Home MTA EconomicsRavitch Commission The Ravitch Report: Where the papers stand

The Ravitch Report: Where the papers stand

by Benjamin Kabak

Now that we’ve all had a weekend to digest the Ravitch Report, let’s check in with the prevailing opinion. How the wind blows in the pages of New York’s editorial pages will go a long way toward determining the success or failure of this plan as it hits the state legislature.

Let’s start with the Paper of Record. The New York Times voiced its unconditional support for the plan:

Almost every commuter recognizes that a fare increase is inevitable, but that is unnecessarily onerous. The cost of a vibrant city, fed by its daily influx of commuters, should be shared by others who benefit. That means drivers, who face less traffic because so many other people leave their cars at home. And businesses that can draw employees from across the metropolitan area should also contribute…

Some of New York City’s most vocal politicians complained about how the Ravitch plan affects local drivers, especially in Queens and Brooklyn. Vetoing new tolls makes little sense unless these officials can come up with other ways to maintain and improve the enormous city transportation network.

Governor Paterson said New Yorkers face “one source of pain or another” to keep the M.T.A. up to speed. The right choice would be to spread that pain around beyond those who take public transit.

The Daily News, somewhat surprisingly but very pragmatically, liked the plan as well:

It is particularly sensible to build long-term fiscal stability on the three-legged stool of reasonably increased fares for riders, a modest tax on businesses and new tolls for drivers. Without effective and functioning mass transit, businesses might as well relocate to Toledo. A small additional per-employee fee would yield huge dividends.

Drivers coming over the bridges benefit from the reduced traffic and cleaner air that trains, buses and subways help provide. Which was the idea behind the congestion pricing proposal Mayor Bloomberg put forward – though without the $354 million in federal transit money the city would have gotten along with it. And for those who use public transportation every day – well, an 8% increase is far, far preferable to the doomsday 23% hike that would be required if Ravitch hadn’t found a way to spread responsibility around. Plus, the predictability of biannual fare hikes, tagged to inflation, makes sense for family budgets.

Paterson is right to have come out in support of this plan. Now, it falls to lawmakers to have the courage to implement it, even as they face the massive, still-outstanding challenge of grappling with gallons of red ink.

On the other side of the aisle, The Post wrote a disjointed piece bemoaning the tax increases. They write:

Think about it: Do companies need further incentive to cut labor costs in New York’s current recession economy?

It would be one thing if Ravitch had suggested sharing the pain – by squeezing some concessions from the MTA’s labor force, for example, but he does not. And while there is a lot of talk about cutting state and city spending, very little has actually happened – and very little is likely to happen.

Finally, Newsday thinks Ravitch was too kind on the MTA, and the Long Island paper voices its support for the alternative licensing and registration fee increase proposal that I will get around to debating as soon as the demands of my finals allow me to:

A report delivered last week by a high-profile commission, intended to solve the MTA’s funding problems for good, dances around the integrity issue but never addresses it head-on. The problem with the MTA is not just lack of money but lack of faith.

In this respect, the report is a disappointment. It offers no reassurance that management has wrung wasteful expense out of the behemoth agency. Yet, one after another, news stories suggest there are savings to be had. A report by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli last month found the agency weighted down with 70,000 employees, many in redundant jobs, with plans to hire hundreds more. In marketing and public relations alone, the MTA employs 444…

The commission, headed by the highly respected former MTA chief Richard Ravitch, was charged with finding new revenue sources to cover a $1.2-billion shortfall next year, as well as a five-year construction and maintenance program. The Ravitch Commission should have looked internally first. How about a five-point plan, outlining how the agency would be restructured, top to bottom?

I’m particularly intrigued by the Newsday suggestion. I know some commenters here and on Streetsblog were a bit shocked that the report did not advocate more internal cost-cutting measures at the MTA. But otherwise, support is shaking down as expected. While Newsday’s support is lukewarm, three papers champion the East River tolling plan while one out-right dismisses the whole endeavor. Hopefully, the voices for change can outshine those clamoring for a disastrous status quo.

