Archive for MTA Politics

The Commercial Transformation of Columbus Circle

The MTA’s rehabilitation of the Columbus Circle subway stop was an odd project. Like many before and after it, it took far longer than the MTA budgeted and ended not with a ribbon-cutting or even an announcement but with a whimper. One day, it was under construction, and the next day it wasn’t. It’s still not quite finished either as the corridor underneath 8th Ave. remains simply that.

As part of the original plans, this corridor was to become a commercial space with high-end tenants. It was, then-MTA head Jay Walder told me, to be the first of a new breed of MTA real estate. Instead of dingy newsstands and off-beat shops, Columbus Circle was to pave the way for a re-envisioning of subway real estate. It could be popular and a destination in and of itself.

Now, years after the renovation wrapped, that dream is inching closer to reality, Matt Chaban wrote in The Times this week. Chaban profiled Susan Fine, the current head of Oases Real Estate and the former MTA exec who was in charge of the rebirth of Grand Central, as she works to draw in tenants at Columbus Circle. Beginning 2015, 30 storefronts will line in the corridor as a set of shops called TurnStyle. These stores will include grab-and-go options such as Magnolia bakery, some electronics and high-end shopping spots, and larger upscale fast food types.

If Fine is successful — and that’s not a given as she has to convince New Yorkers to dine in a subway station — the MTA could bring this public-private commercial partnership to other subway stations with high foot traffic and open spaces. Taking up residence in the 7th busiest subway certainly won’t hurt the cause. “The trick was really figuring out strategies to slow people down,” Jessica Walsh, one of Fine’s partners, said. “If we can make it an interesting space with its own identity, we’re pretty confident we’ll not only catch commuters, but tourists and even people on their lunch break. Deep down, we all love the subway.”

CM Rose lead Staten Island calls for transit investments

As the MTA’s next five-year capital plan has come into view, complaints from Staten Island have increased. I wrote about the isolated borough’s complaints last week and pinpointed politicians as the leading cause of their problems. To be fair to Staten Island, though, not all of their politicians are as opposed to transit improvements as others, and this week Council Member Debi Rose flashed her credentials.

In a piece for the Staten Island Advance, Rose made the case for more transit investments for Staten Island. Not satisfied with the new ferries or the promise of new rail cars for the Staten Island Railway, Rose argued for some use for the North Shore and West Shore rights of way. She isn’t wrong, but her piece highlights the political problems here as well. Rose admits that the city doesn’t invest enough in transit, and although she rails against fare hikes and toll increases, she doesn’t propose a solution or a funding scheme.

As I’ve said before, the answer here is simple: Put your money where your mouth is, and the MTA will listen. If Rose wants BRT for the North Shore ROW, all she has to do is find a way to pay for it. But would she risk alienating Staten Island drivers, a strong constituency who will not be the first to support a congestion pricing plan? I doubt it. Without leadership that leads to dollars, nothing will happen.

The Man-Spread Blight

Finally, a more whimsical piece from amNew York that delves into one of the most egregious breaches of subway etiquette: the man-spread. We’ve all been there when some guy next to us is sitting with his legs spread far wider than any normal human would ever need. Perhaps it’s overcompensation; perhaps its ego or obliviousness; perhaps it’s a combination of all three. Whatever the cause, it drives me nuts.

In an amNY piece, Sheila Anne Feeney tried to get to the bottom of this phenomenon, and her article will in turns amuse and infuriate you. The perps and defenders act so righteous — “Men need space,” one person said — while those trying to find seats get glares or worse.

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A few years ago, at around the time Sandy swept through New York, Andrew Cuomo determined it looked gubernatorial and in charge for him to announce good news regarding the MTA. In the grand tradition of New York executives stretching back to 1968, Cuomo decided that the MTA could be used to boost his image with downstate voters, and now, every time good news comes out, his press office sends out an email “announcing” the happenings. Tunnels reopening? Sandy work on the R train wrapping early? New wireless service underground? Federal storm preparedness funds? It all comes from Cuomo’s office.

