Revenue from traffic fee will bolster MTA capital spending
More than a decade after a backroom deal in Albany shelved Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing, New York City will finally be able to price private automobile access to Manhattan south of 60th Street as the Senate and Assembly passed a budget early Sunday morning that includes authorization for congestion pricing to fund the MTA. The vote makes New York City the first in the nation to implement traffic pricing, and the move should help clear up Manhattan’s congested streets while funding Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan to modernize the subway system.
According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who does deserve credit in pushing this plan through, the congestion pricing revenue will allow the MTA to bond out $15 billion for its capital plan, and the money will be supplemented by a mansion tax on the sale of properties at $25 million or more and an internet sales tax. “This budget,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement, “delivers on our promise to develop sustainable funding for the MTA and addresses critical transportation needs throughout the state.”
MTA officials too sang its praises. Pat Foye, current agency president and soon-to-be chairman, thanked Albany for supporting the traffic fee. “Today will long be viewed as a historic day for the transit system, the environment and the livability of the New York region. Central Business District Tolling is a transformative initiative that will improve our transit system, reduce air pollution, increase mobility, bolster the economy and, put simply, better the lives of all New Yorkers,” he said. “With the leadership of Governor Cuomo, who resurrected this plan and led the way to making it a reality, New York is taking a critical step towards providing MTA customers with the modern, reliable, robust system they want and deserve, while creating tens of thousands of jobs across the entire state.”
Transit advocates have been working on a congestion pricing push for months and took a deserved celebratory lap on Sunday. “This state budget is great news for subway and bus riders who have been advocating for fair and sustainable sources of funding to fix our ailing transit systems. The billions of dollars raised through congestion pricing and other new revenue sources will help modernize the MTA with new train signals, new subway cars, and faster and more reliable bus service,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “In the coming months, we look forward to working with the TBTA and the new Traffic Mobility Review Board to ensure that the final congestion pricing plan is is robust and comprehensive, and that new funding translates into a faster and more reliable commute for millions of daily riders.”
Nick Sifuentes, Executive Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, echoed those sentiments: “At long last, we’ll start to get our city moving again and make both crippling traffic congestion and constant subway breakdowns a thing of the past.
Yet, while advocates have worked tirelessly to push this weekend’s approval across the finish line, the hard work has only just begun as the devil will be in the details. The budget legislation that approved congestion pricing did not provide details of the plan. Rather, it mandates the aforementioned Traffic Mobility Review Board, a new six-member board under the auspices of the Tri-Borough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, develop the pricing plan, and already politicians are angling for exemptions and carve-outs that would water down the effectiveness of it all.
Mayor Bill de Blasio conditioned his approval, infuriatingly enough, on the amorphous guarantee that the pricing plan would include carve-outs. In press appearances and conversations with Brian Lehrer, the mayor has constantly pushed for the idea of exemptions for various people he feels must drive into Manhattan, and while access to the East Side hospitals should be a consideration, congestion pricing will live or die on the limited scope of the carve-outs and the rigorousness with which they are enforced.
In this age of parking placard corruption, spearheaded by lax NYPD enforcement and constant NYPD abuse, though, anyone questioning de Blasio’s blind adherence to carve-outs is right to do so. After all, far more New Yorkers heading to doctors in Manhattan take transit than drive, a favorite de Blasio talking point. Still, the arrival of congestion pricing in New York City should be a celebrated one among transit enthusiasts and urbanists alike. (I’ve written at length as to why congestion pricing is a progressive solution to NYC’s transportation woes, and I urge you to revisit my Curbed piece from last August.)
Yet, despite this great victory, I too share some of the reticence recently expressed by Nicole Gelinas in The Post over the haste and lack of details in the current congestion pricing push. As she wrote, the MTA has never provided a definite cost-breakdown for all elements of the Fast Forward plan, and the state hasn’t actually given the MTA most of the $8 billion Cuomo committed a few years ago. “As it is, the MTA struggles to spend the money it already has when it comes to long-term physical assets, she noted. “The MTA is nearing the end of a regular five-year infrastructure-upgrade program, money to be invested in projects between 2015 and 2019, and to cost $33.3 billion. But it only has spent $10.9 billion of that money.”
