Home Capital Program 2015-2019 Another month; another round of political fighting over MTA capital funding

Another month; another round of political fighting over MTA capital funding

by Benjamin Kabak

I’ve tried not to write too much about the political infighting between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio over the MTA’s capital plan. As I’ve said in the past, it’s generally just embarrassing for both New York City and New York State. Instead of supporting the city’s most important transportation asset, our two top elected officials have spent most of 2015 yelling at each other through media statements or various proxies and allies and have done nothing to bridge a spending gap that threatens the tenuous reliability of our subway service. As October dawns, nothing has changed.

Here’s the latest: de Blasio hasn’t ponied up more city money because (a) he doesn’t have much control over the MTA and (b) he’s concerned about Cuomo’s ability to reallocate MTA money. I’m less sympathetic to the control argument as de Blasio could ensure that his board appointees act as a solitary voting block, but he has a point about Cuomo’s raiding of the MTA. The governor has reallocated around $270 million for the MTA, and city contributions are often moved around to bolster the commuter railroads rather than NYC Transit’s assets.

Still, according to the Daily News, de Blasio may be willing to contribute an additional $1 billion to the MTA’s capital plan. The News reports that the money would come with “strings attached,” but it’s not clear what those strings are. Perhaps the city would mandate the dollars go toward Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway or a Utica Ave. extension. It remains to be seen how the city will find the dollars as the News mentions nothing more than a “revenue-generating scheme.” Could that be a nod to the controversial Move New York plan?

Meanwhile, Cuomo, who hasn’t yet issued one word of explanation as to where the $8.3 billion the state plans to contribute will come from, claims no funding deal is near. This is, to put it mildly, a problem. De Blasio says he wants to see “a real vision for what the state’s commitment will be to the MTA going forward” before adding more dollars, and Cuomo says “If the city wants more control, let them pay $8 billion. Then we’ll talk about more control.” This isn’t politics or leadership; it’s petty bickering.

If the two sides can’t resolve their dispute before the end of the year, the MTA is going to have to start scaling back work because it won’t have access to funding sources to pay contractors. Without an approved capital plan, the agency can spend only on contracts from previous plans. Anything new will have to wait, and work on maintenance and repair efforts will begin to slow down. That leaves our state and city leaders with less than three months to hammer out a plan. They owe it their constituents to figure this one out. It shouldn’t be this hard.

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Larry Littlefield October 5, 2015 - 10:40 am

“It shouldn’t be this hard.”

Are you kidding?

We’ve had four MTA capital plans that took the same approach — borrow for 30 years for 5 years of ongoing normal replacement. THAT was easy.

Now people have seen on tax and fee increase after another to pay for the MTA, but all that money is going for bonds, and there is no money for ongoing normal replacement. People have been lied to for 20 years. The truth is “you’re screwed, and here’s how” and nobody wants to tell it.

Raises taxes? Which ones? Cut spending on other things? What? Taxes have been increased for other things already, and there have been service cuts due to rising pension and retiree health insurance costs even so.

So what are they trying to do? Make the other guy sacrifice his political career, or at least take the blame when no one does so. Find enough special interests to pander to in the short run to stay afloat, while letting someone else worry about the long run. Get money off the top as fast as you can, so none is left for infrastructure.

Remember the idea that taxes on development would pay for it all? DeBlasio and Cuomo just extended the existing 421a property tax exemption from 25 years to 35 years! Services will have to be provided to the residents of those buildings for 35 years with no property taxes at all, paid for by others.

Larry Littlefield October 5, 2015 - 10:43 am

May I say further than absolutely everything is going as right as it can possibly go for the city and state budget.

With another stock market and real estate bubble inflating tax revenues. And lots of young adults pouring into the city and using little in public services — because they don’t have kids yet — put paying taxes. Cash cows. All they need are parks and (ahem) transit, since they don’t commit crimes like the youth of old.

If there is no money now, what about the next recession? We’re being ratcheted down, cycle by cycle, because of all the money taken off the top by Generation Greed. But all we need is “political will?”

Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr. October 5, 2015 - 2:37 pm

Amen Larry. We cannot wait until January 2016 for the NYS State of the State Address or the end of this month for the MTA Board to vote on the Updated 2015-2019 Capital Plan. This political football between Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYS and Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC needs to stop. When? We don’t know. How? We don’t know. Why? We don’t know. Note: I guess that my generation was screwed the worse than your generation right now Larry.

