Andrew Cuomo’s Transit Plan: Worse Than Nothing?

Andrew Cuomo announces his urban agenda and proceeds to promise more austerity for the MTA. Photo: Transportation Nation.

Andrew Cuomo announces his urban agenda and proceeds to promise more austerity for the MTA. Photo: Transportation Nation.

With November 2 just 11 days away, it’s probably time to concede that Andrew Cuomo won’t offer any constructive ideas for solving the state’s transit funding crisis before election day. After avoiding taking any stands while outlining his infrastructure plan, Cuomo happily joined in the gubernatorial debate’s MTA-bashfest, trotting out the old and discredited “two sets of books” line. Yesterday, the former HUD Secretary released his “urban agenda,” in which the only item on transit calls, banally, for limiting service cuts if possible.

As Andrea Bernstein documents with both humor and great detail at Transportation Nation, the press corps wasn’t willing to let him stay silent on this critical issue. Unfortunately, his silence turned out to be far preferable to his answers. On the same day that the Drum Major Institute and Transportation Alternatives offered a five-step plan to reinvest in transit and fix the MTA’s finances, Cuomo opted for positions that would lead only to more service cuts, more fare hikes, and more debt. Read the whole, depressing thing — Cuomo even manages to make Marcia Kramer look like a livable streets activist.

After Cuomo offered a few truisms about the need for efficiency, Bernstein asked the would-be chief executive whether he’d consider new revenue sources like congestion pricing or bridge tolls. Cuomo managed to both reject the idea and avoid taking a position:

Congestion pricing was proposed. It was discussed. It was basically rejected by the legislature. I don’t know that there’s been any change in opinion. I think it’s moot. I understand the concept. I understand that it was rejected. I don’t think it would pass if it came up again, unless something changed.

Of course, political leaders have shifted their positions on road pricing rather dramatically over the last few years. In 2008, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver killed congestion pricing by announcing that fewer than 25 members of his caucus would have voted for it. One year later, Silver and his caucus were ready to toll the East and Harlem River Bridges.

One thing that could change the politics of road pricing again is if the state’s most popular politician, who’s likely to be elected by an enormous margin, led a campaign to revive the idea. Andrew Cuomo is running to lead the state and that’s what leadership means.

But a canny pol like Andrew Cuomo knows all that. He even admitted as much when pressed by WNBC’s Melissa Russo. It isn’t that he won’t reopen battles that have been fought before, he said. “My point is that I don’t want to go to revenue raisers first.”

And as his other answers make clear, that’s the real motivation here. Said Cuomo, “Just — more money, put more money on top, just keep pouring the money in, that’s what we’ve done for a lot of years, it’s one of the reasons the state is in 8 billion deficit, it’s one of the reasons taxes are so high, it’s one of the reasons people are leaving the state.”

Cuomo is running on a message of austerity. The problem is that when it comes to the MTA, he’s too late.

If Cuomo really doesn’t understand that, he should just ask his father. When Mario Cuomo came into office in 1983, as the Drum Major Institute laid out in a report last year, the state was contributing $1.5 billion to the MTA’s capital plan, or 20 percent of the total capital budget. Over the course of the Cuomo administration, that total consistently dropped. In the 1987-1991 capital plan, the state only contributed $871 million, or 11 percent of the capital plan. And in 1992, Mario Cuomo cut the state’s contribution right down to zero.

At the same time, New York City slashed its contribution to the capital plan from nine percent of the capital budget down to three percent. The public purse hasn’t been “pouring the money in” to transit for decades. While it’s true that downstate employers are contributing more to transit now, thanks to the recently passed payroll tax, those revenues basically made up for the enormous shortfall brought on by the recession. No wonder there’s a $10 billion hole in the MTA’s capital plan, a hole far larger than any efficiencies will be able to close.

Cuomo also argued against funding transit on the grounds of “fiscal discipline.” But real fiscal discipline — not the miserliness Cuomo’s talking about — would mean millions more in state funding for the MTA.

Take for example, one piece of budget gimmickry started under George Pataki. The state is obligated to match local contributions to the MTA under a program called 18-b. Starting in fiscal year 2001-2002, the Pataki Administration stopped paying that match from the state’s general fund, as it was meant to be, and started paying it out of a pool of taxes already dedicated to the MTA. According to a report by then-Comptroller William Thompson [PDF], that sleight-of-hand added up to a cut of between $161 million and $186 million each year for the MTA.

More broadly, if Cuomo managed to get the broader state budget under control, it would help the MTA tremendously. As long as the state needs money, it will continue raiding the MTA’s coffers to plug other gaps.

If Cuomo wants to lead this state, he needs to start giving straight answers about the MTA and stop hiding behind the decisions of others. “Political realities” are a poor excuse when you’re in the position to shape those realities.

It’s pretty clear that yesterday’s message will remain the candidate’s line at least for the next 11 days — why stop now? The only hope is that Cuomo gives up the act on November 3.