I’ve expressed concerns about the overall framing of this congestion pricing push and have cautioned against treating congestion pricing as a solution to traffic and transit together. We need congestion pricing. It will help clear up our roads, but it must come with a pre-implementation guarantee of additional transit service in areas without robust subway access. I worry that treating it as a fix-all for transit funding and for the subways is overpromising on much needed benefits. Furthermore, as Gelinas pointed out on Sunday, the Traffic Mobility Review Board seems primed to hand over significant control of local New York City streets to suburban legislatures, a potentially damaging mistake that could harm the successful of comprehensive congestion pricing.
Hard to overstate importance of this. A new panel that the MTA will appoint, and that includes only one city rep OKed by the MTA, is now in charge of city traffic. By statute, suburban reps outnumber city reps 2:1. This is a revenue grab from city, not congestion-management plan. https://t.co/AioK6mPolP
— Nicole Gelinas ???????????? (@nicolegelinas) March 31, 2019
Despite this skepticism, though, I’ve spoken with numerous advocates who have urged me and others to celebrate this win, and environmental groups and transit advocates alike are looking forward to clearing the city streets. Plus, the budget finally includes a dedicated lockbox that Cuomo claims he will enforce to “ensure that 100% of this revenue goes to the MTA capital budget and prohibits the use of these revenues for non-capital spending.” (Whether this is an ultimate good remains to be seen. Some congestion pricing revenue should go to increased operations spending to ensure the transit system can withstand the boost in ridership a properly crafted traffic pricing plan should create.)
Other MTA reforms raise eyebrows
But — and when it comes to Andrew Cuomo and transit, there’s always a “but” involved — the legislature also passed Cuomo’s (and de Blasio’s) MTA faux-reform package. I wrote at length about this reform package a few weeks ago when it was first announced, and it’s worth revising the details here. Some of the key reforms are as follows:
- An MTA reorganization plan issued by the agency by June, which is off to an auspicious start as the MTA recently gave away the deal to a contractor in a no-bid $2 million contract.
- A long-awaited forensic audit and efficiency review.
- The Cornell and Columbia professors who have limited expertise in MTA capital construction will review major projects.
- A 20-year capital needs assessment beginning in 2023. For what it’s worth, the MTA usually issued a 20-year needs proposal every five years to coincide with the capital budget, but we have yet to see one this year.
- Increasing the competitive procurement threshold to $1 million (from $100,000) to speed up the contracting process.
- MTA Board appointees that are coterminous with the tenure of the official appointing the board member, a move that favors the term limit-free governor over the term-limited mayor.
- A requirement that any Capital Program Review Board member who does not approve of the MTA capital plan issue a written explanation for their veto, and provide the MTA the opportunity to respond and revise the plan so the member may withdraw their veto.
All told, these measures give the governor, who already controls the MTA even more power and siphons more say in the future of its transit network away from New York City. If anything, this should lead to more dialogue around Corey Johnson’s proposal to bring the subways and buses back under city control, a topic I plan to revisit soon.)
Ands I mentioned, good governance groups are not happy with these proposals. Reinvent Albany dissected the plan in February and aired additional criticism over the weekend after the MTA reforms were essentially approved, debate-free, during a late-night budgeting session.
What kind of @MTA "reforms" are adopted in the middle of the night with no public discussion, no public hearing, no informed debate? The MTA wasn't broken in a day, its not going to be fixed this weekend in an #Albany backroom. @RidersNY @Tri_State @TransitCenter @2AvSagas https://t.co/zZOO9PpLac
— Reinvent Albany (@ReinventAlbany) March 29, 2019
That’s an inauspicious start for MTA reform if ever there was one, and the good governance group wasn’t the one party voicing its concerns. Allen Cappelli, a former MTA Board member who was effectively pushed out over disagreements with the governor, told The Post, doing away with independent staggered appointments was “the wrong thing to do.” Cappelli added, “Cuomo has been the problem, not the solution. He’s been reluctant to fund the MTA properly. He’s deflecting.”
