Archive for MTA Economics

The MTA missed its overtime spending projects during the first half of 2013 by nearly $70 million, according to agency budget documents released yesterday. Thanks to a combination of employee vacancies, maintenance and weather emergencies largely driven by Transit’s response to the damage inflicted by Sandy, overtime spending hit $368.5 million from January-June, a variance of $68.9 million over what the MTA had originally budgeted for this year. It is unclear how this unanticipated expense will impact the year-end budget.

According to the special report released yesterday [PDF], weather was a driving factor in this jump. Of the $68.9 million, $29 million stemmed from responses to weather issues, and $20 million of that is directly attributable to Sandy. “Work included, but was not limited to, supplemental bus and shuttle service for subway and train lines that were damaged, repair of signals in flooded areas that were immersed in salt water, station repairs, and extensive damaged track work.” Vacancies and employee availability contributed $10 million to the overtime expenditures as well, but these costs were partially offset by payroll savings.

The report did not contain any clear cut steps to reduce these overtime expenses and urged agency leaders to reassess future budget projects. The report called for an aggressive attempt at filling vacancies and expanding the “pool of employees-in-training for critical operating positions,” but overall and despite a dip in 2010, overtime expenses, mired in the upper $500 million level annually, remain a big concern.

Categories : Asides, MTA Economics
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It was back in the waning days of June when the State Senate and Assembly both passed a lockbox bill with strong protections for transit funding. This was the second time that the bill had passed the legislature, and while Gov. Cuomo had gutted the protections that prevented a raid on transit financing last time around, advocates were optimistic that the bill would gain Cuomo’s signature. Since then, though, we’ve waited. And waited. And waited.

Lately, though, there is a reason for some optimism as upstate newspapers, not usually in favor of anything that bolsters the MTA — they amazingly view it as a drain on the rest of New York State — have lined up behind the lockbox. Since the bill protects all transit money and not just that earmarked for the MTA, upstaters have reason to argue for a signature. The Buffalo News voiced its support this week, and The Press-Republican from Plattsburgh sounded off last week.

Over at Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein sees this groundswell of support as an indicator that Cuomo will soon have to sign the bill. If everyone in New York state wants these modest protections in place, the governor will have to step in and govern soon enough.

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The MTA budget documents released yesterday show how aggressive cost cutting and fare hikes could eliminate nearly all potential deficits through 2017. [pdf]

The MTA budget documents released yesterday show how aggressive cost cutting and fare hikes could eliminate nearly all potential deficits through 2017. [pdf]

The MTA unveiled a revised draf of its four-year financial plan on Wednesday, and while budgets are not particularly sexy, fare hikes are. This plan is chock full of fare hikes as the MTA’s fragile financial outlook relies on fare hikes every two years for the duration of the plan. Just how long, I have to wonder, will New York’s transit riders begrudgingly accept these fare hikes before it becomes a major political issue?

In plans released yesterday, the MTA still projects some deficits through 2017, but as February’s numbers showed alarming negative balance sheets, the July numbers are significant better. By 2017, the MTA expects to face a deficit of just $100 million — down from over $300 million — but these projections are based on a series of assumptions that may not come true. Riders are going to shoulder a significant amount of costs as fares continue to increase, and anything that rocks the MTA’s financial boat could be disastrous for the agency.

For the public, the fare hikes are the bad news, and they rightly dominate the media coverage. After fits and starts of raising the fares only when the budget looked dire, the MTA has instituted a policy of biennial fare hikes ideally tied to inflation. After a fare increase in 2011, the MTA jumped their prices by around 7.5 percent this year and plan to do the same in 2015 and 2017. Both hikes will be for around 7.5 percent as well, and without these fare increases, the MTA’s financial outlook is a negative one indeed.

If all goes according to plan, then, the MTA’s looming price increases will generate significant revenue for an agency looking at out-year projections that are very, very red. In 2015, the next fare bump will bring in over $400 million, and when the cost of a subway ride jumps up again in 2017, the total generated from the next two fare hikes will be a hair under $1 billion annually. Without the fare increases, the MTA’s deficit would be insurmountable. As such, the city’s riders — all 5.6 million of us daily — are the only thing keeping the subway system afloat.

