Home MTA EconomicsDoomsday Budget With tolls out, Senate nears temporary MTA fix

With tolls out, Senate nears temporary MTA fix

by Benjamin Kabak

When all permanent measures fail, take the temporary road. That’s the lesson the State Senate is prepared to unleash upon the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to sources in Albany.

Faced with a March 25 deadline, irrational hatred of East River bridge tolls, an Assembly on board with Richard Ravitch and the need to do something quickly, the State Senate is prepared to unveil a temporary fix that will solve the MTA’s budget problems for this year.

According to NY1, the plan is a stop-gap measure: Tolls are out, any support for the MTA’s capital plan is out and a 25 percent fare hike is out. In will be a payroll tax, a four percent fare hike and a few other measures. While Richard Ravitch, the architect behind an equitable tax-toll-fare hike plan that would have saved the MTA, warned Albany against temporary fixes, the State Senate has all but officially rejected tolls and is going its own way.

Nicholas Confessore and William Neuman, writing an elegy to the East River bridge tolls in The Times, called the latest plan a “a scaled-back, short-term alternative to bail out the authority.” Reports the duo:

The Senate proposal, which was presented privately to Democratic Senators on Monday afternoon, would include a 4 percent fare increase, half of what Mr. Ravitch had proposed. It would also impose a tax of 25 cents on every $100 of payroll on employers within the 12 counties served by the authority. That would be significantly less than the 34 cents that Mr. Ravitch had proposed.

“The immediate impact would be, all service cuts are restored, fare increases would be cut in half, and there would be no tolls,” said one of the two people briefed on the plan.

Democratic staff members reviewed some of the authority’s finances in recent days and concluded that a scaled-back plan would suffice in the short term. But the Senate proposal would require the transportation authority to submit to a deeper forensic auditing, a step lawmakers from both parties have demanded as a condition of laying out more taxpayer money for the authority, long dogged by waste and corruption.

Senate staff members have not finished calculating precisely how much revenue their plan would generate. But it would clearly be far less than Mr. Ravitch’s plan, requiring lawmakers to return to the issue again within months. But one of the two people who were briefed said that since the authority’s capital spending plan was already financed through the end of this year, Senate Democrats believed there was time to return later to find a more comprehensive solution.

If this is what Carl Kruger earlier on Monday called “comprehensive and so outside the box that everybody should want to partner with it,” it’s clearly time for some new New York state leadership.

This is really just a punt by the State Senate. They’re enacting the least offensive measures of the Ravitch Plan while pushing off the MTA’s impending Doomsday by a few more months. Richard Ravitch knows what he’s talking about, and Sheldon Silvery, the Assembly speaker prepared to support tolls, recognizes now what the Senate will have to again tackle in a few months. The MTA’s long-term fix lies with the East River tolls just as it rested on the Triborough Bridge revenue a few decades ago.

If this is actually the plan to emerge from the Senate, I guess transit supporters should be happy. After all, if the MTA doesn’t have to cut back service while raising fares just four percent, New York has been saved from a transit doomsday. The MTA, though, is left with no clear vision for a future at a time when it should be laying the financial groundwork for more of the Second Ave. subway and more capital projects.

In six months or so, the Senate will have to revisit this issue. Maybe by then Malcolm Smith can corral the missing toll votes. The battle might be over, the war in a truce, but this whole story — a Ravitch-inspired fix that will require sacrifices from everyone — isn’t over yet.

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Scott E March 17, 2009 - 8:40 am

One thing that still surprises me is that there’s been no talk of peak/off-peak pricing, either for subways or for bridges and tunnels. They do this on LIRR/Metro-North, and the Port Authority crossings (Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, George Washington Bridge) have been doing this for years.

If some of the subway lines are running at or over capacity, maybe it would be more economical to spread the ridership throughout the day rather than upgrade signals and trains for rush-hour service.

Adam G March 17, 2009 - 10:37 am

Scott E, peak pricing on mass transit disproportionally affects lower and middle-income commuters whose jobs don’t allow flexibility around hours.

Scott E March 17, 2009 - 11:40 am

Does it? I would think just the opposite. It’s the lower-income workers who have to work the “graveyard shifts”. And in retail (at least from my own limited experience) the shifts are generally 7-3, 12-8, and 3-close. Other than the 7am start, the rest are off-peak. Plus, city-dwellers who don’t have cars and rely on subways for non-commuting travel (grocery shopping, doctor visits, weekend recreation) also would be off-peak.

Notice that I also included bridges and tunnels in my comment. That’s inching towards congesting pricing, I know, but it could be marketed as a solution for bridge and tunnel congestion, not overall city congestion.

shimran March 17, 2009 - 11:05 am

Ben, Is it possible that the State government is doing this temporary fix, in hopes that when they do audit the MTA, they will be able to root out the redundancies/inefficiencies/corruption through an audit, therefore being able to save enough money through structural reorganization of the MTA to permanently fix the MTA’s budget problems, or at least significantly reduce them before coming up with a permanent solution?

Duke87 March 17, 2009 - 3:58 pm

How exactly would a 4% fare hike work? Cutting the bonus to 10% from 15? That would make the effective fare $1.82 rather than $1.74… about a 4.5% increase.

Benjamin Kabak March 18, 2009 - 1:59 am

It would be a fare hike that amounts of 4 percent total with various fares going up more or less than 4 percent so the numbers work out.

Nobody likes a half-cooked MTA plan :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog March 18, 2009 - 2:25 am

[…] the end, the Senate Democrats came up with an idea yesterday that was exactly as reported. In an effort to close what they viewed as a $1.128 billion budget gap — a number about $700 […]


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