Washington Needs to Accept Responsiblity for New York’s Mass Transit
When the New York State legislature passed a “rescue” bill for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, transit users across the region let out a sigh of relief. Some of us, however, warned that Albany’s rescue wasn’t going to solve the MTA’s long-term problems. Now the State Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, has issued a report that outlines the MTA’s budget outlook for the next three years. His conclusion? The MTA will need to continue borrowing to fund its program of repair, maintenance, and expansion of the system. However, according to DiNapoli,
"Such a heavy reliance on debt would place increasing pressure on the operating budget, just as heavy borrowing in the past has contributed to the MTA’s current fiscal crisis."
In order to continue to improve the system, after recovering from the blatant neglect of New York’s transit infrastructure through the 1970s, the MTA needs about $18 billion over the next five years. Additionally, the region will continue to grow and so will the demands on our transit system. Other trends, such as decreasing automobile use, climbing fuel prices, and the need to address global warming will necessitate a larger, more comprehensive transit system. Therefore, it is not just appropriate but absolutely vital that we expand our subway, commuter rail, and bus system as well as explore other technologies such as streetcars and Bus Rapid Transit. This will require more money. The MTA is already going to need another $4.3 billion in the next five years for current expansion projects.
However, as the Comptroller’s report makes clear, the MTA cannot continue to borrow for all of its capital needs. And it will be difficult for transit advocates and the State legislature to advocate for more state funds in the next few years after the exhausting fight the region just went through to pass the MTA rescue bill.
The solution to the region’s transportation woes lies not just with the city and the state, but with the federal government as well. Over the past 25 years, the federal government has contributed funding for approximately one-third of the MTA’s capital needs. This level of federal funding has not been sufficient. It is time that the New York congressional delegation demand that the federal government commits itself to ensuring that the MTA has the resources it needs to not only keep the trains and buses running, but to also expand the system in anticipation for one million new residents by 2030.
This is not the time for complacency. If we settle for the status quo, New York City, and by extension the nation, may find itself in a role of diminishing prominence in the global economy. The new realities of a post-carbon economy and climate change will put increasing pressure on our current transportation system. This is a time to critically reexamine the way that the federal government funds transit projects in relation to highway projects. This is a time in which New York City, if it is ever to address the staggering gaps in inequality, must increase transit access to underserved neighborhoods, thereby linking them with the regional economy.
The city and the state will need to find more revenue sources for the MTA. Congestion pricing should be one of those revenue sources. The funds from congestion pricing could go towards paying down the MTA’s tremendous debt burden. Other sources of revenue, such as performance parking, should also be pursued.
But the city and the state need a federal partner. It will be up the New York’s Congressional delegation to speak up during this year’s discussion of the federal transportation bill and ensure that the transit system receives its fair share of federal funding. And it will be up to transit riders to keep their representatives accountable for the region’s transit needs.