improvements (ahem, Christie) is a far more valid comparison and a penny-wise, pound-foolish investment in our transportation network.

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Eric F. May 17, 2011 - 9:10 am

You just ran a story on how a guy on the LIRR is pulling down a quarter million a year exploiting work rules and will retire young at some obscene lifetime salary, and then you blame transit shortfalls on a proposed arena deal. This is like paying the supermarket checkout kid $500 an hour with commensurate increase in prices on the supermarket shelves, and then complaining that not enough money is spent on food.

Cap'n Transit May 17, 2011 - 9:58 am

No, it’s not, Eric. The work rules stuff is in the millions of dollars. The budget cuts are in the billions. Millions, billions. There’s a difference.

Eric F. May 17, 2011 - 10:10 am

The arena deal is in the millions as well. Further, the soft corruption of employment practices like this are millions of dollars per year in perpetuity, certainly adding to billions. The arena deals and the like are fixed cap ex spending that burns off quickly. Like them or not, if the government is gojng to waste money on something, better a closed-end project than an open ended money burning program that gets its funding increased every year on autopilot.

BBnet3000 May 17, 2011 - 11:30 am

Eric he’s not blaming the transit budget problems on the arena. He’s blaming it on priorities, as illustrated by these other things they are willing to spend a ton of money on.

What you said about labor problems is exactly the point. The politicians are not willing to address transit or try to get the house in order, and they’ll use the work rules problems as yet another excuse to cut funding from transit.

Eric F. May 17, 2011 - 12:49 pm

Arenas, however, is not where the huge cash flows go. The real killers in this state are the education and medicaid budgets, and these are what crowd out everything else. The MTA careens from crisis to crisis, but none dare say that we are overspending on what’s truly using the majority of the money.

Alon Levy May 17, 2011 - 12:27 pm

The Atlantic Yards land was valued at $200 million. The city is taking $100 million, paid in installments over multiple years, with only $20 million down.

If I could get 50% off real estate and a 20% down payment on the rest, I might just buy a house.

Brandi May 18, 2011 - 12:23 am

Here is a story about your precious arenas:


See the funny thing is they demand huge taxpayer subsidies and they don’t deliver jobs. At least transit despite requiring taxpayers subsidies moves people to their jobs. In addition, it reduces our need for energy and increases real estate values. Most conservatives seem to love subsidies just when they are for things like large oil companies and useless arenas and malls that can’t support themselves. Maybe it is better to subsidize things like the MTA who move millions of people a day and drive the economy? Why reduce the costs of the commute of millions by enabling them to get around without a car when you can give handouts to developers and sports team owners so these alleged job creators can pull jobs out of a hat?

Bolwerk May 17, 2011 - 3:55 pm

Put the two together. The corrupt choads who make deals like Xanadu or the Nassau Coliseum are the same types who make work rules like the LIRR guy exploited, and then make laws saying the MTA can do nothing about it, and then blame the MTA. These things are not isolated from each other.

AlexB May 17, 2011 - 5:20 pm

Completely agree. Transit serves one purpose for most politicians – a tool for handing out favors. We are sitting here discussing the intricacies of MTA policy because we believe it provides a useful service for every politician’s constituents, lubricates the regional economy, and can contribute to better urban design. They are only worried about how these things “play” with the voters and how they can manipulate the system to advance their careers. Why install a new signal system when you can build a crappy mall?

Al D May 17, 2011 - 10:38 am

This is still the USA, darned it, not Europe. We love our cars and big sports arenas and 27 lane highways. Worse yet, I didn’t see anything like transit improvements (i.e. LIRR access to the new development) included as part of the press release.

So, it’s more of the same once again…

Eric F. May 17, 2011 - 10:54 am

“This is still the USA, darned it, not Europe. We love our cars and big sports arenas and 27 lane highways.”

Ah, hating America, it’s so easy isn’t it? I love how in the leftist mind “Europe” means a 10 block radius around the Louve where some brat soent a week looking at sites. Do you really think there aren’t huge stadiums in Europe? Spring $5 a month and watch the soccer channel. The English have something like a dozen pro soccer teams, each with their own stadiums in London alone. There must be another dozen just between Liverpool and greater Manchester.

I’d love to see even a 7 lane highway around here, but we’re stuck with our two and three lane jobs out here in NY. I’m not sure where that 27 laner is, but send a pic if you get the chance.

SEAN May 17, 2011 - 11:11 am

hating America, it’s so easy isn’t it? I love how in the leftist mind “Europe” means a 10 block radius around the Louve where some brat soent a week looking at sites. Do you really think there aren’t huge stadiums in Europe?

Oh please cut the patriot garbage. You are above that sort of thing.