“What happens though when there is bad news?” you may wonder. Funny you should ask because that’s when Cuomo disappears faster than Keyser Soze. He’s more than willing to take credit for everything on which he had little to no affect; that is, after all, his prerogative as the MTA is a creation of the State of New York. But when something doesn’t go right, when there are bad headlines to be made, Cuomo does what many others have done before him — he tries to distance himself from the MTA. (He may even be exerting pressure to actively avoid bad news. From some accounts, the MTA may wait to announce the details of the 2015 fare hikes until after Election Day so Cuomo can avoid the bad press. Usually, the new fare schemes are announced in mid-October prior to a March fare hike. But I digress.)

This dynamic came to a head this week following the CPRB rejection of the MTA’s capital plan. In his comments about the capital plan, Cuomo, who you may recall is in charge of the MTA, seemed surprised that the thing had a $15 billion gap. He didn’t offer up any solutions and seems to think all is copacetic when it comes to MTA funding.

Here’s what he said to Capital New York: “The first budget from every agency also always calls for $15 billion. That’s part of the dance that we go through. That’s why I say it’s the initial, proposed budget. We’ll then look at that budget and go through, and we’ll come up with a realistic number. But we have a very real $4 billion surplus, and we have a 2 percent spending cap that I still follow. So that’s the discipline that’s in the process.”

When later asked about a funding scheme involving, say, congestion pricing, Cuomo was quick to dismiss the idea. As Kate Hinds reported, Cuomo simply said, “There’s no need for it. We have a surplus. Look, we had a $10 billion deficit, and we didn’t do tolls.” That $15 billion is just going to materialize out of thing air. (Or will Cuomo, as he intimated, use the money from the bank settlements to fund the MTA?)

For its part, in a rare act of defiance, the MTA seems to be toeing the capital line. While Cuomo has suggested the capital budget could be pared down — and it’s likely to come in below the current $32 billion price tag — Tom Prendergast spoke yesterday about the need for investing in the system. Streetsblog’s Stephen Miller was on hand to report as Prendergast defended the five-year plan. Disputing Cuomo’s earlier assertion that the proposal was “bloated,” as the governor said, Prendergast warned that he’d be willing to drive the MTA further into debt. “I don’t like greater debt finance, but I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll treat that finance as a bridge to another day.”

As Miller notes, Prendergast’s co-panelists discussing transit governance were quick to point to Cuomo as the ultimate arbiter of all things MTA, whether the governor admits it or not. Many MTA board members answer to Cuomo, and Prendergast is a Cuomo appointee who serves at the pleasure of the governor. While Cuomo may try to shirk the bad news and trumpet the good, this is his beast, as it was every governor’s before him since Nelson and David Rockefeller’s plan to depose Robert Moses. The $15 billion gap is at his feet. How he moves forward will speak volumes of his approach toward New York City and transit, and I’m not feeling particularly optimistic about it.

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Every few years, politicians from Rockland County drum up some outrage over their inclusion in the MTA, and every few years, they demand something — usually more — while bemoaning having to pay more. It’s an odd little dance that isn’t entirely without a sound basis in fact, but it also underscores the inherent contradictions in New York State politics and how no one is ever held responsible for them.

The latest come to us from Rockland County Legislative Chairman Alden Wolfe and Legislator Harriet Cornell who is the Chair of the Special Committee on Transit. As part of the MTA Every One Has a Pet Project Commission Reinvention Commission, the two sent comments with their views on reinvention. Wolfe’s words were fairly neutral. “Rockland has documented for years the disparity in the tax revenues generated from Rockland,” he said, “which far exceed annual expenditures made by the MTA to serve the County: it’s a $40 million value gap.”

I delved into that study back in 2012 when Rockland started making noises about leaving the MTA. It was not without merit, and SAS commenters found it to be at least discussion-worthy. I thought it didn’t quite account for the positive benefits of regular, if sporadic, train service.

