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John Petro

Off the Rails: NY’s Gubernatorial Candidates Lack Plans on Transit

This post was coauthored with Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives.

Even after last year's service cuts and a 17 percent fare increase on 30-day MetroCards, the nation's largest mass transit system is still imperiled by chronic budget problems. A $500 million deficit is project for next year and in four years deficits will grow to $1.5 billion.

It's every-day New Yorkers that usually bear the burden of these budget gaps. Naturally, voters want to know: which candidate for governor will finally bring the MTA's finances under control?

Unfortunately, all they've heard from the Democratic and Republican candidates is outdated rhetoric. Cuomo has said he would roll back the mobility tax, a source of $1.5 billion in annual transit revenue, while Paladino has pledged to "take apart" the transit authority "piece by piece." But does anyone have a plan to put the MTA back together again?

Both Cuomo and Paladino have made reform of Albany the central message of their campaigns. When it comes to transit, Albany certainly needs reform, but it shouldn't come via baseball bat. And threatening to end the mobility tax tells voters that racking up political points matters more than making the tough choices necessary to save mass transit.

The last thing New York needs is a continuation of the policies that have led to the MTA's grim situation: starving the transit system of vital revenue and then blaming MTA executives and MTA employees for service cuts. The fact is, the governor and state legislature are most responsible for the MTA's finances.

Recently the state legislature has gone so far as to take $160 million in dedicated revenue from transit, a decision that led to last year's service cuts. For the sake of New York's economy, and for the 2.3 million New Yorkers that rely on mass transit every day to get to work, Albany's neglect of mass transit must end.

Real reform means making smart investments in the transit system that will drive economic growth, create good jobs, boost the state's competitiveness, and save taxpayers money in the long-term. Albany's mismanagement of MTA finances has saddled the authority with a $31 billion debt burden. This excessive borrowing comes at a cost. This year the MTA will pay $1.8 billion just for past borrowing, and this figure will grow to $2.7 billion a year by 2017.

Earlier this month, the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy and Transportation Alternatives released a five-step plan to help the next governor put the MTA on sound financial footing. One recommended step in the plan is fully embracing congestion pricing or bridge tolls to fund mass transit. After all, drivers greatly benefit from the congestion reduction that transit provides. Without transit, there would be 8.5 million more car trips on the region's roads every day.

Another recommended step for the next governor is to partner with New York's congressional delegation to secure more federal funding for transit. Transit is a top priority for the Obama administration and an important new transportation bill will be introduced next year. After vigorous campaigning by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles will receive a $540 million federal loan for transit. The next governor of New York should make a case in Washington for more federal funds for state transit projects. After all, the New York City metro region produces $1.2 trillion in economic activity every year. But there is no indication yet that the candidates would expend as much energy on transit as other national leaders.

Instead, there is a knee-jerk fixation on cost-cutting to solve the MTA's budget mess. It won't work. MTA chief Jay Walder has already found $700 million in annual savings through cost-cutting and other efficiencies and has plans to find more. But no amount of cost cutting will fill the $9 billion hole in the MTA's capital budget, or pay down the $31 billion in debt.

There will be no easy answers. But one thing is clear: The state's greatest revenue generator, New York City, depends on transit. And communities upstate will look for new transit options as gasoline gets more expensive. Other cities across the globe are ambitiously building transit systems with the intent of supplanting New York's dominance. The next governor cannot create a competitive twenty-first century transit system via cuts and quick fixes. Reinvestment is crucial.

John Petro is an urban policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Noah Budnick is deputy director at Transportation Alternatives.

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Posted at 12:39 PM, Oct 27, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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