When New York State elected Eliot Spitzer as governor, transit advocates had high hopes for the future. Spitzer, a New York City native, seemed to understand just how important sensible transit policy and funding would be to the future of the city and state. Spitzer, however, met an inglorious end, and with him died the hopes of many.
Now, the state is stuck with an unpopular governor who is trying to stave off financial disaster. Yesterday, on a rather pessimistic day for the MTA, David Paterson threw what political weight he has behind the financially beleaguered transit authority. In a statement, Paterson urged immediate action from Albany for the MTA.
This week I asked Richard Ravitch, Chairman of the Commission on Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Financing, to come to Albany to advance my goal of enacting the recommendations outlined in the final Ravitch Commission report. This proposal is critically important to the people of New York. The fare increases and service cuts that will happen without this legislation will do further damage to our fragile economy and bring added financial strain to New Yorkers already suffering during this economic downturn. I have discussed this with the Legislative leaders, and they agree that this must be addressed before our final budget deliberations are underway. To this end, the Senate and Assembly have scheduled conferences for tomorrow to discuss this MTA issue.
The time to do this is now. These Ravitch Committee recommendations have the support of business and labor, civic groups and straphangers. I will speak with lawmakers who have any doubt about the critical nature of this issue, and have asked Mr. Ravitch to remain in Albany tomorrow to hold further discussions and bring this process to a close. We must get a final agreement in place within the next week.
And how did Albany respond? Well, no one can really tell. The Daily News’ New York political blogger Elizabeth Benjamin summed up Tuesday’s hearings:
MTA Chairman Dale Hemmerdinger ended his day of lobbying state lawmakers on Richard Ravitch’s tax-and-toll bailout plan much the same way he started it: Completely unsure whether it will pass in time to stave off massive fare hikes and service cuts.
“We are selling as well as we can,” Hemmerdinger said. “The alternatives are not pleasant. We will have to cut service. We will have to raise fares by 30 percent if this doesn’t pass or something like it.”
Asked to respond to lawmakers’ concerns that taxing the East and Harlem river bridges is unfair to working-class people who need their cards to get to work, Hemmerdinger responded: “I suggest they don’t drive. Take a bus take a subway. We don’t want to be unfair. We want to be fair but there is a presumption that people who can afford a car and they want to drive to work, that’s their choice as long we provide them with a reliable, reasonably cost reasonably reliable alternative and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Hemmerdinger’s words ring true to this transit advocate, but the politicians — the ones holding the purse strings — are being noncommittal. “At this point, we’re weighing all the facts, but we are going to do something on the MTA – I would tell you that in no uncertain terms,” Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith said. “Between now and next week, we are going to make a final decision on the MTA.”
On the Assembly side, Sheldon Silver, seemingly suffering from multiple-personality disorder when it comes to transit, couldn’t even commit to a timetable as Smith did. He again called the cuts “unacceptable” but wouldn’t reveal alternative plans or a timetable for a bailout. With exactly one month to go before the MTA Board must vote on the Doomsday budget, the clock’s a-tickin’ ever closer to midnight.