Outside of these fare hikes, though, nearly all of the other assumptions are not sure things. The only sure thing is a concerted effort to cut internal costs. The MTA anticipates that, by 2017, it will have eliminated $1.3 billion in annual recurring costs, thus achieving internal cost-cutting projections first put forward in 2009. That’s a laudable goal for an agency that has long operated with much bloat, but more could be cut if operations were further streamlined.

Beyond these measures, though, the MTA is expecting a net-zero increase in labor costs over the next four years. While the MTA has realized such savings over the past few years, the TWU’s contract situation remains unresolved, and a net-zero reality saves just $300 million annually by 2017. Meanwhile, pension and healthcare costs are expected to jump by nearly 10 percent over the next four years and are among the biggest uncontrollable costs currently on the MTA’s books.

Beyond fares and labor savings, the MTA is relying on dollars largely outside of their control. Operating costs will increase as the 7 line extension and then Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway open, and the agency’s insurance rates took a huge hit after Sandy. Agency officials said yesterday that the MTA is getting half its previous coverage for twice the cost. Meanwhile, revenue from dedicated and federal contributions remain subject to the push and pull of the New York and U.S. economies.

Finally, the so-called “longer term vulnerabilities” come into play. The MTA will launch a new capital program in 2015, and it will likely be funded through bond issues and more debt. Pension, healthcare and paratransit costs are spiking upwards as New Yorkers live longer with less mobility, and weather mitigation and protection efforts will put a strain on the budget. It’s a never-ending scenario of investments.

So what does this all mean, you may ask. After all, budget forces and pure numbers are the ultimate in transit wonkery. The final picture, though, is a simple one: New York’s transit riders are going to be asked to shoulder an ever-increasing portion of the costs. Absent direct state investment, the best way for the MTA to raise money and increase its revenue is through fare hikes, and ridership, which recently reached an all-time high, has shown no signs of abating. People need the subways, and the MTA needs money. So we’ll get fare hikes in 2015 and 2017 and likely in 2019 and 2021 too. Until New Yorkers start agitating louder for an end to fare hikes, they are, for better or worse, the only route to budget stability.

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As part of the MTA’s plan to spend $40 million in unexpected state revenue on its customers, Transit will expand weekend service on the M to Manhattan and will increase G train service during the afternoon rush, as outlined in its line review. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced these enhancements as well as some added bus service that will total $7.8 million, and the MTA plans to invest another $5.9 million in the customer experience and station environment as well.

“For the second year in a row, the state has invested in significant enhancements and expansions to our state’s transit system that will improve the experience of the eight million commuters who use the MTA,” Governor Cuomo, who continued his streak of taking credit for the MTA’s good news, said in a statement. “In the last two and a half years, our administration has made real improvements to the nation’s largest public transit system, implementing reforms that have improved services and made the MTA more efficient by reducing costs, cutting waste and putting the needs of straphangers and commuters first.”

According to the release, these service improvements will benefit nearly 90,000 passengers daily. G trains will operate every eight minutes from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, cutting headways down from 10 minutes. On weekends, M trains will run from Middle Village, Queens to Essex/Delancey, providing riders with a direct connection to the F. Currently, M riders must make two transfers — from the M to the J and the J to the F — for service into midtown and points north. The M will not operate north of Essex/Delancey or along the Queens Boulevard line.

The other half of the investment picture involves nearly $6 million for other improvements. Transit will hire more cleaners for tracks and stations and will begin to adjust turnstile and Metrocard Vending Machine layouts as well. I hope to have more on these efforts later in the week.

Additionally, Transit will restore some bus routes lost to the 2010 cuts and beef up service on other lines. The newly restored routes include the B37 and B70 in Brooklyn, weekend M8 and Q31 service, Sunday Q77 buses, and additional hours of operation for the S93. The MTA also plans to add a yet-to-be-determined Select Bus Service route and will study bus service in Co-Op City to identify routing gaps and potential solutions. I question the wisdom of restoring service along bus routes that didn’t have the ridership to support it, but perhaps the attention devoted to these lines over the past two years will drive up ridership.

