Picture This: ARC Money + Congestion Pricing = No More NYC Transit Cuts

Later today, Governor Chris Christie is expected to announce that he’s shutting down construction of the ARC tunnel for good, closing off the potential for transit-based growth in northern New Jersey for the foreseeable future. In a dark day for smart planning and development, the project to double NJ Transit’s capacity to Manhattan has become a casualty of cheap-gas-at-all-costs populism.

New Jersey’s loss will be somebody else’s gain: $3 billion in Federal Transit Administration funding will shift from ARC to other projects. Already, elected officials are making their case to the feds. In a letter sent to U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood a few days ago, New York City Council transportation chair Jimmy Vacca said he’d be sad to see ARC go, but…

…if New Jersey is intent on abandoning this worthy project, it is imperative that the $3 billion in federal funds available be used to fund the many other vital transportation projects on queue in the New York region, such as the long overdue Second Avenue Subway, the 7 train extension, and the Long Island Rail Road East Side Access project. All are at risk of not being completed due to lack of funding.

…the MTA’s five-year, $26 billion capital program is currently funded only through the second year, with no guarantee that New York State will fund the remaining three years. This capital program funds station rehabilitations, new communication signals and tracks, and routine replacement of buses and subway cars… If the ARC Tunnel is canceled, then the Federal Government’s contribution should stay within the Greater New York Metropolitan Region and help stabilize the MTA’s finances.

It will probably be rather difficult to convince the FTA to put more money into the MTA capital program. The feds are already the primary funder of the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, and this June FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff promised Senate Banking Committee chair Chris Dodd that “not a single penny” more from the New Starts program would go toward the escalating costs of those mega-projects. New Starts is the same pot of money that would have funded ARC.

However, $3 billion is a lot of money — nearly a billion more dollars than LaHood’s DOT has dispensed in two rounds of TIGER grants. Surely some of it should go toward the MTA, which provides about a third of all transit trips in the United States. So indulge in the following scenario…

Say the FTA makes a proportional amount of the $3 billion available to New York. About a billion dollars would go toward the MTA. But if I were the feds, I’d make New York earn its share. No spoils from ARC without a new local revenue stream to plug that yawning, $9 billion gap in the capital program, which threatens to bury straphangers under an avalanche of MTA debt.

How about a billion dollar carrot to help Albany finally muster the guts to enact congestion pricing?

Congestion pricing was projected to translate into $4.5 billion in bonds for the capital program, before Democrats in the Assembly killed it in 2008. Add that revenue to $1 billion from the feds, and you’ll go a long way toward staving off a slow-motion disaster of continually rising fares and shrinking service.