Home MTA EconomicsDoomsday Budget New Ravitch proposal; same stupid Senators

New Ravitch proposal; same stupid Senators

by Benjamin Kabak

At this point, only a willfully ignorant person would claim that the MTA should not be rescued. Just a few weeks before the MTA is set to jack up fares and start cutting services, the MTA announced a higher-than-expected deficit for 2009. The future is not rosy.

Meanwhile, Albany remains deadlocked and on vacation. Some Senators won’t support tolls; others won’t support taxes; and as a NY Magazine graphic showed, nothing is going anywhere in the Senate.

This stalemate, though, isn’t for a lack of trying on behalf of the transit supporters. In an effort to bridge some of the gaps in the Senate, Richard Ravitch, the architect of the tax-and-toll plan aimed as spreading the pain around, unveiled an amended plan that reduces some toll burdens in exchange for a few other fees. Still, the same old reactionary state Senators refuse to support a plan. Still, they pretend as though driving and tolls — and not a fully funded transit system — is some populist cause. It’s frankly getting embarrassing and angering at the same time.

William Neuman of The Times outlined the new fees and a plan to refund tolls for businesses reliant on automobile traffic across the East River bridge spans. He writes:

Seeking to win over State Senate opponents of a plan to create new bridge tolls on the East and Harlem Rivers, supporters of a financial rescue for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority offered a compromise on Wednesday that would give toll rebates to drivers traveling to medical appointments and to businesses that frequently use the river crossings…

To pay for the rebates, the state commission proposed two additional charges: a 50-cent surcharge on yellow-cab rides and an increase in the Manhattan parking garage tax. Those additional charges would raise an estimated $150 million a year.

The compromise was intended to overcome the objections of half a dozen Democratic opponents of the toll measure who have blocked the rescue plan in the State Senate, where Democrats hold a 32-to-30 margin. Senate Republicans have so far refused to support the plan and have said they have been left out of discussions.

What Neuman doesn’t say is that this compromise, crafted to address a lot of the pro-business concerns, is also aimed at attracting Republican support for the MTA. It should work; it needs to work. But the same old politicians are at it again.

We already know what the reactionary Taxi Workers Alliance thinks about this proposed plan. They won’t like it, but the real problem are the State Senators. Glenn Blain and Pete Donohue tracked down some of the more colorful and off-putting quotes from the Gang of Senate Idiots who won’t support an MTA funding plan.

Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn), called the proposed amendment “ridiculous” and “not even worthy of comment.”

Sen. Pedro Espada (D-Bronx) said exemptions would likely be lifted at a later date, presumably by the state Legislature, and everyone would get tolled. “It just fundamentally wrong,” he said. “It is anti business. It is anti small business.”

Sen. Ruben Diaz, also of the Bronx, echoed Espada’s comments. “I am opposed to any toll,” Diaz told The Times. “They’re going to do a rebate? After two years they’re going to say no rebate. It’s a gimmick.”

Again, we have Senators from districts that rely overwhelming on mass transit — about 70 percent of Diaz’s and Espada’s constituents commute via subway — who are resorting to faux-populist arguments. At least the TWA’s position is somewhat defensible. Espada, Diaz and Kruger are simply showing why they should never have been elected in the first place.

When transit fails in the city — and it will if no funding plan is implemented — those are the men to blame. Pro transit advocates have done everything they can, but if they can’t convince the blind gatekeepers, we’re all lost.

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Joe G April 16, 2009 - 7:31 am

Transit won’t fail, let’s be clear about that. Rates will go up, some service will be cut. That sucks (although methinks cutting lightly used buslines from 1-4am actually makes great sense) but far from failure.

Ultimately the MTA will have to restructure its debt – which also means cutting back on capital programs (maybe that also sucks but tens of billions committed to expansion can also be viewed as a dumb ass move, so cutting back makes sense). In doing so debt service will lighten and fare increases will stop.

The Ravitch proposal – for all it’s merit – made a major strategic error. Bridge tolls and payroll taxes are difficult issues – and we all knew they would engender serious serious opposition. To make those the linchpin of the MTA bailout (and allowing the word bailout to be used to describe this) was dumb dumb dumb. I think they should have done what I wrote above – restructure the debt and cut billions from capital expansion (not upkeep) – or at least propose less expensive and more efficient expansion such as more reliance of Bus Rapid Transit. Then – having achieved what would have looked like fiscal responsibility and planning – then go to the legislature with a better plan.

Think twice April 16, 2009 - 12:57 pm

I too would rather see a stop-gap BRT route down 2nd Avenue and one for the Far West Side.

The original IRT was a product of 41 years of stop-gaps, from horse-drawn streetcars to steam elevated trains, until there was enough money and political will to build a subway.

nathan_h April 16, 2009 - 9:17 am

A further degraded version of the status quo, brought on by abandoning all construction projects and cutting maintenance, is the definition of failure. Our subways are an underfunded discrace and there is no conceivable linchpin to a rescue scheme that doesn’t involve use fees or taxes that will be unpopular with the group affected (that isn’t “dumb ass”, so to speak). But whatever. If the current government lets the fallout from its past tax-cut giveaways all land on subway riders, they will find out how many more of them there are than people driving over bridges to “medical appointments” soon enough.

If I have to take a taxi to my sacred medical appointment (those of us not living the fancy life with a personal car have to do such things occasionally), would the 50 cent surcharge be rebated? Or does it not matter, because I’m already in a group that has to pay for what it uses?