Eric F. May 17, 2011 - 11:28 am

Meaning that Europe is not suffused with soccer stadia? Or that reflexive bashing America is sophisticated somehow, even when unhinged from reality? In any event, the example is unmoored from any facts. Nassau has exactly one arena, which is a small-time job for hockey and highways that are pretty darn narrow, hardly 27-lane behemoths.

BBnet3000 May 17, 2011 - 11:39 am

In Europe you can take the train to sporting events, and they more often be built in the actual cities because they arent universally surrounded by an ocean of asphalt.

Al D May 17, 2011 - 12:58 pm

Yes, thank you!

Look, I know we all want a ‘sustainable’ infrastructure, but transit isn’t always the answer. Some of us have to tote children and families around from and to places that do not have convenient transit options, and sometimes we have to carry lots of packages and family gear. A car is perfect for this. But, but, when we build large projects, such as this new Nassau sports venue, or even the Nets arena, we must look to incorporate/expand transit options. The LIRR, or maybe better, Mangano’s private bus companies, should be expanded to provide service, and at Nets arena, maybe infrastucture improvements such as wider platforms, bigger staircases, big escalators. Something that makes sense with the larger build at Atlantic-Pacific

Christopher May 17, 2011 - 1:16 pm

It’s amazing that Europeans are able to cart around their families and gear on bicycles isn’t it? Cats are not the only answer.

That being said I agree with your assessment on including transit in stadium plans. I’m not sure that European football stadia are being paid for by public money however. But that wasn’t your argument.

Justin May 18, 2011 - 3:22 am

There is no way to make public transportation, especially trains, as convenient as automobiles! What, are they going to build two track trains to every house and business in the country? I think not!!! Subway use only really works in a place like Manhattan, which has a high population density. And before you say mass transit saves the environment, I’ll point out there are few species of wildlife in Manhattan beyond pigeons, sparrows and various rodent species.

Woody May 19, 2011 - 1:32 pm

CEO’s salaries — and pensions and other retirement benefits — have multiplied many times over in recent decades. (Oh, that would be about since Ronnie Reagan and his crew of voodoo economists and politicians took over.)

Incomes of working people over the same period have stagnated, or even declined. We are worse off, the zillionaires are MUCH MUCH MUCH better off.

Surely the cure for this problem is to cut taxes even more on zillionaires, and to provide ever-larger bailouts and subsidies to sports teams owners and the television networks like Fox that profit from them. At least, so it seems if you are an Ayn Rand cultist and have read only that one book in your life.

petey May 17, 2011 - 10:52 am

“some obscene lifetime salary”

because really, workers don’t deserve such things. only white collar types do.

Eric F. May 17, 2011 - 11:30 am

White collar workers don’t get six figure pensions. They don’t get pensions at all. You can work for decades and have a 401k balance that is less than what some workers take home from cashing out unused sick days. This is really news to you?

Christopher May 17, 2011 - 1:19 pm

Executives get pensions. And golden parachutes. And cars and housing paid for by their companies. When the president of Bank One moved to NY after the merger with Chase. Chase bought his old home in Chicago to ease the transition. So you’re right. The lowly IT worker doesn’t maybe get great benefits but plenty of people at the top get extraordinary benefits.

Eric F. May 17, 2011 - 1:26 pm

I hear that argument a lot, actually. Basically, line government employees should be paid to the standard of CEOs. “Sure I cashed out $150,000 in unused sick time. Look how much money [CEO X] makes!” Do you really find this persuasive as a basis on which to compensate hundreds of thousands of government employees? What the heck does CEO or movie actor or professional athlete compensation have to do with anything?

Justin May 18, 2011 - 3:16 am

He’s saying why do people automatically SLAM government employees for getting benefits? Few want to go after the CEOs and other top income earners/executives for getting fantastic benefits (the same people who wouldn’t be caught DEAD in public transportation).

Actors get pensions too, btw. So only a few people are entitled to a secure retirement, while the others should face homelessness? With the way things are now in metro NYC, if it wasn’t for government jobs (from teachers to MTA workers) there’s be essentially no Middle class. All you’d have is a lot of poor people, and of course the super wealthy. Oh, and a lot of old people would go homeless (and younger people as well, this is already happening).

SEAN May 17, 2011 - 11:00 am

Sports arenas & stadiums don’t pay for them selves. Look at the original Giants stadium. ?Despite having two teams playing there & other large events, in 30-years the dollars generated couldn’t pay off the bonds. As a result the tax payers are left holding the football after the issuers punted.

Spending money on transit investments goes further than enticing a sports team to stay. If a team says pay for a new ficility or we will leave, the smart answer is bye bye see you later.

