The make-up of the New York Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District has long been a point of contention for those counties on the outskirts of the region. Rockland County, in particular, has long objected to the MTA. They say they pony up more money in subsidies in taxes than they receive back in services, and now, the county, armed with a study that shows as much, is ready to push forward for a break from the MTA.
The recent trouble started, of course, with the payroll mobility tax. It served as the final straw for many of the outerlying counties who have seen their fares increase, their service decreases and their bill spike. Some think they may be able to provide similar levels of service for less while others are interested in assessing the fairness of the MTA’s current set-up. In a study released yesterday by Rockland County and presented to the area’s Economic Development Committe pdf], the county highlights that inequity.
According to the study, conducted by Cambridge Systematics, Rockland County forks over $110 million to the MTA through various taxes, tolls and fares while the MTA provides just $68 million in transit services for the area’s residents. This divide has Rockland County officials calling for an MTA withdrawal. “The report provides the solid foundation and updated data we need to now explore the realities of withdrawal,” County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef said. “Realities which include two major unknowns – legislative approval at the State level, and the value of MTA’s Commuter Rail Revenue Bonds (CRRB), which given legislative history may have to be undertaken by the County.”
The study goes through a rather technical examination of services provided vs. the amounts charged and subsidies levied. The meat of though focuses on the practicalities of an outer-county withdrawal. It’s not as easy as simply asking out. First, the state legislature must approve such a withdrawal, and it’s tough to envision a Sheldon Silver-controlled body approving a GOP-lead effort to remove monies from the MTA’s pot. Second, it’s unclear what happens to the various fiscal contributions in the event of a withdrawal. While some tax money is earmarked for the MTA, others go into a central pot and are redistributed to the authority. Would Rockland County be guaranteed that money for transit operations? Would the MTA still get some of those dollars? Would the payroll tax disappear or be reapportioned?
Next, Rockland County is worried too about bond obligations. The MTA has a series of bond obligations for overall capital work, and for Rockland-specific work. If the county must assume those obligations, withdrawal saves less money than it otherwise would. No matter, though, withdrawal would likely save the county some money. The study’s conservative estimate features savings of around $23 million.
But what if withdrawal is not approved in Albany? The county could seek to reduce payments to the MTA; receive a greater share of operating funds for transit service; ask the MTA to increase service to the area to better align with fiscal contributions; or request a greater return of dollars through funds similar to the DORF payments. The state, as I mentioned, has not authorized withdrawal, and a deficit-reducing measure may be more palatable in Albany.
As much we in the city would love to take in that extra $50 million, it’s tough to argue with Rockland County’s analysis. Sure, having transit service increases property values in areas that are rather far from the Manhattan Central Business District, but these areas do not get what they pay for. As they make noises about the payroll tax, perhaps the best solution is to provide more services. After all, better transit access should be a goal for the region, and then they wouldn’t be as quick to take their money and run. No matter the looming outcome, I doubt this is the last we hear of such discontent.