Citing the need to “assure the kind of quality mass transit that our economy and our communities demand,” Assembly representative Richard Brodsky, State Senator Bill Perkins and 12 other assembly members have called on Gov. David Paterson to reform the MTA finances.

In a public letter to the governor (available here as a PDF), the two representatives, heads of their chambers’ respective Committees on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, want to see real financial reform from the beleaguered transit agency.

“The fundamental problems of transparency, accountability, Board responsibilities and functions, oversight and public trust have become slogans that we all speak, but have not yet enacted,” they wrote. “We write because we strongly believe this financial crisis is an opportunity to, at least, fundamentally reform the MTA.”

The problems, according to Perkins and Brodsky, start at the top. “We need to open up the operations of the MTA, to provide regular outside overisght, and to ensure that the MTA and its Board are required to fulfill their mission. While this sounds simple and obvious,” the letter says, “it has become clear to us that the MTA and its’ (sic) Boards have not been able to meet these standards.”

Brodsky and Perkins’ ideas are mostly sound and most tame, considering the rhetoric in the letter. They write:

1) Board Members of the MTA should be subject to a statutory fiduciary duty to the mission and purpose of the MTA, as set forth in existing statutes.

2) There should be created a MTA/Authority Accountability Office to oversee that fiduciary duty and MTA operations, to recommend to the Legislature effective reforms of debt, compensation, MWBE, property disposition and other issues, to inquire into MTA activities and resolve complaints, and to receive and publish MTA documents. This is modeled on the successful NYC Budget Office.

3) The MTA should be required to publish, in real time, its finances, policies, plans and decisions. The current system relies heavily on post-facto audits. These do a reasonable job in telling us what went wrong. They do little to stop mistakes. Real-time review by the public, the Legislature, and the Authority Accountability Office could prevent problems not just explain why they happened.

4) The Comptroller should be empowered, consistent with the constitutional duties of the Office, to review selected contracts issued by the MTA.

My concerns about this proposal though stem not from their aims or ideas but rather from their misguided critiques of recent MTA problems: “Recent events at the MTA including the 2 Broadway deal, the 7 Line extension, the failure to publicly acknowledge cash resources, the failure to seek state and city support before voting for fare increases, and the focus on non-essential matters such as EZ-Passes for Board Members, has left the public with little confidence in the MTA.

Those aren’t recent events at the MTA, as Brodsky and Perkins allege, but recent news coverage of the MTA. As Chris O’Leary noted here yesterday, the myths about the MTA’s finances are largely media-driven, and Brodsky and Perkins are doing nothing to end the misconceptions that have allowed the State Senate to stall on a rescue plan.

Item-by-item: The 7 line extension is fully funded by the city, and the MTA shouldn’t have been blamed for failing to cover cost overruns. The MTA didn’t fail to seek state and city support before voting for fare increases. Rather, the state and city failed to support the MTA and had nearly a year’s notice of impending financial doom. The focus on the EZ-Pass scandal made for some juicy tabloid coverage but had little to do with the actual operations of the MTA. If the public has no confidence in the MTA, it is because the MTA is losing the public relations battle.

Brodsky and Perkins could have gone after the MTA for legitimate reasons. They could have examined issues concerning budget transparency, union relations and a bloated bureaucratic management structure. Instead, they chose to focus on the same old non-issues that make for good headlines and have little to do with the ingrained problems plaguing the MTA.

The Senate and Assembly should have more financial oversight of the MTA but not until the legislatures have shown they know what to do with that responsibility. Nothing I’ve seen out of Albany over the last month lead to believe any state representative could handle that duty.

Categories : MTA Politics
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  • MTA officially shelves SAS third track · Nine months ago, I reported on a proposed MTA plan to save money on the Second Ave. Subway construction costs by cutting the planned third track at 72nd St. While the track had been drawn up to allow other trains to bypass stalled cars, the MTA has officially decided it is an unnecessary expense, and Capital Construction cut it this week to save money. The agency is calling the cut a a $90 million savings, but because redesigning the 72nd St. station will cost $25 million, the decision to sacrifice future flexibility for present savings will net the project $65 million. It hardly seems worth it.