Joe G April 16, 2009 - 9:50 am

Nathan – if one abandoned all major construction projects – and could renegotiate the debt service and debt for these – the MTA could save billions. If that could be done maintenance would not have to be cut. The status quo is not a perfect system (one doesnt exist in the world) but a damn good system that transports over 8mm people a day. That’s failure? Hardly. Failure is the financial situation we are in now. And we dont need – nor will we get – a bailout to fix it, so better ideas are needed, less complaining. Even at $2.50 a ride its an awesome system

Rhywun April 16, 2009 - 11:18 am

“its an awesome system”

I think “awesome” is a bit of a stretch. “Adequate” is more like it. An “awesome” system would serve the whole city, rather than leaving the fastest-growing parts of it without long-promised service. It would have clean stations and trains that don’t smell like funk. It would run at average speeds greater than 50 years ago, not less.

AW April 16, 2009 - 11:24 am

Alot to ask Rhywun – its not easy to move 8mm people a day. Generally speaking can get from most points in NYC in 1hr or less. I say thats awesome

zgori April 16, 2009 - 2:55 pm

Simple, easy things that other cities have managed to do consistently elude us, whether it’s speed, reliability, basic usability, technology. The system is arguably awesome in its sheer size and its ability to eventually move large numbers of people between selected neighborhoods, but even adequate is being generous when you consider what would be possible with steady funding and political support and strong, consistent management.

Abandoning/delaying construction projects would be a terrible mistake and would do nothing to help the operating budget (it’s mostly federal money earmarked directly to capital projects). Restructuring debt is just a fancy way of further delaying bills that will inevitably come due. Whatever else you do, the system needs reliable ongoing sources of revenue.

Rhywun April 16, 2009 - 4:36 pm

Enh, enough apologies. There are other cities that move even more people, and in a reasonably pleasant manner. It’s about time *we* demand better.

John April 16, 2009 - 11:22 am

Hopefully there could be a silver lining to all this. If all efforts fail, fares are raised, services cut, etc., I HOPE that a big campaign will be launched to not re-elect these senators that contributed to it by being against every proposed solution. Clearly we shouldn’t be hoping for that, but if it does happen we should be prepared to oust them in the next elections.

AW April 16, 2009 - 11:25 am

John – these guys respond to their constituents. Clearly they are taking their stands now knowing they are supported. They are not acting rogue – politicians rarely do

Benjamin Kabak April 16, 2009 - 12:06 pm

AW: It’s been fairly well documented that these politicians are not in fact responding to their constituents. Various newspaper articles have examined how, particularly in the South Bronx, residents would much rather see the East River Bridge tolls as opposed to higher fare and less service. See, for example, here, here and here.

These politicians are simply responding to the interest of the people with money who can support their campaigns. They’re not acting rogue, but they’re not responding to the overwhelming majority of those they purport to represent.

Think twice April 16, 2009 - 12:27 pm

These oblique senators answer to obtuse constituents, true. I should know, I live in Kruger’s district.

Describe worst-case scenarios to them and they’ll reply with confused looks and a tirade about the MTA. When Doomsday happens and they (and their suburban counterparts) finally realize how screwed they are, they’ll bay for MTA blood.

This is where the MTA will have to dust off their lethargic Marketing/PR team (or contract out a better one) and nimbly focus their commuter rage on the myopic Senators who brought them to this state. And the MTA will have to do this before the November elections.

That, and the whole debt restructuring scenario Joe G described above.

John April 17, 2009 - 10:43 am

If that’s actually true, and the majority of their constituents prefer no tolls to no transit (or at least raised fares and cut service), then I guess we’re all barking up the wrong tree then aren’t we? I don’t believe that a majority of any district in the NYC metro would favor service cuts to bridge tolls, yet this handful of senators seems to think they do.

tom April 16, 2009 - 12:12 pm

Trying to toll the tiny bridges that cross the East and Harlem Rivers is totally insane. They were not meant to be tolled and were not built for delaying drivers. Other user fees can be imposed.

Tolling those small bridges will inundate the roads with traffic major pollution and lost man hours.

Drivers can be and should be taxed in other ways.

Benjamin Kabak April 16, 2009 - 12:15 pm

Can we seriously, SERIOUSLY, stop with this ridiculous argument already? I don’t know how many times people have to say this before it sinks in but here goes: They’re not putting tooth booths with arms on them over these bridges. They would be putting high-speed cameras that would have a negligible impact on traffic. You wouldn’t even know it’s a toll until the bill shows up in the mail.

Stop it with this argument, tom. It’s just not true.

Think twice April 16, 2009 - 12:38 pm

They were not meant to be tolled

They were all tolled until 1910.

Tolling those small bridges will inundate the roads…

High speed tolling.

Alon Levy April 17, 2009 - 5:39 pm

What does “Not meant to be tolled” mean? I’m asking because the tolls in Singapore are put over ordinary intersections, with traffic flowing smoothly and drivers charge automatically via an EZPass-like system.

herenthere April 16, 2009 - 4:38 pm

Can’t the Democratic party just like strip Diaz and his Fare Hike Four gang of their titles…? I mean, Diaz is also opposing Gov. Paterson’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

Once more unto the budget breach :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog April 20, 2009 - 1:25 am

[…] last we checked in on the politicking four days ago, Richard Ravitch had just issued a modified proposal. The new plan — aimed at addressing Democrats’ concerns — provided for a business rebate […]


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