Cornell used her statement as a soapbox. “Institutional, intergovernmental and jurisdictional barriers are at the heart of MTA’s insufficient attention to Rockland’s transit needs,” she said. “Rockland on the west side of the Hudson is a transportation orphan, long overdue for substantial new investment in our transportation infrastructure. The MTA has not met customer needs!”

Most New Yorkers west of the Hudson would love to be as “orphaned” as Rockland which, as I noted, has regular, if sporadic, service. But maybe Rockland deserves an improvement. Let’s see what happened when the state last tried to raise revenue for transit service. If you guessed “complain about the payroll tax,” well, you’re the next contestant on “The Gripe Is Right.”

In 2009, when the state approved the MTA Payroll Tax as a funding measure for the cash-starved MTA, the same two Rockland County legislators complaining this week led the charge to oppose the payroll tax and agitate for withdrawal from the MTA, a threat that seems to disproportionately impact only themselves. Perhaps Rockland needs to learn a lesson in politics: Sometimes you have to give first if you want to receive later.

Ultimately, Rockland does seem to draw a shorter end of the straw than the rest of the MTA counties, but moaning about improvements on the one hand while objecting to funding schemes five years earlier isn’t productive policymaking. It is though business as usual when it comes to transit politics in New York. How frustrating.

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As transit rank-and-file go, few workers are more vulnerable than bus drivers. For years, they sat behind the wheel with no protection between them and their passengers as New Yorkers of all stripes filed past. They weren’t asked to actively put themselves at risk, but to fare jumpers, disrespectful riders and those looking to do more damage, bus drivers were sitting ducks.

A few years ago, the MTA, under pressure from its unions, started installing partitions, and many — but not all — buses now afford their drivers some protection. Plans include an aggressive roll-out of partitions in the future, and with BusTime and the technology upgrades, the MTA is primed to protect its drivers and respond quickly to emergencies. You would think the New York State Senate would appreciate — or at least know of — these efforts, but instead, they’ve taken an interesting approach.

Earlier this week, the New York State Senate passed a bill requiring that the MTA install partitions in every busy by 2019 and ensure that all buses have a GPS system that can synchronize with alarm by 2016. The bill, which you can read right here, now awaits Assembly action, but it is an amazing example of shutting the barn door after the horse escapes. The State Senate has, in effect, ordered the MTA to do something that, with regards to GPS, it has already accomplished and, with regards to partitions, it is well on its way toward wrapping up.

Now you can accuse me of skepticism; I am, after all, no fan of the way Albany treats transit. Plus, this legislation, if it passes the Assembly and earns Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature, could protect future bus drivers as well. But to me, this is indicative of the way Albany reacts to transit. That is, they don’t. They latch onto something the MTA is doing on its own, mandate that it happen, and then try to take credit for the solution. Instead of examining the city’s traffic issues, transit’s funding problems or future growth, State Senators are content to put a good face on nothing. What a shame.

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For reasons of politics, Penn Station Access — the plan to send Metro-North trains through four new stations in the Bronx and into Penn Station — has become Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s transit cause célèbre. The plan has support from Westchester and the Bronx, and Cuomo is angling to deliver something for the constituents of his most notable November challenger. Don’t get in his way.

According to one story out on Monday, Penn Station Access and her opposition to it may be why Helena Williams is no longer the president of the Long Island Rail Road. In an extensive piece on Newsday that is unfortunately behind their payroll, Alfonso Castillo has the story:

Ousted LIRR president Helena Williams’ criticism of a Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo-backed MTA plan to link Metro-North Railroad to Penn Station — potentially inconveniencing Nassau and Suffolk commuters — cemented her reputation as a fierce advocate for Long Island, but it also contributed to Williams losing her job, sources said.

Williams, 58, whose seven-year stint as Long Island Rail Road president ended Friday, clashed with Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast over the Penn Station Access project, which would bring Metro-North into the LIRR’s West Side Manhattan terminal using existing Amtrak tracks around the same time the LIRR would connect to Grand Central Terminal as part of East Side Access, sources said.