In the end, we’ll either get slammed with a huge fare hike or everyone can bear the costs. I know what I prefer. Do you?

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Mr. Eric December 8, 2008 - 1:20 am

I prefer forcing the MTA to cut all of the redundent jobs and useless high paid managers, along with the 8 percent fare hike and the slight business tax. No tolls on the free bridges, its a very flawed tolling system being talked about.

Benjamin Kabak December 8, 2008 - 1:20 am

Out of curiosity, what makes it so flawed, in your view?

Mr. Eric December 8, 2008 - 5:59 am

The system of no actual tolls is flawed to me. We all know that you pay slightly less for using ez-pass but what if it doesn’t register while going over the bridge? Then you will get billed the higher amount and would have to prove you have an active ez-pass?

My ez-pass stops me at the toll about 50% of the time and a cop must come over and rub it against the machine for it to register. This is the third one over the years that I have had this problem with. So I know that they don’t always register.

I just see problems with this camera system of billing you later for crossing the bridges.

Alon Levy December 8, 2008 - 10:30 am

There’s a technical solution to this problem. I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve never seen a card fail to register in either Singapore or France (or for that matter the US). It could be that your card is faulty, or that the US has a bad system.

Marc Shepherd December 8, 2008 - 11:14 am

I’ve been through ezPass tolls more times than I can count, both as a passenger and as a driver, and it practically always works. I don’t know what Mr. Eric is doing, but I think it would be pretty big news if the system routinely failed 50% of the time. It is simply not so.

John December 9, 2008 - 10:23 am

I have to second Marc’s comments. I’ve been using an EZ Pass for five years now and have never had a problem. I’ve used it in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. I’ve used it in pickup trucks, sedans, vans, and SUVs. I’ve held up to the window or left it on the dash and it still works. Once I didn’t even want to use it so I put it in the bag they give you so it won’t register and it still worked.

What this sounds like is a driver who is just upset that he will have to pay a toll. I bet there is a correlation between those who oppose east river tolls and those who benefit from using the east river bridges for free. Their opposition is biased but they will try to say it isn’t.

Ravitch Commission Report Reactions — Transit Blogger December 8, 2008 - 1:48 am

[…] However in the meantime, you can check out an entry by Sewell Chan in the New York Times City Room blog which got the reaction to the proposal from some elected officials, local leaders, & transit advocates. You can check it out by clicking here. I also recommend checking out a breakdown of where the local newspapers stand on the proposals. You can view a detailed breakdown by checking out Benjamin’s latest Second Avenue Sagas entry. […]

rhywun December 8, 2008 - 3:36 am

> one out-right dismisses the whole endeavor

I assume you’re referring to The Post, which is weird because in that article they don’t really address the plan much. They just rail against the payroll tax, which is pretty much expected from them. But the fact remains there ARE legitimate concerns about it driving business out of the region.

The Newsday article seems most sensible to me, in that it recommends the agency look to cut costs before asking us for more money. Remember a few years ago when the MTA came begging for money and they were totally lying about their finances? Let’s take a look at their books first.

Andrew December 8, 2008 - 8:04 am

Have to agree with the Newsweek article – how can their be talk of increasing the burden on NYers – consumers and businesses – without commensurate cost savings. We all love capital programs – but seriously, some of them have to be reduced in scale and scope (I am thinking the big ticket ones) because this is crisis time and increasing business taxes may not be the only solution – look for $1B savings from the capital programs, as difficult as that may be

The Secret Conductor December 18, 2008 - 3:10 am

The only problem with reducing the bloat in the MTA is that it costs money to get rid of the bloat.

Nevertheless, I am sure there will be employee cuts/lay-offs and pay cuts and such. I believe it was mentioned for the token booth clerks and station cleaners.

Not sure if they will lay off service employees (conductors and train operators and directly related management) but they did mention it. I know of it only because the Union is obviously against it and let the rank and file know about it.

