Home MTA Economics Rockland mulls MTA withdrawal amidst service/subsidy gap

Rockland mulls MTA withdrawal amidst service/subsidy gap

by Benjamin Kabak

The make-up of the New York Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District has long been a point of contention for those counties on the outskirts of the region. Rockland County, in particular, has long objected to the MTA. They say they pony up more money in subsidies in taxes than they receive back in services, and now, the county, armed with a study that shows as much, is ready to push forward for a break from the MTA.

The recent trouble started, of course, with the payroll mobility tax. It served as the final straw for many of the outerlying counties who have seen their fares increase, their service decreases and their bill spike. Some think they may be able to provide similar levels of service for less while others are interested in assessing the fairness of the MTA’s current set-up. In a study released yesterday by Rockland County and presented to the area’s Economic Development Committe []pdf], the county highlights that inequity.

According to the study, conducted by Cambridge Systematics, Rockland County forks over $110 million to the MTA through various taxes, tolls and fares while the MTA provides just $68 million in transit services for the area’s residents. This divide has Rockland County officials calling for an MTA withdrawal. “The report provides the solid foundation and updated data we need to now explore the realities of withdrawal,” County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef said. “Realities which include two major unknowns – legislative approval at the State level, and the value of MTA’s Commuter Rail Revenue Bonds (CRRB), which given legislative history may have to be undertaken by the County.”

The study goes through a rather technical examination of services provided vs. the amounts charged and subsidies levied. The meat of though focuses on the practicalities of an outer-county withdrawal. It’s not as easy as simply asking out. First, the state legislature must approve such a withdrawal, and it’s tough to envision a Sheldon Silver-controlled body approving a GOP-lead effort to remove monies from the MTA’s pot. Second, it’s unclear what happens to the various fiscal contributions in the event of a withdrawal. While some tax money is earmarked for the MTA, others go into a central pot and are redistributed to the authority. Would Rockland County be guaranteed that money for transit operations? Would the MTA still get some of those dollars? Would the payroll tax disappear or be reapportioned?

Next, Rockland County is worried too about bond obligations. The MTA has a series of bond obligations for overall capital work, and for Rockland-specific work. If the county must assume those obligations, withdrawal saves less money than it otherwise would. No matter, though, withdrawal would likely save the county some money. The study’s conservative estimate features savings of around $23 million.

But what if withdrawal is not approved in Albany? The county could seek to reduce payments to the MTA; receive a greater share of operating funds for transit service; ask the MTA to increase service to the area to better align with fiscal contributions; or request a greater return of dollars through funds similar to the DORF payments. The state, as I mentioned, has not authorized withdrawal, and a deficit-reducing measure may be more palatable in Albany.

As much we in the city would love to take in that extra $50 million, it’s tough to argue with Rockland County’s analysis. Sure, having transit service increases property values in areas that are rather far from the Manhattan Central Business District, but these areas do not get what they pay for. As they make noises about the payroll tax, perhaps the best solution is to provide more services. After all, better transit access should be a goal for the region, and then they wouldn’t be as quick to take their money and run. No matter the looming outcome, I doubt this is the last we hear of such discontent.

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Ray March 2, 2012 - 6:36 am

Thorough analysis.. Why is there an expectation of a break even in value? Their proportional contribution may just be the cost of running such a vast system. It would be interesting to see a comparison of various counties. Do we think we’d see the same story emerge elsewhere? One wonders if New York County embarked on a similar analysis what type of “value gap” might emerge. My hunch is it would turn this report into scrap paper.

Larry Littlefield March 2, 2012 - 6:41 am

Right, did they include the cost of debts, the cost of past pensions, and the cost of retiree health care in their analysis? Everyone has a value gap because much of the money is going to the past. They just don’t want to pay a share of the debt.

And speaking of debt, did Rockland go for Pataki all those years? In that case, they voted in favor of it.

Kai B March 2, 2012 - 11:11 am

I’m wondering if they’re counting their county rider’s use of the system beyond the borders of the county. Afterall, they should be subsidizing their residents’ ride to wherever it may be (likely Manhattan), not just for the few stops in their county.

Mike March 24, 2012 - 11:55 am

The same scenario applies to Suffolk County on Long Island, where there is very limited LIRR service on the North Fork ( Greenport ), while the South Fork ( Montauk has what i would call acceptable service year round ). The amount of money shelled out is most likely far greater than the level of service being provided, and it’s extremely disturbing that this tax offers no guarantee of increased service or exemption from service cuts.