“There was definitely a rift over that,” said one MTA source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Tom seemed to be on the side of pushing this thing forward, and his agency president was not. She was sort of pulling in the opposite direction.”

“I don’t think there’s any question that it helped her demise,” MTA board member Mitchell Pally said.

The article explores this divide with some MTA Board members claiming Williams’ opposition was “parochial” and that it led to her ouster while others called her a fierce advocate for Long Island whose stance on Penn Station Access was not a “significant factor” on her departure. Read into that what you will. I believe that any opposition to Penn Station Access at this point is mostly parochial and has no place in New York City 2014. Solving regional mobility issues will require joint cooperation from both LIRR and Metro-North, and it may involve some sacrifices on each side.

That said, Patrick at The LIRR Today has up an extensive gut-check on Penn Station Access. It’s well worth a read, but here’s an excerpt:

The problem with Penn Station Access is the fact that most people are going about looking at this the wrong way. They look at this as dots on the map. If the LIRR can add a dot onto their map it’s only fair that Metro-North get to add a dot onto theirs. But it’s tremendously more complex than that. Grand Central and Penn Station are far from similar — one is a station with more than forty platforms and more than 60 station tracks that is used exclusively by one and only one railroad, the other has just 11 platforms, 21 tracks, is shared by three different railroads that collectively operate close to 1,000 revenue trains on the average weekday in what could best be described as cramped quarters…

And to add to this, the LIRR’s East Side Access project is constructing an entirely new station at Grand Central deep below the existing one (like it or not, that’s what they’re going with). Therefore, bringing LIRR trains into Penn Station would result in no net loss of station tracks at Grand Central for Metro-North. Other than Madison Avenue Yard and the Lower Level Loop which was closed several years ago for ESA work, Metro-North has not been adversely affected by East Side Access.

Over at Penn Station, there is no plan to construct a new 8-track terminal below the exiting one (well, at least for Metro-North trains). The plan to bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station would involve no addition of capacity into the current station. Since they have no intention of adding capacity at Penn Station to support Metro-North trains, those slots are going to have to come from someplace else. I don’t think Amtrak or NJTransit are going to volunteer some of their station slots for the sake of Metro-North commuters, so the last possible space to get slots is from the LIRR. And when East Side Access is completed, demand for the LIRR service to New York Penn will decrease slightly, and they will not need to run as many trains to Penn Station, so there will be some space opened up for Metro-North. But a massive unknown in this equation is just how much space the LIRR might free up in Penn Station.

It’s food for thought as these projects come up for debate in the coming months. It certainly seems that Cuomo, not one to embrace transit, has started to put some political pressure on multiple fronts on the MTA. Between the TWU contract, the constant theft of supposedly dedicated funds and seemingly spurious statements from MTA officials about the agency’s financial situation, whether all of this politicking is for the good remains to be seen.

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On Wednesday afternoon, for some reason, Gov. Andrew Cuomo swooped in for a transit vist. In a seeming unsolicited letter to MTA CEO and Chairman, Cuomo urged the MTA to form a panel called the Transportation Reinvention Commission in an effort to focus the MTA on its needs for the next century. The letter came at an odd time and with plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but maybe, if things break the right way, the MTA and New York State could turn this into a positive step.

As the letter notes, Cuomo sent this massive to the MTA because their next five-year capital plan is due before the Board for approval in September. That can’t be the impetus behind it though because it would show a complete lack of comprehension of the capital process. Last year, the MTA released its 20-Year Needs Assessment which feeds and informs the capital plan. Does Cuomo think the MTA is going to slap together some $30 billion, five-year plan in less than four months? Does he think this panel can convene and issue recommendations ahead of any work on this plan? I hope not.

But this skepticism aside, Cuomo’s basic idea isn’t a bad one. Here’s his letter:

New York faces a pressing need to prepare the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for tomorrow’s challenges. To adapt its system for a changing world, a changing state and a changing climate, the MTA has a unique opportunity to proactively redesign how it serves its customers. The MTA is scheduled to submit a Capital Plan this fall to identify investment priorities for New York’s mass transit network. While past Capital Plans have focused on maintaining and expanding the existing MTA network, New York needs the MTA to develop a reinvention plan to make our subways and our entire transit system ready for the challenges of the next century.

