Home MTA EconomicsRavitch Commission Ravitch angered as political, legal foes gather

Ravitch angered as political, legal foes gather

by Benjamin Kabak

Richard Ravitch has heard the critics over the last few days, and he doesn’t like it. Responding to those who are skeptical of his bailout plan, Ravitch took a hardline position in an interview with the Daily News.

“Obviously, I have to assume they must know of some secret fairy godmother who has piles of money she is going to send and solve the problem,” Ravitch said. “Otherwise, they’d better damn well explain how the system is going to be paid.”

For the most part, these critics are pushing the standard line. As City Comptroller Bill Thomson has argued, the tolls will supposedly penalize those who don’t have access to the buses and subways. Never mind that every toll will be along a route that has ample bus and subway service. Never mind that people who can’t afford these tolls generally can’t afford a car in New York City either. Tolling roads in New York — actually charging people for the city services they use — has become some political taboo. No wonder Ravitch is a bit feisty.

But of course there are other concerns beyond obstructionist politicians. William Neuman highlights some of the legal challenges facing implementation of the Ravitch proposals. No one seems to know quite yet who has the ability to transfer control of the bridges from the city to the MTA or how the city could go about doing so.

“Our conclusion is that the city would not be permitted to transfer the bridges to the M.T.A. without a new state law,” Kate O’Brien Ahlers, the communications director for the city’s Law Department, said in a written statement on Friday.

City officials said that under state law, the bridges were similar to streets and parks, which are inalienable properties of the city. It is a status that requires state legislative action if they are to be sold, leased or otherwise removed from city control.

There is a law that allows the city to transfer property to the authority if it is to be used for transit purposes, such as land for a subway station. But the city officials said they did not believe that would apply to the bridges.

In reality, this is more of a political issue than it is a legal issue. If the impetus is there, city and state officials will work to affect the transfer. But as Neuman explores, the political impetus just isn’t there.

At some point, we’ll have to pay. Someone will have to shoulder the costs of running a transit system. It could be all of us; it could be some of us. Sadly, this decision will wind up in the hands of New York’s risk-averse politicians.

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Scott C December 9, 2008 - 9:31 am

Is anyone surprised by this? The leaderless and gutless legislature will do nothing and the massive fare hikes and service cuts will be implemented – I guarantee.

As a transplant from another state with a moderately functioning government, it is very sickening to watch.

Michaelb December 9, 2008 - 7:15 pm

I think you need a bit of a reality check. The reason outter borough politicians are strongly opposed to bridge toll schemes is that their constituents are strongly opposed to them. It does no good to say that only the rich drive into Manhattan, mostly because its not true. There are a lot of people who drive and have employer provided parking spaces – but don’t make a lot of money. MTA, NYPD and FDNY employees for starters. A lot of businesses in the outer boroughs drive into the city daily for their work. That’s a big cost for them too. Complaints from these people are why people like John Liu are so strongly opposed to this… not some quixotic crusade against the subway.

Second it doesn’t help to say that the areas served by bridges are well served by subways – duh – they have subways running across many of them. Most people who drive are not driving from home next door to a subway station to work next door to a subway station. There are large areas of Brooklyn and Queens that are poorly served by the subway. Don’t take my word for it, look at the MTA service map next time you’re on a subway! Going to or from these areas is a lot easier by car.

Third, it is simply ridiculous to say that this is about making people who drive pay their fair share of the maintenance on the bridges. This is about closing the deficit facing the MTA, which is overwhelmingly a result of subway service costing a lot more than the fees collected from subway use. If we’re talking about full costing, well the subway is where the greatest disparity is.

Finally, taxing “those who can pay” is what got the MTA and New York City jammed up in the first place. NYC taxes high and very high income earners at a higher rate than almost any other (if not higher than any other) jurisdiction in the United States. Fine. But these people also have volatile incomes. When things are good they make a lot of money. When things are bad, their incomes go way down – and so do taxes. Over reliance on these high income earners is why revenues are declining so rapidly. Like it or not, middle class incomes are where the stable, long term funding comes from – not the high income earners, even if they can afford to pay more. See for another example California’s budget fiasco (fixed just in time for a new one!) that resulted from the dot com bubble bursting in 2000. Same story, state tax collection went way down because it was overwhelmingly collected from high earners with volatile incomes.

Alon Levy December 9, 2008 - 11:30 pm

MTA, NYPD and FDNY employees for starters.

