As the legislative stalemate over the MTA’s current five-year capital plan nears the start of its 16th month since spending for the plan was due to begin, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly had the audacity to claim an unapproved plan was in line with business as usual for the MTA. He has cited to the 2010-2014 plan as proof, but he has failed to draw an apt analogy. With the world mired in a recession, the MTA’s previous five-year plan was approved in two parts with the state’s Capital Program Review Board authorizing two years and then three for a full five-year plan. This time around, the CPRB has even had the chance to weigh in on the current five-year plan, and even as negotiations around certain projects continue, Cuomo has failed to deliver on repeated promises to fund the plan.
A few weeks ago, shortly after MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast was summoned to Albany to talk MTA finances, I explored how Cuomo’s MTA funding reality have failed to live up to his promises, and now, we learn the bad news: If the MTA capital plan is not approved by the end of June, the agency will not be able to access money to pay contractors for new projects. This deadline does not affect in-progress projects where the money has already been allocated (such as the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway), but without approval key initiatives, including future phases of the Second Ave. Subway, will be delayed further. In fact, one of the reasons why the MTA’s plan to replace the MetroCard has come to a near-stop is due to the fact that the agency cannot yet access funds for the project.
Prendergast told reporters of this deadline during last week’s MTA Board meetings, and the visibly-annoyed MTA head couldn’t put a positive spin on his boss’ inaction, the longest such delay in approval of funding in MTA history. “June 30th of this year,” he said. “That’s when we run out of money [and] can’t make new awards for projects that are in the 15-19 plan. For prior-approved plans, where we have money, we can make those awards, but for new plans, we can’t make those awards.”
The problem, as I’ve detailed, is that Cuomo’s current budget proposal doesn’t include any real commitments to MTA funding. He wants the agency to tap out its essentially limitless ability to fund through borrowing before ponying up any dollars. It’s an IOU, and in response, the Riders Alliance attempted to pay for subway rides with IOUs as well. It didn’t work, and Cuomo’s plan shouldn’t be allowed to stand.
To put an additional bow on this present, after months of listening to upstate complaints about parity, Cuomo’s budget includes billions in actual dollars for New York State DOT projects (in other words, roads), and the parity argument falls apart under any sort of scrutiny. As the Riders Alliance recently detailed in a report, the state is promising over $5 billion more to roads while the MTA regions are expected to pick up $11 billion in capital funding. Upstate municipalities with pending DOT projects aren’t kicking in any money at all, and on paper at least, New York is funding 59 percent of of DOT’s five-year plan with direct contributions while Cuomo has pledged to fund only 31 percent of the MTA’s five-year program.
“The conventional wisdom says that the MTA is getting more state money than roads and bridges, but a basic review of the budget shows that the opposite is true,” John Raskin, the Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said in a statement. “Governor Cuomo is proposing to put real cash into highways and roads and bridges, but the MTA is just getting an IOU and a promise to revisit the issue sometime down the line. Public transit is literally bursting at the seams, and delays are skyrocketing, but Governor Cuomo is still playing games instead of actually putting in the money that would address the problem.”
The state legislature is expected to pass some budget measure by the end of this week, and the MTA’s financial picture will come into focus. Even with some renewed attention to a tolling/congesting pricing plan, the outcome of this week’s discussion won’t be satisfying for the MTA and its millions of customers, and the game of chicken Cuomo is playing with subway funding is costly for everyone involved. It raises the issue of whether New York City should have more control over its subway system, but the funding obligations that come with such a move are steep. Where we go from here should echo throughout the next years and decades, but I’m not sure anyone should hold his or her breath over a positive outcome this late in the game.