While we spent much of Tuesday discussing the controversial and brilliant idea to turn over control of the East River bridges to the MTA, not every bit of testimony from the first Ravitch Commission hearings were as sensational as that one. Yet, each idea will be given equal weight by Ravitch as he attempts to come up with some grand fix.
Over at Streetsblog, Ben Fried ran down the day’s other themes. I’ve excerpted the relevant parts:
Responsibility for adequately funding the MTA should fall on those who benefit from its services. This encompasses a fairly broad swath of people, including straphangers, the real estate industry, and car commuters (who get less traffic on the street when more people use transit)…Several people testified that some form of road pricing or bridge tolling would be an additional stream of revenue consistent with this philosophy.
The MTA needs more consistent and reliable revenue streams. Congestion pricing fits the bill in this regard, too. The need for predictable revenue also led speakers to suggest more broad-based taxes…Kevin Corbett of the Empire State Transportation Alliance recommended both road pricing and a payroll tax…
The city and state have been derelict in their contributions to the MTA, and debt financing has gone too far. [Ed. Note: I've covered this issue in depth over the last few months. It is a point worth repeating.]
It is reasonable, even desirable, to institute regular and predictable fare increases, but straphangers are currently shouldering too much of the burden… Through the farebox, MTA riders fund 55 percent of the agency’s operating costs, the highest share in the nation…Corbett appeared to encapsulate the general sentiment when he called for “modest and regularly scheduled [fare increases], not more than once every other year.”
The MTA must become more efficient and financially transparent. Many speakers praised the progress Lee Sander has made in streamlining the MTA, and just as many wanted to see further opportunities for efficiency identified. Two speakers, Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign and City Comptroller Bill Thompson, recommended creating an independent watchdog agency to monitor the MTA’s finances.
These suggestions clearly run the gamut from desirable (congestion pricing) to politically unfeasible (payroll taxes) to guardedly unnecessary — an independent watchdog would just add another layer of bureaucracy to an organization trying to shed unnecessary positions.
What these ideas do suggest, however, is that the MTA has options other than a fare hike that they need to explore in full. The agency big wigs would have to lobby our state legislature and city leaders to secure more funding and a congestion pricing; they could reorganize the entire MTA agency. But in the end, these ideas must be exhausted before a fare hike is instituted.
I don’t know what Ravitch’s final recommendations will look like. For the committee to be effective and for the MTA to have a chance at securing some kind of governmental approval to a controversial plan such as congestion pricing, Ravitch’s final report will have to take a strong position on one recommendation. Anything more than that will become a muddled mix of solid policy that doesn’t make for a good talking point, and the MTA would face the same issues with which the Barack Obama campaign is grappling when it comes to the economy.
But no matter the outcome, the MTA should follow up on and each every bit of testimony they hear this week. Congestion pricing may be the best outcome for the MTA and for the city, but they should explore selling the bridges and streamlining agency operations too. Every little — and big — bit helps.