Joby March 2, 2012 - 7:26 am

A regional transit authority which focuses on getting people from the outskirts which consists of LIRR, MN should be created. NYCT should focus on the 5 boroughs and get its money from the Bridge & Tunnel tolls and Congestion Pricing. Having an RTA will encourage more transit use in the downstate region which will make funding which will make funding transit improvements more palatable in Albany.

Larry Littlefield March 2, 2012 - 8:55 am

Who pays the debt.

Steve March 2, 2012 - 11:36 am

This is the key question. If Rockland withdraws from the MTA and takes their share of the debt, this could be a good thing for all concerned. Rockland doesn’t have to put in money for less service than they feel they deserve and the MTA gets to slough off an area that’s very hard to serve effectively.

But if Rockland doesn’t take their share of the debt when leaving, the MTA just gets put in a worse financial position. Again.

Larry Littlefield March 2, 2012 - 11:51 am

The debt, the actual (as opposed to fraudulent) pension funding gap, and a share of retiree health insurance until those who worked on Rockland services are gone.

SEAN March 2, 2012 - 10:53 am

That’s what happens in Chicago. The RtA opperates METRA trains in conjunction with the CTA.

Alon Levy March 4, 2012 - 10:01 pm

There were plans in the 1990s to merge Metro-North with the LIRR. Both railroads rejected it; the Long Island politicos, led by Dean Skelos, insisted that the LIRR was a special snowflake and must be treated separately from everything else, and Metro-North thought that because of its better OTP it would lose from a merger.

John-2 March 2, 2012 - 8:48 am

The also could be a preemptive strike gambit by Rockland County in the design phase of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. Put the numbers in showing you’re getting less out of the MTA than you’re putting in, and you can create a justification for including rail service in the final design of the new bridge, and the option of future one-seat service to GCT. Asit stands right now, the state seems to be moving towards a final option with no rail capabilities, which would lock Rockland County into MTA service via New Jersey permanently.

Frank B. March 3, 2012 - 10:54 am

Let’s hope there’s actually a logical plan here like the one you’ve just described. But even so, I don’t know if Cuomo will go for it; Rockland is a relatively small county with only 311,000 people. That’s only 1.5% of New York State’s population, the county is split between Republicans and Democrats, and there’s other issues at play.

That being said, I absolutely hope there’s rail over the new Tappan Zee.

And ONCE AGAIN: I’m saying there’s a tremendous amount of money to be made with CSX or Norfolk Southern who could use the tracks during off-peak hours to haul freight, a 280 mile detour diverted. Freight rail is not only the cheapest and cleanest form of transportation, but also has benefits in keeping tractor trailers out of our neighborhoods as well. It’s a win-win for both.

The Tappan Zee could easily charge $50 million per year to have the freight lines use the bridge. That’s 1 billion in income over 20 years for the state, plus those major benefits for both New York City and Long Island.

Now that’s a voting demographic worth shooting for; if it ever became a large enough issue (let’s pray for that) in reducing truck smog and truck traffic, in the 5 boroughs and Long Island, then Cuomo just might care.

AG May 15, 2012 - 9:05 pm

The Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel has been talked about for a long time too… either or both need to be done. The truck traffic is detrimental in many ways.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines March 2, 2012 - 8:59 am

[…] Rockland Weighs Value of Remaining in MTA, Based on New Study (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Al D March 2, 2012 - 9:08 am

The easy answer to this is to have direct service to Manhattan, either via TZ or ‘Son of ARC’ because otherwise Rockland really is on the short end of the MTA stick. MTA does not operate their buses, and there are what, 4 or 5 MNR stations in Rockland?

Douglas John Bowen March 2, 2012 - 9:46 am

Whether it’s a bridge replacement or just being on the “other” side of a big river/estuary, Rockland County actually is in a geographically weak position to proactively challenge MTA or anyone else. It could withdraw from MTA-land and do … what, exactly? Have New City and Piermont folks drive to NJ Transit stations across the border in Jersey? Crowd that bridge-is-falling-down (or brand new span) even more on the way to the Hudson Line?

For decades, the political clout of the suburbs has been a driving and dominant force, but that may be slowly changing. Rockland likely generates fewer passengers per mile of rail infrastructure than the city or most other counties (including New Jersey). I’m with the folks here urging MTA to boost services west of the Hudson, but if little boy Rockland stands on one foot, and holds his breath until he turns blue, as a primary strategy, how useful is that?

Alon Levy March 2, 2012 - 2:01 pm

The bridge is not falling down. Stop repeating that myth; it’s no truer than the two sets of books lies, and is being used to justify a multi-billion dollar boondoggle.

Larry Littlefield March 2, 2012 - 9:58 am

Rockland also got some of its “dedicated” MTA tax money shifted to county road maintenance.

