Home Capital Program 2015-2019 Reinvention looms as MTA commission plans first meetings

Reinvention looms as MTA commission plans first meetings

by Benjamin Kabak

Whenever I hear about another task force or panel or committee charged with some grand objective, I raise a skeptical eyebrow or two in its direction and hope for the best. Over the years, we’ve seen All Star panels come and go in a variety of capacities, and although some lead to change, improvements are incremental, not revolutionary. The MTA has received its fair share of recommendations — often at the urging of Richard Ravitch – and New York State and its leaders have hesitantly embraced measures designed to improve the agency’s operations and its financial security. Still, a panel is a panel is a panel.

A few weeks ago, right before I left for vacation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA announced the MTA Reinvention Commission. This thing clearly has lofty goals. Reinventing the MTA is a monstrous task that would do wonders for the future of New York City but involves a fair of amount of Robert Moses-esque consolidation of power that no one seems willing to take on. It would require challenging, instead of caving, to antiquated and entrenched labor, construction and general operations malaise. It would be hard.

So who’s up for the challenge? The Reinvention Commission has a high-falutin’ title and some bold-faced names attached to it, but when you start to peak under the hood, it may just be an attempt to thoughtfully plan out $30 billion in capital expenditures. That’s not a bad goal, per se, but it’s not going to reinvent much of anything. Ultimately, per Gov. Cuomo and the MTA, the group will “consider changes in customer expectations, commuting trends and extreme weather patterns as it develops future Capital Plans, the multibillion-dollar five-year programs of MTA investments to renew, improve and expand the transportation network.” Reports and recommendations will follow public meetings, and the spectacle will seem very, very familiar.

“The MTA has made incredible strides in rebuilding the network that makes New York grow and thrive, but we can never be satisfied with what we have done so far,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in announcing the commission. “As we prepare the next Capital Plan to guide investment for the next five years, as well as future five year plans, we want experts, stakeholders and customers to offer their thoughts on how to make those investments work for decades to come.”

As far as personnel, Ray LaHood and Jane Garvey are co-chairing this behemoth, and it reads as an international and local who’s who. Academics from New York and officials from Toronto and London will chime in; Enrique Peñalosa will join Denise Richardson and Gene Russianoff. Kathryn Wylde and Robert Yaro will sit at the table as well, and only Richard Ravitch himself didn’t seem to get an invite.

So as the public meetings begin next week at MTA HQ, we can see what’s in store for the reinvention of the MTA. The first questions seem highly practical to those paying attention, but they’ll generate rote answers from the public at large who can attend meetings that run from 5:30-8 p.m. during the week or 12-1 p.m. on a weekday.

What challenges do you think the MTA needs to focus on as it develops its capital plans over the next century? How will population growth impact service? How can we overcome institutional, inter-governmental and jurisdictional barriers? How does the MTA keep pace with technology? Energy efficiency? Innovation? How can the MTA pay for all of this? And how can the MTA do this all more quickly than it does today?

These are obvious questions with hard answers, and while I’m not one to cheerlead when yet another panel is announced, if these professionals can answer even one of these questions, we may be better off after than we are today. It’s a tall order for an agency tasked with carting 6 million people around the New York City area everyday. How can they do it better? Let me count the ways.

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Bolwerk July 11, 2014 - 12:18 am

It’s mostly an English-speaking world who’s-who, and not a particularly broad one even then. Toronto and London, perhaps to greater or lesser extents, have the problems we have. Peñalosa somehow got rockstar status here, but thinks the solution is always more buses. Would it kill them to have Japan or Germany or France represented?

The locals aren’t much better. RPA and Straphangers never really had a grip on reforming operations. They might have good contributions to make to planning, but for fixing execution?

Larry Greenfield July 11, 2014 - 5:53 am

I don’t see how such a panel on capital plans can function without considering the Port Authority’s plans. The agencies are competing for the same limited funding. Coordination or merger of their planning is required, if not complete merger.

MTA Reinvention July 11, 2014 - 7:26 am

Benjamin, we are glad you shared your insight into this massive effort. It is true that we are on a fast track and need all the help we can to get the word out to the public to give us input. We hope others share the below as well. People can participate by first viewing this site http://web.mta.info/mta/news/h.....ntion.html. Then to the right of that home page are links to sign up to to speak at the July 15-17 input sessions or submit comments online. We also encourage people to comment on our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/transportationreinvention and http://www.twitter.com/reinventtranspo.

AMM July 11, 2014 - 4:37 pm

I can’t say I have much hope for improvement. The problems the MTA and other public transportation in the NYC area are not structural. They are political.

The NYC area consists of many squabbling constituencies and power centers, all of which focus on their narrow (and often short-sighted) interests, represented by politicians and other leaders or officers who put their own egos and benefit first, the perceived interests of their constituents second, and the general welfare last. The result is that the policies, such as they are, reflect the state of the tug-of-war of the moment rather than any rational goals, and change with the shifts of power.

