As we approach the six-week mark of 2015, the MTA’s next five-year capital plan — all $32 billion of it — was supposed to kick off on January 1. Now, it’s not a surprise or out of the ordinary that nearly half of the plan’s funding isn’t in place or that the plan hasn’t been approved by the state’s Capital Program Review Board. Last fall’s rejection was a pro forma measure designed to attract political attention to the need to identify funding sources. What’s surprising is how utterly silent Albany and Governor Cuomo have been on the issue.
At this point in the debate, there has been no debate. The only action from Cuomo involved tossing a wrench in the form of the ill-designed LaGuardia AirTrain into the MTA’s plans and requiring the agency to re-write a portion of the five-year proposal. He hasn’t talked about funding mechanism; he hasn’t discussed new dedicated revenue streams; and he certainly hasn’t leaped to embrace anything as progressive as MoveNY’s traffic pricing plan. The silence is deafening.
It’s not though for lack of action and noise downstate. Earlier this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio — who thanks to politics has nearly no say over perhaps the most important element driving New York City development — essentially punted the MTA funding question to Albany where it belongs. The mayor recently proposed some new Select Bus Service routes and $300 million over funding over the next decade (though the proposal could be better), and that’s the extent of his control over major MTA moves. DOT can reallocate street space, and the MTA will provide the buses. Meanwhile, the mayor has asked Albany to do something about the capital funding gap.
De Blasio’s statements earlier this week echo comments he made last week. As Capital New York reported, hizzoner made it clear that Albany must find a solution. “I think clearly this an Albany question first and foremost,” the mayor said while on NY1. “Not only do we need to preserve the payroll tax that’s playing such a crucial role now, but I think we have to have a real debate about what Albany should do with its resources and what’s fair for the whole state.”
Of course, the city’s contribution to the MTA’s capital plan has stagnated at $100 million per year for decades. At a rate of inflation, the city should be contributing $363 million, but even that huge increase would leave a gap of nearly $14 billion. The city could do more, but by and large, de Blasio is looking in the right direction.
The mayor isn’t the only one squawking at Albany that isn’t really listening. On Wednesday, the Urban Land Institute of New York and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA released a report and a fancy website highlighting why the region needs a fully funded MTA capital plan. The report highlight a bunch of facts anyone reading this far already knows — 90% of NY workers live in areas served by the MTA; the Lexington Ave. line carries more riders than subways in San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston combined; the MTA needs to keep investing in system renewal to avoid constant breakdowns, etc. But it’s important because it’s a salvo in a political fight.
“We need to focus on continuing to deliver to New York commuters an affordable, accessible transit network that is equipped for the challenges of tomorrow. As the city and state’s leaders determine the final shape of the Capital Program, it is vital that they keep everyday New Yorkers at the top of their agenda,” William Henderson, Executive Director of PCAC, said. We can’t risk not investing in the system as we’ve been down that road before.
So what happens next? Eventually, Albany will pick up the cause, and the debate may play itself out in familiar fashion. No one will propose traffic pricing, but debt will be on the table. And the MTA’s debt, as a new report by the Straphangers highlights, is a problem. The MTA itself is carrying more debt than 30 nations including war-torn Syria and the entirety of Chile. And yet underinvesting is on the table because, as Joan Byron of the Pratt Center said yesterday, “we have a governor who has demonstrated that he does not get how important the MTA is to the metro and regional economy.” That’s a scary thought indeed.