As for the mall in the Medowlands, it has been nothing short of a money pit & who knows if it will ever generate enough revenues to stay afloat. But of course NJ is broke & yet there’s enough money for this? Talk about misplaced priorities!

Eric F. May 17, 2011 - 11:33 am

The new stadium was entirely financed by the teams and the NFL though, to the tune of around 1.5 billion in private funds. The Corzine administration put money into some very minor road work, nothing that is particularly visible if you spend any time in that area, and most prominently in building a new rail station and spur line. The real money was in the rail, which I think was around $200 million.

SEAN May 17, 2011 - 12:16 pm

I was talking about the old stadium not the new one. Since the current statium was privately financed with help from the NFL, the Giants & Jets can do what ever they want with it.

PNC Park is sucking money from Pittsburgh as most statiums do when they are publicly financed. There was an article in the Times on this several months ago.

Chris May 17, 2011 - 5:40 pm

“Right now, these can be viewed as isolated incidents, but they are part of a larger problem: The political priorities in and around New York City are conspiring against transit progress, and citizens who are supposed to be represented at various levels of government are simply being ignored.”

To the first part, sure, political priorities are working against further transit development. But I’d disagree with the second. People are being listened to very closely – that’s what’s causing transit, especially longer term maintenance and investment, to be deprioritized. What you really want here is for political leaders to break away from popular concerns and take a longer view not commensurate with the one being voiced by their constituency.

stan May 17, 2011 - 11:12 am

the islanders should move to brooklyn

Al D May 17, 2011 - 2:43 pm

No way. Let them keep their fish sticks out on LI. They and Mangano are meant for each other. Jam up that Meadowbrook, baby.

Christopher Stephens May 17, 2011 - 1:32 pm

Out of curiosity (not trying to fan flames, just wondering), when people are asserting that money spent on roads should be spent on transit, is anyone taking into account the use of roads by public transportation? It seems to me that there are plenty of buses using the roads in NJ, and money spent on roads, while benefiting car drivers, also benefits who rely on buses to get around NJ or to get to NYC. Not sure what the percentages are or if the numbers are significant, but all those folks pouring out of the Port Authority Terminal are using roads for transit, right?

On a side note – is the “contact us” page working? I was trying to send a note to our esteemed editor about a very cool episode of Build It Bigger (SAS, EAS, Fulton Street hub, in all their construction glory), but when I clicked “submit”, the page just continued to hang.

Alon Levy May 17, 2011 - 2:46 pm

In practice, the bus and car improvements in the region are orthogonal, and sometimes opposed. Buses need access to the parkways, an all-day two-way XBL, and physically separated lanes on the major in-city corridors. They do not need road widening, since their limit it speed and not capacity.

Woody May 19, 2011 - 1:44 pm

Start by letting buses run up and down the Henry Hudson/West Side Hwy, whatever you call it, to the Port Authority Terminal or even to the Wall Street area.

Currently even southbound intercity buses head down Columbus Avenue. Northbound buses, including MTA limited stop commuter express buses to the Bronx, run up Amsterdam and Central Park West. This policy puts hundreds of buses every day going right thru densely populated residential neighborhoods on the UWS and Harlem. (It must be similar on the East Side, I just don’t know.)

Unlike most Parkways, the one along the Hudson River has no low-headroom bridges or other obstructions until deep into the Bronx. There’s no reason it could not carry buses, except for decades-old rules from the Robert Moses era, when buses, and the people who rode them, were scorned as not worthy.

Al D May 17, 2011 - 2:51 pm

That happened to me when I tried to send Ben info on a, yes, Graffiti app for iPhone!

But to your question, the best examples I can think of are the NJ Tpke and GSP widenings. The GSP accommodates cars by far, and there are few public transit benefits. Perhaps better Park and Ride access at the rest stop around exit 129.

NJ Tpke would enjoy tangential public transit benefits, but I do not believe that is the express purpose of the project.

So buses would benefit from public road funding, but only direct investment in BRT systems (and not SBS!) would provide the most direct benefit of road funding for transit.

Benjamin Kabak May 17, 2011 - 2:57 pm

Try the “contact me” form again. I just tweaked a setting. It shouldn’t hang any longer. Sorry about that.

City Room: Don’t Forget That Other Sex-Crime Case | New York Local Me.me May 17, 2011 - 4:37 pm

[…] enlightened screed on the problems of government prioritizing when it ignores public transportation. [2nd Avenue […]

Brett May 18, 2011 - 10:06 am

I really hope prices head in the other direction at some point!

Citypath June 8, 2011 - 5:29 pm

hopefully the next Mayor can clean it up!


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