The only way anything gets done is for one person to get enough power to override any other constituencies, which is why NYC has ended up with an elected-dictator form of government and NYS is essentially ruled by a triumvirate (governor and the heads of the state senate and assembly.) Unfortunately, none of them has shown much interest in the state of public transportation.

You can “restructure” the MTA all you want, but it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titannic.

Larry Littlefield July 11, 2014 - 9:11 am

The question is, what will younger and future New Yorkers have to give up, and in what way will they be made worse off, to pay for all the goodies Generation Greed — which comprises just about anyone on the panel — has taken for itself?

And is it time to stop taking? How much more debt will be run up? How many more pension increases will go through? When will deferred maintenance begin? How more senior citizen and pension tax breaks, all likely to expire when today’s young are old, the government goes broke, and the transit system expires with it, will be enacted?

Better to have a commission recommend cutting ongoing normal replacement and funding everything with debt than to have the politicians have to do it themselves.

What is the average age on this panel? Where are the new voices? I want to hear what the transit system will be like when the debt hits $60 billion, with no expansions other than (maybe) those already in the works.

Quirk July 11, 2014 - 11:59 am

Why is generation greed doing this?

Quirk July 11, 2014 - 11:59 am

all of the damage that is to younger people

Larry Littlefield July 11, 2014 - 12:30 pm

They aren’t doing things to younger people in their minds.

They are just finding “innovative” ways to get what they want and avoid what they don’t want so they are better off.

The big innovation has been more debt, advanced revenues, and deferred costs. And not just at the MTA.

“Kids are resilient” and have “time to adjust,” they rationalize.

BoerumBum July 11, 2014 - 9:23 am

I, for one, hope that we can start to see some synergy between the balkanized alphabet soup of different transit agencies to see a real regional transit network emerge.

Let’s see through-running of NJ Transit & LIRR trains. Let’s see better integration between the PATH and the MTA Subway system. Let’s see the HBLR extended south across the Bayonne Bridge alongside the reactivation of the North Shore Line in Staten Island. Let’s see the transportation network expand to account for the population we have in the 21st century, instead of the population we had at the end of the 19th. Let’s build things for our great-grandchildren the way our great-grandparents built things for us.

Larry Littlefield July 11, 2014 - 10:45 am

And all funded by New York City taxpayers and New York City service cuts? Regionalism has not been good to the serfs.

Bolwerk July 11, 2014 - 12:56 pm

They should be cutting NYCTA fat, but they do it wrong. Cutting fat involves removing motorman-conductor pairs rather than removing conductors or token booth clerks and keeping the trip.

Of course, they should be investing in less labor-intensive infrastructure too. HBLR across 42nd Street has potential to improve surface transit on both sides of the river, and trips between.

BoerumBum July 11, 2014 - 2:38 pm

I was thinking more along the lines of a development tax on luxury real-estate. You want to use NYC as a tax shelter? Fine, but you need to help improve things for the people who actually live here.

Ralfff July 11, 2014 - 7:48 pm

“You want to use NYC as a tax shelter? Fine,”

No, absolutely not fine. It’s distorting the economy and wasting valuable land that cannot be paid back. People in the city should be invested in it. I have no problem with rich people buying a Midtown condo they’re rarely in, but they need to pay fair taxes on that. Land so valuable should never be a tax shelter.

1. Land-Value Tax instead of property tax. It’s not perfect but with prices all over being so high it will at least force out the speculators from neighborhoods that urgently need construction.
-if this is impossible, at least tax everything fairly under one single tax rate with honest assessments based on sale value to prevent tax sheltering, though perhaps an exception for utilities can be retained. There should be no incentive from the city’s point of view to encourage commercial versus housing and thus excessively zone for one or the other, and all residential should be taxed the same.

2. No tax breaks for business, including finance. This is some of the hottest land in the world. Even if you don’t think Wall Street is a parasite, how many cops are they using to defend their buildings downtown? Who’s paying for that? Vice Magazine got a goddamn tax break to expand in Williamsburg—enough is enough. Let the parasite landlords starve or sell. I’d rather New York’s money go to upstate tax breaks for business than driving up rent any further.

3. All commuters should pay NYC income taxes. Seems like not a lot to ask-you don’t like it, don’t work there. New York should have an income tax agreement with all neighboring states. If this is impossible then get rid of the damn tax. It’s not fair to the middle class or poor in the city who have to pay it while commuters don’t and encourages middle-class flight and the ghettoization/gentrification of the remainder.

4. No more 180-day or 24-hour rules for income taxes. Just pay the time you’re here. The megawealthy have relentlessly gamed the system at the expense of everyone, and if they flee to Florida and take their money with them, so much the better.

If we collected taxes fairly and stopped wasting so much on tax breaks and propping up land value costs we might be able to actually afford a substantial amount of transit construction that would put tangible value into the city and better people’s lives.


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