    In talking about the cuts at yesterday’s MTA Board meeting, Michael Horodniceanu compared the revamped Second Ave. Subway design to a poorly made American car. “We’re getting a Chevy,” he said of the long-awaited line. (Audio here.) I hope the city doesn’t come to regret the need to skimp on construction of this important new line. · (10)

As the MTA Board voted to pass a Doomsday package consisting of a 23 percent fare hike, the elimination of two subway lines and the scaling back of late-night and weekend service, the New York State Senate finally passed a comprehensive bailout package. The tax-and-toll plan will scale back the fare hike to a mere eight percent, avoid the service cuts, pare down the MTA debt and fund the agency’s ambitious capital expansion program.

Oh wait. Just kidding. Let’s try that again.

As the MTA Board voted to pass a Doomsday package consisting of a 23 percent fare hike, the elimination of two subway lines and the scaling back of late-night and weekend service, State Senators fell back on the same finger-pointing and party bickering that has come to dominate the Albany discourse. Our politicians again tried to blame a supposedly uncooperative MTA for Senate inaction and offered up the red herring of the commuter tax, another D.O.A. politically infeasible plan.

After fielding G.O.P.-targeted criticism in the city’s papers this week, Republican leader Dean Skelos blamed the Democrats for inaction. “The closed door discussions by the three New York City Democrats running state government have failed to produce an agreement on the MTA to prevent fare hikes, just as the closed door discussions on the state budget have failed to produce an agreement, with the deadline just a week away,” Skelos said in a statement.

Skelos has offered Republican support for an MTA bailout plan if it is tied to a road-and-bridges package for the upstate area.

Meanwhile, as Mayor Bloomberg urged the Senate to “do something,” one Senator took it upon himself to try. Martin Dilan, the head of the Senate Transportation Committee, proposed reinstating a commuter tax.

Support for the bill is dicey, and those who want the commuter tax reinstated believe the benefits should flow to the City and not the MTA. “The New York City commuter tax should be for New York City,” Senator Tom Duane said. “And if we hadn’t lost those millions from the commuter tax years ago, we wouldn’t be in such a dire situation with regard to the M.T.A.”

What the difference is, I don’t know. The City will benefit from a healthy and funded MTA. There’s also no guarantee that at any point the Senate would have diverted the flow of funds from the city to the MTA, as Duane suggests.

Furthermore, this proposed plan just won’t cut it. When the commuter tax was repealed during a good economy in 1999, it was estimated to bring in between $210-$360 million — or $267-$458 million in 2009 dollars. The MTA’s budget gap is $1.2 billion and climbing.

The tax has also suffered from historica bipartisan opposition. Upstate and Westchester-based Senators from both sides of the aisle felt the commuter tax unfairly burdened their constituents. With today’s G.O.P. mounting an ideological attack on the Ravitch Plan’s payroll tax, to assume a commuter tax — a plan far less equitable than bridge tolls — would pass defies reality.

(For an interesting debate on the commuter check, check out these two 2002 articles from the Gotham Gazette: pro and con. In a bad economy, the “con” argument seems a lot stronger to me.)

In the end, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith issued another half-hearted plea for patience in an attempt to defend himself. “We are clearly still working towards a solution for them,” Smith said. “There’s still some time before they actually institute the raise.”

If this is the Senate “clearly” working toward a solution, I’d hate to see what they do when they actually want to get something done. Smith inspires no confidence, and while there is indeed some time before the cuts and hikes are implemented, I don’t have any faith in the State Senate. Do you?

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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Friend-of-SAS Chris O’Leary, better know as the East Village Idiot, also happens to be a fellow transit advocate. Today, in advance of the MTA Board’s approval of the 23 percent fare hike, he penned an excellent piece disputing some common misconceptions about the state of the MTA’s finances. I was getting set to write a very similar post, and Chris offered to allow me to reproduce his.

So below is a guide to popular myths about the MTA’s budget problem. City Room comments certainly could use this primer. Be sure to check out East Village Idiot for a mostly humorous and sometimes serious look at life in New York City.

Today, the MTA will vote to raise fares again… this time to the tune of 23%. Your monthly Metrocard that cost you $81 this month will cost you $103 in June.

Yes, it’s outrageous. Yes, it’s unfair. But no, it’s not entirely the MTA’s fault. In fact, this fare hike could have been easily prevented by Albany in the past and present, but everyone finds it easy to blame the MTA for this. Stop blaming the MTA, and blame the people who deserve to be blamed.