Robert LaMarca March 2, 2012 - 10:06 am

I am unsure of something… how many people from Rockland commute to the city? If that number is substantial, it makes sense that they would help pay the cost of the system they use when they get to the city. Or to help pay for the system that their neighbors use when they earn the money to pay local taxes.

On the Other Hand Maybe let them go!
While we are at it.. let’s let the rest of upstate go. Or at least reopen the discussions of regional state monetary contributions more fully.

SEAN March 2, 2012 - 10:48 am

If Rockland leaves the MTA, how soon until Orange, Putnum & Dutchess start folowing suit?

A large number of Rocklanders do commute to NYC, but they ride Coach USA busses. I Don’t know what the figgures are though, but I do know it’s a bit higher than one might think.

Tsuyoshi March 2, 2012 - 11:02 am

Given the way Rockland is zoned, train service from Rockland to Manhattan can only really serve as a tool for parking arbitrage. And the distance from Rockland to the first station with much walkable development (Hoboken) is so far that even parking arbitrage is not very compelling. Both of these facts are reflected in the low ridership.

In a slightly more sane world, we would eliminate the Pascack Valley line, and take the money saved from that to spend on bus-only lanes on the Tappan Zee Bridge, with bus-only exits serving the Tarrytown and White Plains train stations. We wouldn’t even need a new bridge to do this.

Bolwerk March 2, 2012 - 12:28 pm

Slightly more sane?

That should almost be part of that motivational poster meme: the bus fairy. Here to save ur moneyz.

Alon Levy March 2, 2012 - 2:03 pm

Move money from the Pascack Valley Line to the West Shore Line and/or the Northern Branch, both of which serve more walkable and (in the West Shore Line’s case) denser suburbs.

ajedrez March 2, 2012 - 4:00 pm

Paterson has a lot of walkable development.

In any case, if Rockland withdrew from the MTA service region, who would operate the trains? Would they see if they could get a better deal from NJ Transit or would they just abandon the line altogether and have everybody use the ShortLine buses?

Alon Levy March 4, 2012 - 10:06 pm

Paterson is on the Main Line, not on the Pascack Valley Line.

ajedrez March 5, 2012 - 10:52 am

He was talking about Rockland County, which is served by the Main/Bergen County Line (which becomes the Port Jervis Line after Suffern). So yes, Paterson would be a station with walkable development.

If you’re talking about the Pascack Valley Line, then the first station with walkable development would be Hackensack, not Hoboken.

Nathanael March 11, 2012 - 10:10 pm

They’d probably see if they could get a better deal direct from NJ Transit.

Which they wouldn’t.

But they might find it easier to prove to their constituents where the money was going, anyway.

Rob March 2, 2012 - 11:26 am

We should take the money to be spent on the TZ Bridge Boondoggle and use it to rebuild and expand the train lines in Rockland. Then change the zoning around the stations to encourage Transit Oriented Development that could revitalize towns like Spring Valley.

Nyland8 March 2, 2012 - 6:15 pm

The money to replace the Chimpanzee bridge comes from its owner, the NY State Thruway – and is not in any way interchangeable with MTA/NJT funds for railways. And replacing that bridge is NOT a boondoggle. KEEPING it is a boondoggle. The estimates for maintenance alone over the next decade is 1.3 billion bucks! THAT is a boondoggle.

CComMack March 2, 2012 - 8:11 pm

1.3 is still a lot smaller than 5. Or 10. And if the $1.3 Billion is really unaffordable, how about tearing down the bridge and not replacing it?

As it stands, quick Fermi-problem math shows that 70,000 toll-payers paying $3.50 each day every day for a decade gives a revenue stream of $894 million. The same 70,000 toll-payers paying $5.00 each way would generate $1.278 billion. Of course, we should assume that there is some demand elasticity, and that fewer cars would drive over the bridge if tolls were raised to $5. But given the $12/$9.50/$7.50 cash/peak EZ-Pass/off-peak EZ-Pass toll on the GWB, I don’t think there’s much elasticity at all.

CComMack March 2, 2012 - 8:32 pm

Of course, I’ve just revealed how long it’s been since I drove across the TZB myself; the tolls are already $5. D’oh. But I think that’s proof enough that the $1.3 billion in maintenance is not actually a problem; it’s already funded.

Bolwerk March 3, 2012 - 12:25 am

And I assume trucks pay significantly more?

CComMack March 3, 2012 - 8:42 pm

Trucks do pay significantly more, but I didn’t factor in salaries for toll collectors and other overhead. This is just back-of-envelope math.

Still, it’s a departure from the usual reaction to pricetags over $1B, which is to blanch and ask “where are we going to come up with that kind of money?” Outside some fiddling at the edges ($5.50 tolls, anyone?), we already have. Of course, we have also identified why NYSTA would want an overbuilt bridge replacement without a transit alternative.