Aren’t emergency vehicles already exempt from tolls?

There are large areas of Brooklyn and Queens that are poorly served by the subway. Don’t take my word for it, look at the MTA service map next time you’re on a subway! Going to or from these areas is a lot easier by car.

And yet, about 80% of the people who live in the Outer Boroughs or in the East-of-Hudson suburbs and work in Manhattan commute by rail. It’s the commutes that don’t touch Manhattan, and won’t be affected by the tolls, that are done more by car.

If we’re talking about full costing, well the subway is where the greatest disparity is.

First, the subway is actually the least subsidized part of the MTA. The NYCT bus system is the most subsidized, I think, followed by the LIRR.

Second, cars incur more negative externalities than rail. Cars release particulate matter into the air, which has contributed to high asthma rates in neighborhoods near highways and bridges, such as East Harlem and Long Island City. In more car-oriented cities than New York, such as Houston, LA, and Atlanta, cars have created serious smog problems. Heavy rail has none of these problems, to say nothing of the fact that it releases far less CO2 into the air. The health costs here are not borne by drivers, but by people who often don’t even own cars; the cleanup costs are borne by taxpayers in general.

PHil G December 9, 2008 - 11:31 pm

The MTA needs to get its payroll in order! The employees need to take a cut.. and we all need to stop listening to idiots like Ravitch. Has anyone got a better plan?????

Michaelb December 10, 2008 - 8:30 am

Firefighters generally don’t commute in the firetruck. They do in a surprising number of cases get free parking as a perk though. It’s an important one because, well, Manhattan rent is pretty high for a family on a fireman’s salary. Construction workers also often get free parking on the job site. You may not know these people, but there are a lot of them in the outer boroughs, and they complain loudly when they get taxed.

Speaking of which, 80% taking transit in the outer boroughs? Don’t be silly. Only about 55% take transit in the entire city. (2005, US Census Bureau) That number includes a higher percentage in Manhattan and a lower percentage in other boroughs. Construction workers in Flushing do occasionally feel like their being told to subsidize investment bankers commute from the UES to Wall St. when they’re told the bridges will be tolled to pay for the deficit. Of course that’s an exaggeration, lots of bankers drive too… but if you want to understand the politics do think about that image, cause there is some truth to it.

Finally, if all you got is externalities for cars on the cost front, we’re going to have to take into account taxes paid by car owners on the fronts too. Also, externalities from burning coal to power the subway, and various other things. But there’s no hurry, we can take a couple years to get our figures right? Wrong… there’s a major deficit that needs to be closed in a matter of weeks… so once again, the full costing story is just blowing smoke. Misleading smoke at that.

Alon Levy December 10, 2008 - 3:24 pm

No, it’s 80% of people who work in Manhattan. People who live and work in the Outer Boroughs are likelier to drive, but none of the new tolls will apply to them. Nobody’s constructing toll gates on the Newtown Creek. The toll gates will only apply to people who cross the East and Harlem Rivers, and 80% of those who do do so by rail.

Everyone complains when they’re asked to pay more – drivers, straphangers, poor people, rich people. That’s not the point – the point is that a majority of New Yorkers supported CP, but Richard Brodsky, who represents a rich district in Westchester, convinced the Assemblymen that it was unfair.

The externalities of the subway are tiny compared to those of cars. The subway’s energy comes from coal, but because the subway is so much more energy efficient than cars, it pollutes far less and emits far less CO2. That’s why New York’s air is so much cleaner than Houston’s. If you want the air to be cleaner – if you want the people of East Harlem to stop getting asthma from cars driven by suburbanites – you should support rules that penalize driving and encourage taking transit.

Michaelb December 11, 2008 - 8:28 am

Now wait just a minute – either the tolls are of no consequence for most drivers, or they will have a noticeable impact on the number of drivers. If the real goal is to reduce driving overall, tolling the bridges is darn near the least effective way I can think of to do it.

Look, I get all the reasons why encouraging transit use and discouraging car use is a good idea. All I’m saying is that the real opposition to this plan comes from a lot of people who will have to pay for it… and most of them feel like they’re being targetted unfairly. They also have a lot of political muscle – probably enough that the tolls were dead before they were even proposed.

Pretending those people don’t exist, and don’t have legitimate concerns is a good way to loose in politics without even understanding what happened.


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