I am recommending the MTA empanel a Transportation Reinvention Commission to examine its network and develop a plan for the future. The Commission should include international transportation experts and be selected by the MTA. It should hold public hearings as it develops findings and submit a preliminary report to me in advance of the MTA Board’s scheduled Capital Plan approval in September.

We have been operating the same subway system for the last 100 years. The next 100 years, however, look radically different for New York. The clear evidence of a changing climate in our nation makes more major storms like Superstorm Sandy a real and present threat. Increasing population, demographic shifts and record ridership pose new challenges to operating and maintaining our existing mass transit network, meeting and exceeding New Yorkers’ expectations, and spurring the continued growth of New York’s economy. Already, there are more than 8.5 million riders – more than the entire population of New York City – using MTA trains and busses every day. This Commission needs to fundamentally reexamine our subway system to meet these needs and expectations.

Cuomo’s assertion that “we have been operating the same subway system for the last 100 years” could not be further from the truth. In 1914, the BRT and IRT operated a bunch of streetcars and subway lines without the connections we know today, and the IND routings were barely a thought. The opening of Brooklyn’s 4th Ave. subway was still a year away, and only the Joralemon and Clark St. tunnels brought subways from Brooklyn to Manhattan. So we have not been operating the same subway for 100 years.

Yet, the next 100 years do look different. The MTA has to modernize a system that is, at parts, 100 years old; it has to meet growing demands for transit within the preexisting population and the growing population at large; it has to combat rising sea levels brought about by climate change and the threat of future flooding; and it has to figure out a way to grow at costs that aren’t astronomical. It also has to be more aggressive in thinking big than the Straphangers Campaign who, as a response to Cuomo’s letter, called for more Bus Rapid Transit.

So Cuomo has urged the MTA to appoint “international transportation experts” to this panel. Maybe they can figure out why everything costs so much in New York. Maybe they can look at work rules and personnel padding, at costs and timelines and project management, to figure out a way to reign in this problem. We may be skeptical because of Cuomo’s record and attention to transit, but at the least, this panel deserves a chance to do something. It won’t inform the next five-year capital plan, but it could have a deeper impact further down the road.

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It’s been over 15 months since the MTA turned off the flashing blue lights for its SBS vehicles with no compromise in sight. (Photo by flickr user Stephen Rees)

One of the lowest moments in recent transit history arrived last June when Tom Prendergast faced his confirmation hearing at the hands of the New York State Senate. Instead of offering up anything substantial, Senator Andrew Lanza too up a full ten minutes of Prendergast’s time, barely asking a question. Instead, he ranted and raved against bus lanes, Select Bus Service, and flashing blue lights. Supposedly, even after years of successful service in Manhattan and the Bronx, Staten Island drivers thought that SBS buses, with their flashing blue lights, were emergency vehicles.

After a review of the relevant New York State laws, Lanza — who has fought every transit improvement for Staten Island with a vengeance — determined that the MTA’s blue lights violated the law. He lectured Prendergast about the issue even though the MTA had turned off the lights in early 2013, over four years after using them initially and after countless law enforcement officials expressed ignorance at the blue light law. Bus users throughout the city have since complained about the difficulties in discerning Select Bus Service vehicles from the distance as the visual signifiers are no longer obvious.

Over the past year, various groups — including Manhattan’s CB 6 — have tried to find a solution. After an extensive review of the law, it appeared as though purple lights would be the only ones that didn’t require some sort of exemption, and for a while it looked like a bill to secure Albany’s stamp would pass. But Lanza started his whining about last summer, and as Streetsblog noted last week, the effort is stalled in committee. CB 6 passed another resolution [pdf] urging Albany to allow for purple lights or the MTA to do something else entirely.

