A few weeks ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo uttered a phrase that could go down in New York state history. “I am the government,” he said in a radio interview in early November. Since then, Cuomo has run roughshod over Albany, enforcing his whims over those of the state legislature and public, and New York City’s transit service will soon be paying a heavy, heavy price.
The fun started earlier this week when Gov. Cuomo announced an agreement forged with Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver to reform New York’s tax code. As a favor to suburban legislators who enjoy transit access but want the city to subsidize their commuter rail service even more than we already do, Cuomo threw in a partial repeal of the payroll mobility tax. That tax, by the way, supports the MTA to the tune of $1.5 billion a year. Without it, the authority would be facing massive fare hikes or service cuts.
Originally, the new tax proposal was to cost the MTA $250 million in annual revenue, but that number has since increased to $320 million. No one is happy. The Times editorialized against MTA cuts, and a group of transit advocates spoke out against the decision. In a statement endorsed by the General Contractors Association, Straphangers, the RPA and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the group highlighted the issue with the state’s approach:
The problem with this approach is three-fold:
- estimates of what’s needed can be incorrect, exposing the MTA to serious financial risk;
- payrolls can grow over time, subsidies do not; and
- subsidies can be lowered over time, as was the appropriation for student MetroCards;
A better way can be found in the way public schools are being treated right now. These schools now pay the PMT and then apply for reimbursement from the State.
Right now, Cuomo and state leaders claim their find $320 million through alternative funding sources, but as Streetsblog noted yesterday, the MTA’s payroll tax funding has now become discretionary. The state can remove the funding; they can fail to find it; they can do whatever they want because they are the government. While congestion pricing with dedicated transit revenues would likely generate the $320 million needed to cover this new funding gap, that option has been off the table since the fall, and leading congestion pricing advocates tell me it could be a few years before those efforts are revived.
To make matters worse, in a special session in Albany yesterday, Cuomo essentially striped the Transit Lockbox Bill of any bite. What was a strong bill with stringent requirements has now become a shell of its former self. Originally, the lockbox, which passed by the Assembly and Senate with nary a dissent, prevented the state from removing transit funding without the full support of the state legislature. It also required a public statement detailing the amount diverted from mass transit and the impact that diversion would have on the level of service, maintenance and security.
Those key provisions are now entirely gone. In the new bill, foisted on Albany by Cuomo, the governor as the power to divert funds if he “declares a fiscal emergency,” and the reporting requirements have been removed entirely. The public will not know the extent of the raids on service levels unless others report on them. This is a lockbox without a lock, and a group of union leaders and transit advocates are not happy. “We do not support the substitute legislation passed in this special session,” the coalition that saw the bill through originally said. “It does not constrain future raids on transit funds, and deletes the requirement that the of the diversion of transit dedicated funds be reported.”
The bill’s original sponsors have vowed to restore the language next year, but Gov. Cuomo never indicated that he would sign the more powerful piece of legislation. And so we are left with an MTA striped of $320 million, no clear sign from where replacement funds will originate, and a lockbox that isn’t. As Andrew Cuomo said, he is the government, and his is a government with no sense of the role transit funding plays in New York City. Sad times indeed.