Ryan October 6, 2015 - 3:46 pm

That’s correct. All we need is political will.

Sorry to everyone over the age of 70 who robbed the future and expected to get away with it, you just lost your pension. It wasn’t reduced, it’s gone. Maybe you can find a part-time job slinging coffee at the local Starbucks to keep yourself above water. Suffer the way you’ve made those so-called entitled youths suffer.

There’s no political will to go after the people who caused this problem, which is why there isn’t going to be a solution, unless and until the entire thing collapses under its own weight – which is, at this point, frankly the best possible outcome.

adirondacker12800 October 6, 2015 - 4:00 pm

People who are 70 would have been 35 in 1980. They voted for Anderson and Carter.

johndmuller October 5, 2015 - 6:23 pm

Larry, I respect the efforts, and the personal sacrifices going along with them, that you have put forth attempting to illuminate the dark side of all the vested interests and the political shenanigans associated with the smoke and mirrors surrounding the transit projects and problems. Thank you.

I understand your frustration, but toning down the rhetoric a little could be more productive; the incessant sniping at ‘generation greed’ kind of sounds like a typical politician in the mold of the “Great Divisificator” and is obviously going to alienate at least some potential supporters. While the polarization may be a useful (if not terribly noble) electoral tactic, we’ve seen where that leads in DC (nowhere), and it is not particularly necessary here either where you’re preaching to the choir.

Ideally, we can engage everyone in a group effort instead of playing off against each other. Things are not always zero sum games; there is such a thing as win-win and not everything DeBlasio and Cuomo (and Christie) do or say is wrong (at least not automatically). One can hope anyway.

Rolling over or turning the other cheek are not necessarily winning strategies either, as the squeaky wheel often does get the attention of the politicians where a quiet word can get ignored all to easily. So it is a fine line to walk softly with that big stick.

Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr. October 5, 2015 - 7:35 pm

This is not only happening in New York and New Jersey through the MTA, the Port Authority and NJT, but also in Boston through the MBTA, Washington DC through WMATA, and Chicago through the CTA. That is why there is the major problem when you have a public agency, especially when it is controlled by the state. That is why other countries in Europe and Asia are successful over the United States in terms of transportation infrastructure. That is why the system of capitalism is not perfect, same thing with socialism, communism, nationalism, racism, etc. That is why the people want reform on these agencies right now.

johndmuller October 5, 2015 - 8:40 pm

Please don’t forget Gov. Hogan of Maryland while you are compiling your rogues gallery of transit demagogues – he killed the Baltimore red line subway and cut back on the DC suburb’s Purple line on which the state was already paying essentially zero as it was.

On the other hand Virginia has been surprisingly rail friendly, both with the Silver line DC Metro extension and beefing up Amtrak mileage and service. Likewise things seem to be happening in North Carolina and Florida could be reintroducing private passenger rail. Connecticut and Massachusetts are rebuilding/refurbishing the Conn Valley line along with Vermont which is also recommissioning its west side lines. LA seems to be doing alright w/r city transit and California may really do an HSR project. Other projects are no doubt working and/or not working out in other parts of the country, so there is a mixed bag of news, not all good or bad.

It’s not just public agencies, it’s crooked and/or greedy corporations manipulating them, ditto for unions for both construction and operations and down to individuals gaming the work rules and/or collecting fraudulent disability payments. “What do we want? — Reform!”; “When do we want it? — Now!” (ever hear anyone wanting it “– Whenever!” ?).

Maybe the local Gov’s and other pols will get back to actual work soon if their respective political futures get more resolved. In any event, it looks like they’ll find some way to build the tunnels at anyway; after all, everyone says theu want them and they have talked it up to over $20 billion, so it can survive being cut several times and still have enough for at least the tubes. Probably some time between now and whenever.

Pedro Valdez Rivera Jr. October 6, 2015 - 11:10 am

Based on the current corruption on local, state and federal levels on the issue that matters most, which is transportation infrastructure, I could tell that there are not a lot of ethnical reforms and changes anytime soon.

Larry Littlefield October 5, 2015 - 7:47 pm

Here is the thing. I want to make a point that there isn’t $12 billion lying around that isn’t going to cost anyone anything to pay, and they just don’t feel like it. That isn’t true.

People who know less than we do are going to ask the question:

1) They raised our fares.
2) They raised our tolls.
3) They hit us with another 1/8 percent on sales tax.
4) They hit us with a 1/4 percent cent payroll tax.
5) They hit us with a real estate transfer tax and a mortgage recording tax.