Outside of the city, the LIRR will invest $2.6 million in added service as well. Trains will run every 30 minutes on the weekends to and from Ronkonkoma and Port Washington. Weekend service to Greenport will be extended, and five peak-hour weekday trains will be added on crowded routes. Metro-North has a more modest ask as the railroad will get an additional $1.7 million to “add real-time customer information displays at all of its stations in New York State by 2020.”

For the MTA’s customers, this news is good. After years of service cuts, expanded service is welcome even if the subway enhancements are limited to two lines with relatively low ridership. The fundamental problems of comprehensive access and more frequent service on lines at or near capacity are side-stepped in this plan, but on the other hand, the MTA had only limited resources for expanded service. Officials acknowledged too that the long-term financial picture remains unsettled, at best.

“We have listened to our customers, and we are responding with more bus, subway and commuter rail service as well as enhancements to make that service more reliable and more enjoyable,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement. “We are committed to aggressively reducing our costs, and to strengthening service whenever we have sustainable resources to do so. But our Financial Plan remains fragile, and our financial challenges – both short and long term – are numerous. The revised Financial Plan puts our customer needs first while also allocating resources to longer-term challenges like reducing pension liabilities, lowering retiree health care costs and providing initial funding for our next Capital Program.”

Categories : MTA Economics
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Forest City Ratner pays $200,000 a year to append the Barclays Center name to the Atlantic Ave. subway stop. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The MTA is set to unveil a series of budget documents this week that will set the stage for the next few years’ worth of conversations. They’re unveiling revised estimates for the current capital plan based on the need to spend money to repair the system and mitigate the impact of future storms and surges, and they’re keeping in an eye on the next twenty years of system growth as well. I’ll be taking a closer look at these documents this week, but one theme is a constant: Where will the MTA get the money to do whatever it is it wants to do?

One way the MTA won’t get money is through station naming rights deals. The agency needs billions of dollars, and even the most lucrative naming rights deal in the U.S. is worth only around $1 million annually. The MTA’s one current naming rights deal for a subway station is netting the agency a whopping $200,000 a year. But that’s not stopping the MTA from putting itself out there. This week, as part of the July board meetings, the MTA is formalizing its station naming strategy, and I think it gets everything right. Whether it can make money from the effort remains to be seen.

The new guidelines will be voted on this week, and they are available as a pdf on the MTA’s website. The MTA is consolidating the naming rights process and procedures so that Jeffrey Rosen, the head of the agency’s real estate department, and the new policy will not apply to directional signage, changes to the street grid or advertising campaigns that have no impact on a station name. It will apply to any other situation where an advertiser wants change “the official designation” of any MTA facility. This can include signage, maps and on-board announcements similar to the way Barclays Center has replaced Pacific St. at the Atlantic Ave. subway complex.

By putting forward this proposal, the MTA says it wants to receive “fair value” for the rights to name its stations. At the same time, the agency wants to “respect the historic nature” of its stations — which is less of a concern than the third factor: ensuring that customers can “safely and efficiently navigate the MTA system.” The third qualification I’ve stressed repeatedly, and it’s why SEPTA’s naming rights deal fails. AT&T Station — the replacement name for the Pattison station — tells a rider nothing about the station; it could be anywhere. But for its flaws, Atlantic Ave./Barclays Center carries a major destination in the sponsored station name.

With these policy goals in mind, the MTA set forth its standards. It will require “a compelling nexus between the Facility and the Sponsor” for any naming rights deals. “Requests for renaming,” the policy says, “will only be accepted from Sponsors with a unique or iconic geographic, historic or other connection to such [station] that would be readily apparent to typical MTA customers.” In other words, advertisings just looking to slap their names on a station won’t be able to do so. The Tropicana Station at Bryant Park won’t become a reality, but if Macy’s, for instance, wanted to buy out the Herald Square station, the MTA may listen. This limitation could eliminate many potential advertisers before the MTA even has the chance to discuss money.

If any naming rights venture gets this far then, the next issue concerns value. Considering how naming rights deals are tough to come by, it’s hard to say what “fair value” means in any context, but in addition to pure dollars, the MTA will also consider promised capital upgrades made by the sponsor or capita upgrades taken on by the sponsor in exchange for the naming rights. In essence, the MTA is creating something of an Adopt-a-Station program. How this works in practice rather than theory again remains to be seen.

