Home MTA EconomicsRavitch Commission A fight for the fiscal future of the MTA

A fight for the fiscal future of the MTA

by Benjamin Kabak

Twenty two days isn’t a very long time, but that’s all the state legislature has left if they want to save the MTA — and New Yorkers — from massive MTA fare hikes and service cuts. Meanwhile, storm clouds are gathering in Albany for an epic fight over the fiscal future of transit in the New York City Metropolitan Area.

On one side is Sheldon Silver and his version of the Ravitch Commission recommendations. He supports the payroll tax and East River crossing tolls, but instead of the $5 fee Richard Ravitch proposed, Silver wants to start things off with a $2 fare, even with the current subway rate. It won’t stave off the inevitable cuts and hikes, but it’s better than inaction.

On the other side is, well, everyone else. Some of Silver’s fellow Assembly representatives and some State Senators are decrying the toll plan on the same old populist line. These tolls will somehow hurt middle class New Yorkers. Those are, by the way, the same middle class New Yorkers who don’t own cars, don’t drive back and forth to work each day and do rely on the subways, buses and commuter rails to get around the region. When someone in the media will tell representatives such as Adriano Espaillat, Rory Lancman and Jose Peralta that, I do not know.

Also on the agin’ side is Comptroller William C. Thompson. The New York City official and potential mayoral candidate voiced his strident opposition to tolls and again called attention to his plan to drastically increase driver licensing fees. Again, this is a perfect example of a politician putting forward a plan that would have a disproportionate impact on those who can least afford it without creating a true distribution of responsibility for the MTA’s financial picture based on use of bridges, roads and rails.

Finally, we have State Senator Malcolm Smith. The Senate Majority Leader is wavering on the toll plan. He doesn’t understand how the MTA, behind Richard Ravitch’s suggestions, could go from needing a $5 toll to suddenly being satisfied with a $2 toll. As a result, he has called for and gotten the go ahead to conduct at MTA audit. It’s doubtful that the MTA audit will be completed in three weeks and a day, and the answer to his quandary is simple really. The MTA knows that its best hope politically is a $2 toll. Some of the money they need is again far more preferable to none.

In the middle of this imperfect storm is Richard Ravitch. He is the subject of a sympathetic profile by Sam Roberts in The Times today. Everyone loves him; everyone — from Silver on down — trusts him; and yet politicians are still hung up a six-year-old bookkeeping scandal that was perpetrated by a bunch of people no longer in charge. Old stereotypes and prejudices die hard, and while the battle lines are drawn, Ravitch will have to help guide the proper pieces into position. New York City is depending on it.

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Joe G March 3, 2009 - 6:05 am

Hung up on a bookkeeping scandal? Come on! The MTA was running two books – the worst kind of scandal – it is no surprise where the mistrust comes from

kynes March 3, 2009 - 7:28 am

How can it some how hurt middle class americans? You guys are crazy seriously. Many businesses depend on shipments of goods from Queens/Brooklyn and people living in Queens and Brooklyn rely on daily/hourly shipments over the free bridges. The money is going to come from businesses raising their prices. Also as a small business owner in Manhattan the payroll tax is really going to hurt me in a time I’m already hurting. Why don’t get get federal bail out money but AIG does?

Marc Shepherd March 3, 2009 - 8:31 am

AIG is getting federal money because its failure would create an international crisis. Taxpayers in every state would be harmed, indirectly or directly, if it went under. That, at least, is the argument for bailing it out (though not everyone agrees). The MTA’s problems, on the other hand, affect only those in the NYC commuting region. The problem therefore should be solved locally. Taxpayers in Iowa should not be subsidizing the cost of my subway ride.

Of course, there is another key difference. AIG’s failure is an acute emergency. At some point, government intervention will be over, the company will be split up, and its piece parts will once again operate as private concerns. The MTA’s shortfall is chronic. The city and the state have mismanaged the subway since the Robert Moses era. They’ve had decades to face the music, and have failed. A federal bailout would absolve irresponsible legislators from a responsibility they’ve shirked for decades.

I entirely agree that bridge tolls and a payroll tax would inconvenience people. So would higher subway fares or service cuts. Painless solutions do not exist. Even a federal subsidy (which we won’t get) would inconvenience somebody—namely, citizens in the other 49 states who would be paying for our folly. So don’t tell me a payroll tax is bad. Of course it is. Unless you have a better idea, it’s the best one we have.

Julia March 3, 2009 - 1:11 pm

So did Silver finally get religion after killing congestion pricing? Or is it that his own constituents live below 86th St. but don’t cross the East River too often? For whatever reason, it’s a relief to finally see him on the right side.

I fear that you’re giving Malcolm Smith too much credit, though. He knows perfectly well that there’s no contradiction in wanting a $5 toll but being willing to settle for $2. Saying the MTA needs a new audit is like creating a blue-ribbon commission to study a problem that is imminently disastrous. The only reason to take such a step is to avoid actually fixing the problem.

This whole question is maddening. There is no such thing as a free lunch or a free bridge crossing. No one objects to the concept of a subway or bus fare, but somehow when we get to the East River bridges, it becomes politically impossible to argue that the people using a public service should be the ones to pay for it.

rhywun March 3, 2009 - 3:07 pm

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Unless you’re an AIG executive.


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