Meanwhile, in another update, Stephen Miller at Streetsblog noted that even some supporters in Albany have lost the enthusiasm for the fight. Here’s the update:

[Sen. Jeff] Klein’s office indicated that the SBS bill isn’t on his agenda at this time. “Senator Klein wants to see Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan come to fruition this year and that will be his transportation focus this session,” said spokesperson Anna Durrett….Meanwhile, [Assemblyman Micha] Kellner said he would push hard this session to pass the bill in the Assembly and put pressure on the Senate. “I’m going to sit down and talk to Senator Klein, I’m going to talk to Senator Lanza, and see if we can come to an agreement,” Kellner said. “The nice thing about both Senator Klein and Senator Lanza is that they are very reasonable people…If not, we’ll seek another Senate sponsor.”

Kellner added that he has filed a “Form 99? to push the Assembly’s transportation committee chair to act on the bill during this legislative session, which ends this year. An NYU review of Albany procedure called this tactic “ineffective” because it does not force the bill to be reported out of committee. The push to pass the bill is also complicated by Kellner himself, who has been sanctioned by the Assembly ethics committee for sexual harassment violations and is not seeking reelection this year….

Kellner’s constituents rely heavily on SBS along First and Second Avenues, and Manhattan Community Board 6 passed a resolution this week asking Albany to bring the lights back. “My constituents call on a daily basis wondering why the lights are turned off,” Kellner said, adding that he has never received a complaint from a motorist who thought “two simultaneously flashing lights that flash very slowly” on a bus looked anything like an emergency vehicle. Kellner expressed frustration that the issue has languished. “Our bill specifically exempts Staten Island,” he said. ”This should not be a controversial thing.”

Kellner’s statement speaks volumes about this whole fight. It should not be controversial. Everyone is willing to accommodate a bunch of obstructionist politicians from Staten Island who both complain about a lack of transit options and throw up as many roadblocks as possible over improvements as incremental as Select Bus Service. Meanwhile, the rest of the city’s bus riders are held hostage to the whims of the few on something that is not, again, controversial. How utterly frustrating.

Categories : Buses, MTA Politics
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For a little while, it appeared as though Albany would stop Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest raid on transit funding, but when the budgetary dust settled this past week, the status quo remained unchanged. Despite an initial plan to grab $40 million that didn’t pass the New York State Assembly or Senate, state legislators ultimately accepted a budget that diverted $30 million in transit funding the state had previously agreed to issue. With fare hikes on tap for 2015 (and every two years after that), the diversion is a stark reminder of the way Albany treats New York City’s transit riders.

“The sacrifice of dedicated transit funds will mean less money available to provide subway, bus, Metro-North and Long Island Railroad service. Taking away transit funding at the state level has a direct impact on levels of service, which still have not been restored to 2010 levels, and on fares, which continue to rise every other year,” a group of advocates including the Straphangers Campaign, the Riders Alliance and TSTC said in a release this weekend. “Sadly, our elected leaders have sent a clear message that the State can—and will—use the MTA as a piggy bank, siphoning dollars out of the pockets of transit riders.”

What made this year’s raid a bit more galling were words from MTA Chair Tom Prendergast essentially supporting it. I don’t expect Prendergast, who sits atop the MTA at the pleasure of the governor, to speak out forcefully against the actions of his boss, but the MTA seems more resigned to this budgetary fate than we’d like. “Our needs are being met,” Prendergast said to The Daily News. “It’s as simple as that.”

Even as the MTA says its needs are being met, though, are the needs of the riders being met? The $30 million, as many have pointed out, won’t lead to massive service cuts or an increase in the planned fare hike, but it’s money the MTA doesn’t have to invest in service or debt payments. It’s money the MTA doesn’t have when the budget inevitably takes a nose dive in a few years. It’s money the riders won’t see re-invested in a system that could use every dollar it can find.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen Cuomo repeatedly reject efforts to make transit raids more transparent as he has vetoed a lockbox that would require impact statements when funds are diverted. He’s taken the credit for good MTA news and none of the blame for the bad. So this latest raid isn’t shocking. Yet, it’s still a reminder that transit riders, even as they fill the system in record-setting numbers, are the ones left holding the short straw year after year once the budgetary dust settles.