Myth: The MTA can find the money, somewhere, to stop this hike

When people say this, I ask, how? Nobody has an answer, they just have a feeling. Well, I invite anyone who wants to make this claim to go into the MTA’s financial statements and find enough money to fill their $1.3 billion deficit. It’s not possible. They are out of money. And there’s a good explanation, which brings me to my next myth.

Myth: The MTA got into this deficit by spending too much on big projects

Read More→

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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Updated (1:30 p.m.): Say good bye to the W and Z trains, good weekend service and low fares.

In a 12-1 vote, the MTA Board has approved its so-called Doomsday budget in its legally mandated effort to balance its budget.

The new fare structure will be as I detailed last night (and as presented below), and the new fare rates are set to go into effect on May 31. Late-night and weekend service cuts could go into effect even earlier, and the Z and W trains along with numerous bus routes will be eliminated in their entirety.
This is truly a sad day for supporters and riders of transit in New York City, and the blame for this lies squarely with Albany.

While the battle for now has been lost, there is a faint glimmer of hope. The MTA Board said that today was not the final Doomsday. If Albany acts soon, the Board could put off the service cuts and reduce the fare hike. Politicker NY’s Eliot Brown reports:

Still, the drama continues, as this was not actually the drop-dead deadline for avoiding the fare hike. As many MTA board members noted, the board can take back the action should Albany agree on a new funding package. The fare hikes are slated to go into effect in June, while the service cuts would start earlier.

The Mayor’s Office however warned of at Albany punt. Albany could enact a short-term measure that is a politically popular measure but does nothing to address the inherent problems of the MTA. Writes Brown:

Jeff Kay, a mayoral appointee on the board and director of the mayor’s Office of Operations, was rather pessimistic, suggesting that even if there is a rescue, it will only be a short-term fix that doesn’t get at the root of the problem (not enough long-term reliable funding).

It’s possible, Kay said, that “they’ll come through with what’s politically expedient, which is, make sure fare hikes don’t go into effect.” But even so, “we will be back in two months saying we still have a problem if they just do the politically expedient thing.”

The drama continues.

Click through for a sneak peak at the new fare structure.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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At 9:30 a.m., the MTA will meet — or will have met, depending upon when you read this — to vote on, among other items, a 23 percent fare hike and massive service cuts to its transportation offerings. While a prior commitment will prevent me from live-blogging the proceedings, you can catch a webstream here. The fare hike happenings will be early on, and I’ll have an update on site as soon as I’m back at my computer.

Meanwhile, on Doomsday Budget Eve, New York politicians and the newspaper editorial boards that love and loathe are all pointing fingers at one august body. Right now, the State Senate and its leaders on both sides of the aisle are getting creamed by pols and papers alike.

The party started earlier this week when the Daily News based both Malcolm Smith and Dean Skelos, the Senate Majority and Minority leaders respectively, for their failing to support the MTA. These politicians, both from transit-dependent districts, have known for a year about the transit doom heading New York City’s way, and then two of them stood by idly as comprehensive proposals to fix the MTA’s finances were supported by everyone else but the Senate.

Late yesterday afternoon, Sheldon Silver, the man responsible for killing congestion pricing in 2008, hopped on the Blame the Senate bandwagon. While Silver’s obstructionism last spring shut off one source of dedicate revenue for the MTA, he guaranteed that the Assembly would pass the Ravitch Plan. His statement:

Let me be clear, the Assembly Majority is ready to pass a plan to save the MTA and prevent a massive fare hike. Our plan would prevent the proposed cuts and fare hikes by sharing the burden of transit costs. Those who use the bridges would pay a toll that is equal to what New Yorkers pay for a subway or a bus ride, and employers would invest in the system through a small payroll tax. We had hoped that the Senate would support our plan. The Assembly is prepared to act on this proposal to avoid the huge fare increases and draconian service cuts that would have a devastating effect on all New Yorkers.

Mayor Bloomberg, echoing a famous line from Network, urged New Yorkers to call their Senators in Albany to urge them to save transit. “If Albany doesn’t come through, then the straphangers are going to have to bear the brunt of this. I don’t think that’s good for the system. I don’t think it’s good for our economy,” Bloomberg, a man who knows a thing or two about money, said. “But we cannot walk away from mass transit. We have to have it. So I hope it doesn’t get to that, but if it does, what I would suggest when you see what’s going to happen to your commuting costs, you should call your state legislators and say, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.'”

