Toll Is Quiet

Toll Is Quiet

Toll Is Quiet
January 28, 2014

At a hearing on the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital-investment program, state representatives seemed to care about getting better transit service for their constituents. But what happens next? In the coming year Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers must figure out how to pay.

The Assembly’s committee on public authorities held a forum Jan. 10 to consider a problem: The MTA has a multibillion dollar shortfall in its next $30–32 billion five-year capital program. The five-year plan starts next year, 2015, as the current $26 billion program expires.

Though people think of new projects, such as the $4.5 billion Second Avenue Subway, as dominating the capital plan, 70 percent of capital spending goes to replacing or upgrading old subway cars, signals, tracks and other infrastructure, and buying new buses.

The plan may be long-term, but the shortfall starts…now.

As Bob Foran, the MTA’s chief financial officer, explained, the MTA borrowed money ($11 billion) for the current capital program. By 2017, three years away, the MTA’s annual debt costs for past capital spending will reach $2.8 bil-lion: 16 percent of its budget. That’s half a billion dollars more than the MTA spends now. But the MTA faces a $200 million deficit by 2017. And this deficit doesn’t take into account new borrowing for the next capital plan.

But wait! Isn’t the MTA raising fares and tolls next year, by 4 percent? Yes, but that money is accounted for in the budget.

There is no way around it: The MTA cannot borrow more unless it finds new income to pay the new debt, and cuts costs.

Lawmakers at the January hearing offered few clues about what they would do. On cost cutting, Foran warned that giving retroactive wages to its union workers—on a contract that has now been expired for two years—would cost the MTA $538 million this year.

Despite Foran sounding the alarm that costs once considered “uncontrollable,” such as healthcare, pensions and handicapped-access transit, now make up half of the budget and are growing five times faster than the other half, lawmakers did not seem perturbed.

At the same time they remained inscrutable about possibilities for generating additional revenues, even when a promising potential source of cash was floated by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, a Koch-era traffic commissioner.

The director of Schwartz’s Move NY plan, Alex Matthiessen, told lawmakers how it would work. Albany would vote to levy car and truck tolls on entry points into Manhattan where auto drivers have the alternate choice of taking mass transit. Manhattan cab riders and car owners too would pay a new fee for the congestion they cause. Some of the money would lower bridge tolls where residents don’t have good transit, including the Verrazano and Cross Bay bridges. $400 million would go to keeping up the city’s roads, and $1.1 billion would be spent on transit.

Rather than weigh in on the plan, however, lawmakers preferred to talk about the need for better transit in their districts.

Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder, of the Rockaways, joked that the MTA was able to repair the A train so quickly after Superstorm Sandy because “it is the only thing we’ve got.”

Nily Rozic, who represents eastern Queens, noted that her district has no subway stops. “Tak[ing] a bus to a train station … or [to] the LIRR [is] the only way to get to work in the morning or anywhere else.”

Nor did Goldfeder want particularly cheap infrastructure. He opined that he doesn’t trust buses, because “if we put [them] in place … tomorrow, it could be gone. You’re not gonna bulldoze rail.”

Rozic likes buses—but she wants a lot of them.

So New York has lawmakers with expensive tastes who are closemouthed about how to pay for them. At least silence is better than the alternative: grandstanding against tolling free bridges, something we heard last time around in 2008, when then Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to get a less comprehensive plan passed. (Neither Rozic nor Goldfeder held office then.)

This time?

“I don’t necessarily have a position on that yet,” said Goldfeder of the plan.

Rozic kept her thoughts to herself.

Nothing in Albany is, well, something.

Nicole Gelinas (@nicolegelinas) is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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Nicole Gelinas
is a policy journalist in New York City who contributes regularly to the New York Post and Governing magazine.