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Throughout the course of his career, Richard Ravitch has been something of a jack-of-all-trades in New York and an on-again, off-again savior for transit. He’s served as the Lieutenant Government of New York, and he authored a plan to revive the MTA’s finances during the depths of the agency’s financial crisis. He also served as the authority’s head during the start of its revival in the early 1980s. When he talks, New Yorkers generally listen.

On Wednesday, Ravitch unexpectedly took the microphone during the MTA’s Board meeting, and he had some strident words on the morning of a controversial vote. As you may recall, a few weeks ago, out of the blue, Gov. Cuomo announced a rollback of the Verrazano Bridge toll. In a move that would cost the MTA $14 million in dedicated revenue, Cuomo forked over a discount on the toll. Although the state will reimburse $7 million, this move comes without any corresponding aspects of Sam Schwartz’s traffic plan, a move to compensate transit riders or a nod to the MTA’s labor or economic situation.

Thus, when Ravitch took the microphone Wednesday morning, he did not mince words. Noting first that New York law requires MTA Board members to represent the MTA first, he leveled serious charges toward board members. “The law made it very clear that you, as members of the board of a public authority, have as your fiduciary responsibility an obligation to the mission of this authority,” he said. “That is your overriding obligation.”

Even though Gov. Cuomo, who ostensibly can control the board through a decent number of votes, wanted the toll plan, Ravitch believed it shouldn’t have made it past the vote, and he pointed to all the right things. “You are in the midst of two labor negotiations in which you are undoubtedly asserting, and properly so, the financial constraints that make it impossible for you to meet the demands of the labor unions. That argument is inconsistent with voluntarily reducing the revenues of this authority,” he said.

In the face of Ravitch’s words, the MTA Board still approved the toll decrease, but it was a divisive vote. Ted Mann, covering his last MTA Board meeting while on the Wall Street Journal’s transit beat, covered the turmoil:

One board member, former New York City budget director Mark Page, abstained from the vote, explaining that he didn’t believe the toll rebates were “an MTA initiative,” and hadn’t been subjected to the authority’s usual decision-making processes. “I don’t believe if the question were being asked solely of the MTA and this board that we’d be taking this action ourselves with our resources at this moment,” Mr. Page said…

But that position wasn’t embraced by the board, even as members prepared to vote in favor of the plan. “Why do lower bus fares not have an equal claim on the MTA’s finances?” member Norman Brown asked, noting that the city also provides Staten Island Ferry service, free of charge. “I live in a little place called Brooklyn,” he said. “We’re the ones that pay the toll that you’re always citing as a horrible toll.”

The six-dollar residential discount rate is “already a substantial” discount, Mr. Brown said. “Do the math.” Another board member, Jeff Kay, said the MTA should remind state officials later in the year, as the authority lobbies for financial support for its operating and capital budgets in Albany, that the authority has acceded to demands from the legislature about how it levies tolls. “I really do hope they’re taking ownership of our funding decisions,” Mr. Kay said, adding ”Guys, we’re doing what you asked us to do.”

Staten Island representatives were quick to defend the measure. “This has gone though a lot of permutation, and overcome many obstacles in the last two years to get this done,” Allen Cappelli said. “We eliminated the obstacles, got Albany on board. This was well-discussed and well thought out, and we’ve finally come to this day. I feel like doing the dance of joy.”

It’s not an easy issue. As I noted to Ted Mann on Twitter earlier in the day, while the rest of the MTA region got nothing in the vote, we do enjoy one-seat train service into Manhattan on a regular schedule. Staten Island’s been waiting 80 years for that, and such a plan isn’t on the horizon. But Cuomo’s giveaway was just that, and everyone else is going to pay as the various interest groups angling for a piece of the MTA’s pie load up for a fight.