And finally, today’s editorial in The Times names names. Writes the Grey Lady of Republican Senators from New York who won’t deviate from the strict anti-Ravitch stance of the state G.O.P.:

Among city Republicans who should be interested in helping the M.T.A. are Senators Martin Golden of Brooklyn, Frank Padavan of Queens and Andrew Lanza of Staten Island. There are also a few Republicans upstate who should be trumpeting the Silver plan because of businesses in their districts that depend on the M.T.A. They include Senators Elizabeth Little of Glens Falls, Joseph Griffo of Rome and George Winner of Elmira.

As the State Senate turns its back on eight million riders a day, the M.T.A. can’t just wait. They could start preparing fare machines and scheduling delays set for June — unless Albany wakes up and comes to the rescue.

So that’s that. In 10 hours from my writing this, the MTA Board will have approved a fare hike/service cut plan to balance its budget as required by state law. Those who write the laws, though, won’t act and won’t take responsibility for their inaction. As Bloomberg and Silver do, as The Times and The Daily News do, I too blame our State Senate for the decline and fall of transit in New York City at a time when we need it most.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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When the MTA Board meets tomorrow morning, they will approve a drastic fare increase that will look something like this:

  • Pay-per-ride subway and bus fares increase from $2 to $2.50. Whether the 15 percent discount will remain is up for debate.
  • Express bus fares will increse from $5 to $6.25.
  • 1-Day Unlimited Ride MetroCards increase from $7.50 to $9.50.
  • 7-Day Unlimited Ride MetroCards increase from $25 to $31.
  • 14-Day Unlimited Ride MetroCards increase from $47 to $59.
  • 30-Day Unlimited Ride MetroCards increase from $81 to $103.

The math, by the way, for figuring out the value of the unlimited card remains virtually the same. If the MTA retains the 15 percent discount, anyone who rides 48 or more times a month should buy a 30-day card. Otherwise, just pay per ride.

As New Yorkers adjust to these 24-27 percent hikes, transit advocates and news outlet alike are wondering how subway-dependent straphangers are going to adjust to the increase costs. City Room posed the question yesterday, and Streetsblog followed up with their own thread today. The Times also wants to know who among us constitute the 2.1 percent of riders that buy single-ride cards. I say tourists.

In response to these questions, most people claim they will change their habits. Some people say they were bike more; others say they will turn to cabs; still others say they will simply cut back on a drink or two. We’ll see if that comes to pass.

I plan to do nothing diffrent. The extra $22 a month is a pain especially in a bad economy and with worse service on the way. In the grand scheme of things though, unlimited access to all of New York City for $103 a month is still a great deal. It’s far cheaper than taking a cab. It’s far cheaper than owning a car and driving

But that’s just me.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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  • Building a better rat trap · While New York City Transit hasn’t noticed an uptick in rat infestations in its stations, the agency is expanding its war on rats. In an effort to eliminate the foraging rodents, NYC Transit is installing $10 plastic boxes that contain a lethal “granola bar,” according to a city pest control expert. According to NYC Transit head Howard Roberts, the agency will conduct a census of rats around Franklin St. — the site of an eight-month pilot program on the 1 line — to see if the new poison is more effective at eliminating the not-so-lovable creatures than previous rodenticide efforts. · (2)

Yesterday morning, as the MTA Finance Committee prepared to deliver a shocking vote on fare hikes and service cuts, The New York Times ran a story on the Ravitch Plan’s East River bridge toll package. This was not your typical article on East River tolls though. Rather, it highlighted the views of the few and promoted them as though they were accepted wisdom among straphangers.

In the article — headline “Unlikely Opponents of Bridge Tolls: Transit Riders” — Times transit beat writer William Neuman managed to find a few transit riders to were against tolls. Writes Neuman:

But interviews with residents in these districts revealed that the holdout legislators have tapped into a concern shared by many of their constituents, even among those where it might be least unexpected: transit riders. And while toll opponents made up a spirited minority among straphangers interviewed in recent days, their views stood out, because they were both unexpected and passionately held.

“I think it’s unfair to tax drivers to pay for those using public transportation,” Serena Burch, 37, said as she waited on a recent afternoon for a bus near Brooklyn College, where she is a full-time student. “Why should the bridge commuters pay for the subway commuters in Brooklyn?”