Cuomo loyalist named to head MTA; donor picked for Board
And just how is Cuomo exercising this new control? Well, we caught a glimpse of it late last week when he nominated Pat Foye to head the MTA and named a big-time donor to the board. Foye’s nomination came after Joe Lhota left abruptly last fall, and it’s a very Andrew Cuomo pick. Foye worked for Cuomo in 2011, served as Executive Director of the Port Authority (and president of the PATH train) from 2011 to 2017 and has been President of the MTA — a new position — since August 2017. He had the following to say about being named Chairman:
“As a lifelong rider – and a daily customer – of the MTA, I can think of no higher honor or more important challenge than serving at the helm of an agency that connects millions of people each day to their jobs, schools, families, and friends. There is no question that we have a great deal of work ahead of us, to bring truly innovative and meaningful reform to the agency and provide the service and system New Yorkers deserve.
I want to thank Governor Cuomo for this honor and opportunity. I have been honored to serve the Governor and the people of the State of New York. I know the new leadership team we have in place is up to this challenge, and I want to thank my colleagues for their hard work and commitment to making the MTA a more efficient and effective place. I especially want to thank our union member partners, who work tirelessly every day to keep this region moving. And I’m grateful to both Acting Chair Fernando Ferrer and our former Chairman Joe Lhota for their past guidance and leadership. I look forward to working with our customers, elected officials, the MTA Board and advocates as we continue to improve and build a transit system that truly works for all New Yorkers.”
On its own, Foye’s appointment isn’t a bad one, but it’s a very inside-the-box, Cuomo-loyalist approach to the MTA. Foye knows who he answers to, and he knows what Cuomo wants. He likely will give Byford enough leeway to implement the most substantive pieces of the Fast Forward plan, but this is an appointment designed to indicate to Byford and others inside the agency that Cuomo is very much in control. As Reinvent Albany’s John Kaehny said to Politco New York, “He’s an experienced technocrat and knows the transportation lay of the land and he’s trusted by the governor and he’s been reasonably accessible to the public, or certainly was when he was at the Port Authority. I would say it’s the conservative choice and the expected choice.”
New names fill MTA Board
Cuomo’s other MTA Board appointments are in a similar vein. Cuomo named Haeda B. Mihaltses, currently the Mets’ Vice President of External Affairs, to the Board. Mihaltses spent 12 years in the Bloomberg administration and worked for Peter Vallone before that. She replaces Peter Ward, a 2016 Cuomo appointee, and will be a fine Board member. But I chuckled at another Cuomo appointee named last week.
The governor tabbed Michael Lynton, the one-time CEO of Sony Entertainment, to the Board as well. While you would never know it from the governor’s press release, Lynton earned headlines a few years back during the Sony email leak when his extensive fundraising ties to the governor were laid bare for the public to see. We know full well where Lynton’s sympathies lie, and we can see exactly how Cuomo uses his own people to enhance and underscore his control of the MTA. (Lynton replaces Charles Moerdler, an eight-year board vet who was nominated by David Paterson in 2010 and whose appointment had expired in 2016. Moerdler had recently raised eyebrows with his aggressive calls to criminalize all subway and bus fare evasion.)
Also joining the MTA Board will be a new representative from Suffolk County as holdover Mitch Pally has been replaced by Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association. Pally was a 14-year vet whose last term expired in 2016 as well and had pushed the MTA to avoid its upcoming fare hike. David Mack and and Sarah Feinberg, a Federal Railroad Administration official during President Obama’s tenure, joined the Board in recent weeks as well. Mack, who has a history with Cuomo and the MTA. fills Nassau County’s empty seat while Feinberg replaces Schott Rechler. Rhonda Herman was named as Westchester County’s rep which may bounce Andrew Saul from the Board. With the recent departure of Carl Weisbrod, I believe that gives the mayor the chance to suggest a new board member as well.
Ultimately, this was a good week for New York City and a good week for MTA funding. We wasted a decade spinning our wheels on congestion pricing and still have to push through a properly limited plan to ensure it isn’t captured by special interests, but New York City’s streets will finally be priced. Congestion pricing can only improve from here. Where things stand with MTA reform and governance is an open question. Gov. Andre Cuomo, barely a friend of transit, continues to assert his control, as is his right, but it seems unlikely his plans will actually fix the MTA or its inefficient cost and construction problems. For that, we may just need a better governor, a more forceful mayor and a new way to approach transit governance that does not rely so heavily on loyalists and donors.