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As Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an election year giveaway to Staten Island drivers — at the expense of New York City’s subway and bus riders — yesterday, a few residents of the isolated borough accused me of harboring disdainful attitudes toward Staten Island. It is, after all, a equal among boroughs, as much a part of New York City as Brooklyn and Manhattan. I believe a borough of under 500,000 sometimes get more attention than it deserves in a city of eight million, but it certainly isn’t Staten Island’s fault that it has no subway connection to the rest of our extensive system. It would be a far different place with one.

It is, however, Staten Island’s fault that it’s such a car-heavy, transit-phobic place, and it is not appropriate for the Governor, even after a year of negotiating, to alleviate a toll burden just because it’s an election year. It’s also worth noting that Staten Islanders pay the least for their admittedly meager transit service with a free ferry and a railroad that charges fares only at a pair of stations. But that’s part of being an equal partner amidst the five boroughs that make up our city. Some will pay less; some more. It should generally balance out.

As you can see, from a transit perspective, I have decidedly mixed feelings about Staten Island. I don’t have these feelings about Gov. Cuomo. He has no transit policy for New York City, comprehensive, piece-meal or otherwise, and he seems more intent on governing for votes than on governing for policy.

The big news that came out of Thursday concerned toll relief. What was originally supposed to be a $14 million contribution from the state became a 50-50 split. Since the MTA has a shaky surplus, the agency will contribute $7 million and the state will fill the gap so that Staten Island residents in non-commercial vehicles will now pay just $5.50 to cross the Verrazano Bridge and, in order to combat commerce clause challenges, commercial vehicles that travel the bridge frequently enough will see a reduction in tolls. The Verrazano Bridge, for Staten Island residents, now costs half what, say, the Triborough Bridge does for Bronx residents.

The toll relief is likely to go into effect on April 1, though it may take longer to reprogram E-ZPasses. “The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is a lifeline for Staten Island – for its residents, for its neighbors, for its businesses and for its economy,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement. “This toll relief will allow Staten Islanders to keep more of their money on the island and will make a real difference for companies that rely on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to keep their business thriving.”

Staten Islanders already enjoyed discounts rates on the toll, and that’s fine. I’m agnostic on toll relief by itself, but this move is a symptom of a bigger issue. As an editorial last week in the Staten Island Advance made perfectly clear, this is an election year move designed to help Cuomo shore up support in a more right-leaning area of the city, and it comes at the expense of everyone else. As Streetsblog notes, this is robbing a lot of Peters to pay off a few Pauls:

Make no mistake, though, the governor is undermining the MTA. For one thing, revenue from tolls is the only raid-proof source of funds for the MTA. The money goes straight into the agency’s accounts instead of passing through the state first, so Albany can’t pocket it. Cuomo may commit to “making the MTA whole” at his press conference, but any general funds spent this year won’t necessarily be there in the future. Albany’s support for transit has a way of shriveling up over time…

Other likely effects of the Verrazano toll cut: Tougher negotiations with the TWU, which can now point to what appears to be slack in the MTA budget (but isn’t really), and a slightly less compelling case for the Move NY toll reform plan, which swaps higher tolls on crossings into Manhattan for lower tolls on outlying bridges like the Verrazano.

Ultimately, $7 million in the grand scheme of things isn’t going to bankrupt the MTA, but it whittles away at the money that’s there. Cuomo claimed that the toll relief would disappear if the MTA’s finances declined, but that’s a political fight for another era. Meanwhile, with the MTA’s tenuous financial picture driven by debt, using surplus funds to cut a deal simply weakens that surplus.

Sam Schwartz has floated a plan that lowers preexisting bridge tolls and raises others to create a more balanced transit policy. It has its flaws, but it supports modes of travel that are better for the city and should reduce congestion. What Cuomo did yesterday contained no elements of that plan or any sense that he had a plan in the first place. It was a giveaway for drivers at the expense of subway and bus riders, and it sums up his approach to transit in a nutshell. How utterly disappointing.

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