Alon Levy March 4, 2012 - 10:09 pm

The estimate for maintenance is $100 million a year, to be cut to (I believe) $50 million a year with replacement. Do you really think it’s a good idea to throw $6 billion to save $50 million a year?

Nathanael March 11, 2012 - 10:11 pm

You are correct, Nyland8, that the Tappan Zee bridge should be demolished and not replaced. It would be cheaper to built bridges pretty much anywhere else along the Hudson….

Dan March 3, 2012 - 12:51 pm

Rockland County depends on NYC and its transit system, and the benefits can’t be quantified so simply. What would Rockland County be without NYC?

Nathanael March 11, 2012 - 10:12 pm

A rural county. We have several of those in NYS. 🙂 Sadly, most of them lack train service *entirely*.

UESider March 3, 2012 - 1:46 pm

There are some interesting top-line numbers. I’d like to see where and how they figure the amounts they pay in and the value of service they claim to be getting back.

Also, factor in the boost to property values for having rail access to NYC – then where to the numbers fall?

Sounds like an interesting debate!

Bruce M March 3, 2012 - 3:26 pm

The great bridge designer Othmar H. Amman had the foresight to design the Geo. Washington Bridge with the ability to add a second deck should the need ever arise in the future (and rail was considered in those plans). It might have seemed extavagant and unecessary in the 1920’s, but in just about 35 years, they added the lower level. Why can we no longer plan with vision such as this a new TZ Bridge with provisions for rail?

Phantom March 3, 2012 - 6:21 pm

I read once that the bridge was so sound that it coud support a third deck!

Kevin March 4, 2012 - 7:19 pm

So it appears that people here don’t read attached articles either, so to answer some questions:

1.) Rockland’s value gap calculations were also applied to other counties, and it was found that they had the lowest return on investment. Orange County was the only other county in the same ballpark, and all the other New York Counties in the region were above 1:1.

2.) While direct capital costs are accounted for, the cost of debt service payments are not.

3.) Yes, other MNR lines, and NYCT are accounted for based on the proportion of riders of the system (which is pretty small, I believe the article quoted 0.20%).

4.) They examine three different action scenarios: Withdraw from the MTA, Request attitional compensation from the State, business as usual while advocating for increased service.

In my opinion, the report seems pretty solid, and I doubt they have alterior motives (such as getting transit on the new TZB).

If they do end up withdrawing from the MCTD, they could probably work up a contract with NJT, who currently provides the service under contract anyway. Station maintenance is pocket change. And the idea that Rockland should be responsible for debt service payments for projects that don’t benefit them is laughable. Rockland residents should pay for ESA? SAS? Even rolling stock that MNR has west of Hudson is all second hand.

Alon Levy March 4, 2012 - 10:11 pm

The entire state is paying billions for the Tappan Zee Bridge. If Rockland County (the only one to draw what meager benefits the replacement would provide) had to foot the bill itself, it would go bankrupt.

Andrew March 5, 2012 - 10:07 pm


Today’s Headlines | Body Local NYC March 5, 2012 - 7:41 am

[…] Rockland Weighs Value of Remaining in MTA, Based on New Study (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

marvin March 6, 2012 - 2:37 am

Why has there been no discussion of building two lesser bridges which combined could better serve the region – one at the current location of the Tapanzee Bridge and one further south linked to the Cross County Parkway. Even if the second bride/connections went no further West than the Palisades Pkwy, it would provide better rail and highway linkage for both Northern NJ/Rockland and Southern Westchester.

I understand that such a link may fall under the Port Authority’s exclusive/monopoly zone to the detriment of the NYS Thruway Authority, but I would hope that the problem could be negotiated to a possitive solution for all.

Nathanael March 11, 2012 - 10:13 pm

“Why has there been no discussion of building two lesser bridges which combined could better serve the region”

(one south of the Tappan Zee and one north of it would be better)

“I understand that such a link may fall under the Port Authority’s exclusive/monopoly zone to the detriment of the NYS Thruway Authority”

This is the reason there has been no discussion. Now you know.

From Rockland County, a silly call for a fare hike exemption :: Second Ave. Sagas December 6, 2012 - 9:41 am

[…] transit policy. This time, County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, who, earlier this year, proposed withdrawing from the MTA, believes his area should be exempt from fare hikes, and his reasoning is just as spurious this […]

From Rockland County, inconsistencies and complaints :: Second Ave. Sagas August 20, 2014 - 12:18 am

[…] delved into that study back in 2012 when Rockland started making noises about leaving the MTA. It was not without merit, […]


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