So ummm… I have to say that they are thinking about getting rid of some employees too.

Alon Levy December 8, 2008 - 10:32 am

That’s what Ravitch did – his commission was about looking at the financial situation and reporting about whether there are any cost savers or revenue generators that will help the MTA. By not saying anything about cost cutting, he’s implicitly saying that the looked at the books and they’re correct.

Scott E December 8, 2008 - 8:55 am

Newsday hit the nail on the head — a top-to-bottom restructuring (but, while reading it, why a “five” point plan? do all restructurings need five points in the same way that addiction treatments need 12 steps? but I digress…)

This isn’t about looking through the organization, finding waste or acceptable sacrifices, and simply making cuts. It’s taking a holistic view at the processes and procedures used within the organization and changing them, making them more efficient. The guy who is responsible for repairing/replacing broken signals likely isn’t the guy who can procure and store spare parts in strategic locations. The guy responsible for emptying platform trash cans probably doesn’t decide where and how many there are, nor can he schedule the “trash train” in coordination with track work. The guys in Capital Construction aren’t experienced in what’s needed for operations, and the guys in operations can’t justify wasting time supporting pie-in-the-sky Capital Construction projects which won’t impact their measured job performance.

My examples may range from petty inefficiencies to serious deficiencies, but I think it gets the point across. In none of these situations can a person’s job be cut, but productivity certainly can be improved.

Alon Levy December 8, 2008 - 10:33 am

Actually, restructurings tend to correlate with poor management, not good management. Good managers find ways of making the existing structures work.

Marc Shepherd December 8, 2008 - 10:29 am

They can probably save some money through efficiencies, and in fact the Ravitch report recommends this. But the MTA has been cutting staff costs for several years now. Anyone who thinks there’s another $1.2 billion of savings that don’t require deep service cuts is just wallowing in wishful thinking.

Yes, it’s true that businesses will not welcome a new payroll tax. But no method of paying for the MTA will be welcome, because it’s always preferable to get it for free. Gov. Pataki, in typical Republican fashion, paid for it with debt, thereby time-shifting the problem until after he was out of office. Thanks, Guv!

The dumbest of the suggestions is to stop capital spending. It was precisely this attitude that put the subway in a deplorable state of disrepair in the 1960s-70s.

Gary December 8, 2008 - 1:39 pm

“the MTA came begging for money and they were totally lying about their finances?”

rhywun, I think what you are referring to had more to do with the two sets of books that the MTA is required to keep . . . capital and operating. Poor reporting on MTA finances leads to a lot of misunderstanding.

Don’t know what Mr. Eric is talking about, we’ve had an EZ Pass for 2-3 years now and it has never once had this problem. But the wording of his two posts make my BS detector jump.

Lastly, re: the “bad for biz” theme . . . this is why it should just be a payroll tax and not a tax levied on businesses. I understand the PR reasons they went with a “tax on business” but any economist will tell you the levy will be borne by employees either way. At this point in time I think a payroll tax is more politically palatable than trying to BS people that instead there will be a tax on business. It’s too easy to demagogue the “you’re driving business out of NY” angle.

Alon Levy December 8, 2008 - 7:27 pm

The people who say “you’re driving business out of NY” oppose any tax increase – even those on sales and income, rather than business.

On another note, how’s your Council campaign going?

Rhywun December 8, 2008 - 8:01 pm

Well, that IS what taxes do. The proposed taxes wouldn’t make me leave, but you can bet that it will make others leave. It’s been happening for decades.

Alon Levy December 9, 2008 - 2:01 pm

Well, Upstate, which won’t be subject to this tax, has been bleeding even more jobs. The main problem seems to be that business regulations in New York State are based on the situation of New York City, a stable, high-cost, high-income area; Upstate New York on its own would probably go for lower taxes and fewer services, on a par with the Midwest or even the South.

Gary December 8, 2008 - 1:40 pm

Oh, and I meant to say ditto Marc Shepard at 10:29am.


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