Matt Flegenheimer of The Times reported on this plan over the weekend, and he had the chance to gain more insight into the process. MTA advisers recognize that transit agencies across the nation are hoping to draw money from naming rights, and one of MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast’s right-hand men claimed that “from time to time,” advertisers have expressed an interest in making a deal.

The policy, the MTA says, is to protect its customers too. “We don’t want to be confusing people,” Allen Cappelli, an MTA Board member, said. “There are neighborhoods where I would be very hesitant because of the geographic significance.” The MTA also won’t rename stations for people, living or dead. (Sorry, Ed Koch.)

This all sounds well and good. Yet, I can’t help but think it’s all for nothing. I’ve followed this issue for years, and nothing much has come of it. Madrid recently renamed an entire line for just €1 million a year while Boston has unsuccessfully put its station names up for sale. Austin, Toronto, New Jersey, D.C. and Chicago all want someone to pay for their stations, but very few people are biting. It’s too hard to overcome the stigma of being associated with something most people love to hate for these deals to be worthwhile. Maybe the MTA can realize some dollars, and they have a solid policy in place. But it’s a policy more like than not to go untested over the years.

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Here’s an interesting bit of news regarding MTA finances and a new bond issue: In what amounts to an essential hedge against future storm surges, the MTA has issued a $125 million “catastrophe” bond through its reinsurance broker that could cover some costs from a rainstorm or hurricane. Both Reuters and The Wall Street Journal have reported on the bond issue, and S&P assigned the bonds a BB- rating.

The bonds are unique in that they are a form of parametric insurance tied only to storm surge levels, and it is, according to S&P, a first-in-the-nation issuance. Essentially, the MTA would recoup the outstanding principal from the bonds in the event a named storm generates a storm surge of at least 8.5 feet in the Battery, Sandy Hook and the Rockaway Inlet or a 15.5-foot surge in the tidal gauge in the East Creek and at Kings Point.

The Journal notes that these bonds are “structured securities that allow insurers to transfer their own risks to capital-markets investors, instead of buying protection from more traditional insurance providers,” and Reuters notes that these are high-interest bonds that could carry significant risk for investors. The issuance details are available via Artemis, and the insurance news site offers up more analysis:

In this cat bond, MetroCat Re Ltd. will issue a single tranche of Series 2013-1 notes, which will be sold to collateralized a reinsurance agreement between itself and First Mutual Transportation Assurance Co. (FMTAC). FMTAC will receive from the cat bond a three-year source of per-occurrence reinsurance protection against storm surge measured during named storm events on a parametric trigger basis.

The single tranche of notes has a preliminary size of $125m we understand, although we’re told that the MTA could upsize this if pricing proves more attractive than other sources of reinsurance it utilises. The MTA’s motivation for issuing this cat bond is to expand and diversify its sources of reinsurance protection and also to obtain some coverage on a parametric basis which should payout more quickly than indemnity coverage.

The transaction features a parametric trigger based on actual recorded storm surge heights from a number of zones around New York city. A loss payment would be due based upon a parametric event index meeting or exceeding a trigger level for an applicable area, meaning that it may not necessarily directly correlate with the losses of the sponsor.

According to risk models, only Hurricane Donna in 1960 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 would have triggered the principal payments and reinsurance provisions from these bonds. Market observers are intrigued by this new form of reinsurance, and analysts expect the MTA to ramp up use of such bonds if market response is positive and market conditions are favorable. In a sense, the MTA, which has not yet commented on these bonds, seems to feel that New York’s vulnerability to such surges from named storms will only continue to increase as the next three years elapse, and recovery money may be easier to access via these catastrophe bonds.

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When the MTA releases its 2014 budget in a few weeks, transit advocates and budget wonks alike will be rubbing their hands with glee, rather than dread. While the budget will likely contain some bad news and dismaying long-term projections, the big question of the month will finally be answered: Just what does the MTA plan to do with that extra $40 million?

For the better part of 2013, we’ve heard a lot about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s transit largesse. As part of an increase in available state money, Cuomo upped his executive contribution to the MTA by around $40 million, and the MTA suddenly has an unexpected windfall to spend. A few months ago, the tug-of-war began with politicians calling for increased service and labor leaders calling for increased salaries. Only a few have urged the MTA to use this drop in the bucket to pay down its crushing debt load, and one way or another, it seems, the public will benefit in the short-term from the $40 million while the MTA’s long-term needs are ignored.