Ms. Burch, who lives near Kings Plaza, did not know who her senator was or what his position was on tolls. But as it turned out, they were in agreement. Her senator is Carl Kruger, who has been one of the staunchest opponents of new tolls…

In the Soundview section of the Bronx, John Garcia, 33, a plumber with a job in Manhattan, is represented by Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., another vocal toll opponent. Mr. Garcia said that even though he was a regular subway rider, he worried about the effect of tolls on the small businesses that frequently use the Harlem River bridges. “Tolling the bridges is going to hurt a lot of people that own plumbing companies, construction companies, cabs, deliverymen,” Mr. Garcia said, adding that he would prefer higher subway fares to new tolls.

Later on in the article — as Streetsblog excerpted — Neuman dropped in this tidbit:

While straphangers who opposed tolls were in the minority of those interviewed, far more common in the interviews last week were transit riders who feared the looming fare increases and supported bridge tolls.

Isn’t, then, Neuman’s piece a bit of disingenuous and dishonest reporting? Isn’t the tale here really that the vast majority of straphangers support bridge tolls because they rely on the subway far more than they drive? Isn’t the tale here one of a disconnect between New Yorkers who need the subways and the out-of-touch State Senators sitting in Albany?

Neuman’s story is helping no one and is simply distorting the truth. It’s another dismaying sign that the small minority of people who oppose bridge tolls and the Ravitch Plan have won the PR war at the worst of times.

Categories : Ravitch Commission
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“How did the MTA get here?” Chuck Scarborough asked me last night during my appearance on his new cable-only 7 p.m. Nightly News show. With the MTA Finance Committee voting Monday to recommend the Doomsday budget to the Board at Wednesday’s meeting, that’s the question on everyone’s mind.

In a way, the answer is quite complex. Through years of reduced contributions at the city and state level combined with a crashing real estate market and an increase in labor, fuel and maintenance costs, the MTA has arrived at the eye of a perfect storm of a budget crisis. In another way though, the last part of this equation is quite simple: By borrowing against the future a decade ago, the Pataki Administration ensured that the MTA would be saddled with debt payments.

Without these debt service payments on its capital campaign, the MTA wouldn’t be turning to a Doomsday proposal. We’d be suffering through the typical fare hike debate but not one on a magnitude of 23 percent.

A few days ago, Newsday’s Dan Janison tackled just this issue. His piece was largely overlooked on Monday, but it deserves some attention for the way in which is dispatches with the complex issue of the MTA’s crushing debt. Take a look:

Nine years ago, in collaboration with state officials, the mighty investment company Bear Stearns played a special role in shaping the course on which the region’s transit system now finds itself. Not only did this financial titan advise the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on a five-year, $17-billion capital program, but more notably its executives personally sold the plan to state lawmakers – helping generate commissions for the firm while temporarily funding mass transit.

From today’s perspective, of course, the deal represents fiscal risk and folly. Bear’s collapse a year ago signaled other global financial failures to come, and the debts carried by the state-run MTA drive its latest threat of massive fare hikes and sharp service cuts.

Watchdogs suggested that the Pataki administration and its sparring partners in the State Legislature were mortgaging the future. Policy makers, they believed, figured they’d derail from that track when they came to it.

Yesterday, State Sen. Brian Foley’s office cited data showing how MTA debt service payments of $609 million in 1996 have spiked to a forecast $1.5 billion in 2009. That works out to an estimated $125 million a month, said Ibrahim Khan, spokesman for Foley (D-Blue Point).

That, in a nutshell, is why Gov. David Paterson convened the Ravitch Commission. Well aware of the MTA’s tortured financial history, Paterson wanted a plan that would pare down the MTA’s current debt while providing a steady stream of income on hand for the system’s much-needed expansion. No longer would the MTA build on credit today that would create debt crises a decade from now.

For now, though, that plan isn’t meant to be, and the MTA will head one step closer to a financial abyss. During the Finance Committee session on Monday, MTA CFO Gary Dellaverson noted that projected tax revenues were down 70 percent year-to-date beyond the MTA’s pessimistic forecast. This fare hike/service cut situation will get better before it gets worse, and if Albany doesn’t act, the New York sons and daughters, straphangers all of us, will be left paying for the sins of our Pataki father.

Categories : MTA Economics
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