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.