And now they want more? Where is all that money going?

Sorry, we can’t say, because those who benefitted might be offended? Then what?

johndmuller October 5, 2015 - 8:55 pm

A lot of it went into ESA – there’s a project that could use a little sunlight illuminating the trail of the money. For all I know, a tunnel boring machine got hacked by underground aliens and has been drilling a tunnel to godknowswhere to bring in the unobtanium they have to have. I can’t help thinking that there is some really bad news down there that nobody wants to be the one to announce. And in the meantime, who knows.

I don’t know whether there is corruption, incompetence, malfeasance, featherbedding and/or dysfunctional systems and regulations, but probably Yogi would say, “Yes”. This stuff can probably only be fixed one step at a time, so who wants to be first?

Larry Littlefield October 5, 2015 - 9:14 pm

“I don’t know whether there is corruption, incompetence, malfeasance, featherbedding and/or dysfunctional systems and regulations.”

Mostly just arithmetic. Starting in the early 1990s they stopped paying for ongoing normal replacement, to cut taxes even while allowing the cost of capital projects to soar.

They borrowed for it instead — borrowed 30 years for each five years of maintenance. In fact they reborrowed some of the money twice. Did the same thing for the roads, and also in New Jersey.

Every time they increased what people paid, it was a permanent increase that only paid for five years worth. That’s why all those revenue sources can no longer be used for actual transportation.

On top of that they increase pensions, but cut what they paid into the pensions. All over the U.S. The said Wall Street would pay for it all. Then the stock market bubble started deflating after 2000. So they lied about how deep in the hole the pensions were for 15 years (and counting), allowing them to get more in the hole.

So all the money we are paying is being sucked into the past — to benefit the people, interest and politicians that cashed in then. That’s why they need new money for actual transportation. To fix THAT would require bankruptcy and default. But politically they don’t even want to touch the orruption, incompetence, malfeasance, featherbedding and/or dysfunctional systems and regulations, let alone the bondholders and pensioners.

eo October 6, 2015 - 8:52 am

I have to disappoint you. There is not any secret about where all the money has been going with ESA: sheer incompetence, absurd work rules (for every one person working there is another one watching and collecting the same wages and benefits), absurd regulation (think PTC and similar) and just general desire to have the latest/fanciest unproven technology which ends up costing twice as much as the old one while providing only half of the intended incremental benefits. On top of that all there are way too many cooks in the pot with Amtrak causing various installation delays due to the necessity to keep the current level of service during the construction.

It also seems that everything is going smoother there now that they are mostly pouring concrete as opposed to blasting caverns. Pouring concrete is much better understood than cavern drilling and blasting by the current generation of engineers and workers. The scary part is the systems which is likely to have at least 2-3 major causes for delays just because the complexity of those is way over anybody’s heads, but the powers to be insist on fancy stuff even for the fire alarm system (think 7 subway) or safety monitoring for the police (think the new entrance to the GCT that they completed an year or so later than expected because the police wanted stuff that was not spec-ed for back in the day when the contract was bid).

JJJ October 5, 2015 - 3:05 pm

Somewhat side related. New Jersey DOT commissioner has been shown the door, kicked out during a 5pm Friday press conference on the eve of a potentially stormy weekend. Looks like they were somewhat successful at burying the news.

Why? All scandals lead back to PANYNJ. Once again, United related.

Ralfff October 6, 2015 - 1:05 pm

I don’t know why you describe this as petty bickering, Ben. de Blasio is right here. Even Flanagan sounds reasonable on this issue.

“The city is enjoying a robust surplus, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable,” said Flanagan, following a breakfast sponsored by Crain’s — though he also cautioned that, “first of all, the state needs to meet its obligations.”

It’s just Cuomo once again picking a fight with someone . By making it about personality he avoids dealing with substance. Say what you want about de Blasio but he has at least offered specific policy proposals.

Macartney October 9, 2015 - 10:32 am

This. Especially with Cuomo calling his raiding of MTA funds “a joke”, the idea that this is just two sides bickering has to stop. Cuomo is actively bad for transit policies, and if he gets to needle de Blasio along the way it’s just bonus.

LLQBTT October 7, 2015 - 9:45 am

End of the year? That’s a long time to continue with Cuomo’s utter silliness.

Chris C October 10, 2015 - 4:52 pm

Looks like they have reached agreement.

State to fund $ 8.3bn and the City $ 2.5bn



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