Lately, the battle has been heating up, and two competing editorials argued for the money this weekend. In the Daily News, John Raskin of Riders Alliance — of which I am a board member — and Gene Russianoff called for better transit service. The two write:

The need for expanded service is more pressing than ever. Ridership is at its highest level since 1950. The subways and buses are packed. Ongoing repairs from Sandy are causing additional hardships for R and G train riders, with future repairs likely to cause trouble on many other trains as well.

Riders are paying more money for less service. Fares have gone up four times in six years, at a pace that the state controller found to be more than double the rate of inflation. The base fare jumped from $2 in 2008 to $2.50 in 2013 — and the 30-day card increased from $81 to $112 during the same period. Meanwhile, the MTA still has not restored most of the service that was eliminated in 2010, putting back less than one-third of the $93 million that was chopped from the budget in the depth of the recession.

Restoring subway and bus service is not only possible because of a recovering economy; it is also necessary for New York to truly maximize its economic potential in the years to come. Our transit system is the lifeblood of the region’s economy, moving more than 7 million people every day to work, school, shopping and other appointments, and making a much-needed dent in productivity-killing traffic congestion. Improving service is an investment in jobs, economic growth and future tax revenue.

Specifically, they call for increased off-peak service for subways, restored bus lines, and more LIRR and Metro-North trains as well. I’m still hesitant to embrace the call for reactivating lost bus routes as those routes never had the ridership to justify service in the first place, but perhaps I’m falling for my own chicken-egg problem. If we add buses and encourage regular and predictable (or observable) service, maybe ridership will increase. If the MTA is investing in its service offerings, the other requests are no-brainers.

Meanwhile, on Long Island, the chair of the LIRR Commuter Council has issued his own wishlist in the form of a Newsday Op-Ed. He too requests an increase in off-peak LIRR service; more security measures for some of the system’s lesser-used stations; increased spending on cleaning, maintenance and waiting room hours; more wheelchair access; and fare reduction. His requests are reasonable, but it’s not clear if Mark Epstein understands how little $40 million is. If the MTA devoted the entire surplus to its fares, it would reduce any looming fare hike by less than one percentage point. It hardly seems worth contributing even a token amount of this money toward alleviating a fare hike because it won’t achieve much at all.

Ultimately, though, I’m still left with the uncomfortable feeling that everyone is arguing over something that will soon disappear. The MTA has a little extra money to spend for one year, but there’s no guarantee that money will remain in place in subsequent years. If the funding stream dries up, the agency will be left with a larger operating deficit, and we haven’t even accounted for the fact that the MTA’s budget rests on a shaky foundation of a net-zero wage increase. If net-zero is unobtainable, the $40 million will evaporate before a single extra train can roll down the tracks.

The politically expedient move is to spend the money on customers. The token gesture would placate politicians and irate straphangers. The economically expedient move is to spend the money reducing future debt loads even by just a little bit. I have a sneaking suspicion though the former will win out.

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Even as Nassau County and various other suburban counties appeal the ruling upholding the payroll tax as constitutional, the MTA has enjoyed a credit boost from one ratings agency. According to a report issued this week by Moody’s, the payroll tax ruling represented “a credit positive” for the MTA, but as an appeal is ongoing, it’s a fragile step in the right direction for the debt-laden agency.

As Moody’s noted, the payroll tax represents nearly a tenth of the MTA’s annual budget, and overturning the tax would be very costly. “Loss of this revenue stream would add significant financial strain on the MTA and eliminate a sizable resource available for payment of debt service on the transportation revenues bonds,” the report explained. The MTA currenty has $33.2 billion in outstanding debt on the books, nearly $19 million of which are in those bonds.

The stark reality of the MTA’s budget situation has seemingly escaped those protesting against the payroll tax. The same group of politicians and business interests strenuously objected to a congestion pricing plan and were left with the payroll tax as the best option among a sea of bad ones. Overturning it would be incredibly costly not just to the MTA but to the suburban areas that benefit from having a direct transit connection to New York City. Yet the appeal, likely to be unsuccessful for Nassau County, rolls on.

