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.