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Even though numerous lower courts have upheld the Payroll Mobility and even after New York State’s Appellate Division judges overturned the lone Supreme Court case that didn’t find the tax constitutional, Nassau County isn’t giving up. The Long Island plaintiffs will appeal this week’s decision to the Court of Appeals, the highest state court in New York’s judiciary system, Newsday reported today.

Details on the appeal as scarce for now, but it seems that Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is content to spend more taxpayer dollars pursuing a lawsuit he has no chance of winning. Meanwhile, those from north of the city are still bemoaning the tax as well. “Dutchess County can’t afford this tax. It’s bad for the economy, whether it’s constitutional or not,” Assembly rep Kieran Lalor from Fishkill said. (This isn’t the first time Lalor has slammed the tax.)

Ultimately, though, this tax isn’t any more of a job-killer than completely defunding the MTA to the tune of $1.3 billion annually would be. The regional economy would simply dry up without this subsidy. The tax is constitutional, and it will remain on the books. If Lalor and his ilk dislike it, it’s up to them and other state representatives to find a better solution that they feel is more equitable than a payroll tax.

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While most of the country had its eyes trained on the Supreme Court down in D.C. on Wednesday, New York’s Appellate Division in the Second Department issued an opinion that should pique the interests of transit advocates throughout the region. Ten months after a Long Island Supreme Court justice ruled that the MTA Payroll Mobility Tax was unconstitutional, an Appellate Division judge has overturned that ruling, guaranteeing that the MTA can continue to collect nearly $1.4 billion annually. While the ruling was expected to be a favorable one for transit, those fighting for the tax can breath a sigh of relief.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the MTA called its transit network “the backbone of the region’s economy” and thanked the judges for the ruling. “Removal of the tax’s revenues would have had a catastrophic impact on the region’s 8.5 million daily transit riders,” the MTA said. On the other hand, Edward Mangano, the Nassau County Executive who brought the case, bemoaned the ruling. “We maintain the tax is overburdensome and just plain unfair,” he said.

As to Mangano’s second point, the Appellate Division disagreed. When Justice Bruce Cozzens issued his original ruling last year, he claimed that the Payroll Mobility Tax — and, by extension, state schemes to fund the MTA — did not serve a legitimate state function and did “not bear a reasonable relationship to a substantial State concern.” It takes only a class in basic municipal economics and not law to know how laughable Cozzens’ line of argument was, and the Appellate Division quickly dismissed it.

Citing precedent that found rapid transit in New York City to be a substantial state concern and previous cases that involving Nassau County that upheld regional funding plans because they “transcended the concerns of Nassau County alone and affected a sizable portion of the State as a whole,” the Appellate Division reversed Cozzens. They four-judge panel wrote:

Here, the Sponsor’s Memo for the MTA Employer Tax Law noted that continued investment in mass transit provides direct benefits to mass transit users and to the regional and state economies. Chapter 25 of the 2009 Session Laws enacting the bill announced that “[m]ass transportation services in the [MCTD] are essential to meeting the basic mobility and economic needs of the citizens of the [MCTD], the state and the region.” The 2008 report of the Commission on Metropolitan Transportation Authority Financing also observed that the benefits of the MTA’s capital program boost economic activity across the State and could create jobs in New York City and in “communities as far away as Buffalo, Albany, and Plattsburg[h].”

Thus, the MTA Employer Tax Law, which provides a funding source for the preservation, operation, and improvement of essential transit and transportation services in the MCTD, serves a substantial State concern. As such, it was not unconstitutionally passed without a home rule message. Absent constitutional inhibition, the Legislature has “nearly unconstrained authority in the design of taxing impositions.” The plaintiffs’ arguments that the MTA Employer Tax Law violates article III, § 20 of the New York Constitution, article X, § 5 of the New York Constitution, and the equal protection clause of the New York Constitution lack merit.”

In Albany, efforts to repeal or pare down the payroll tax will continue, but that’s the right approach. A legislative response is now required, and the payroll tax, imperfect but necessary, lives on as a permissible, constitutional exercise of legislative power that clearly serves a substantial state interest.

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