Andrew Cuomo Can’t Ignore Transit in 2012

New York City transit riders might have taken some small measure of satisfaction from the sight of Carl Kruger resigning from the State Senate earlier this week. Pleading guilty to federal corruption charges, Kruger became the third member of the “Fare Hike Four” — the gang who killed a 2009 plan to fund transit by putting a price on NYC’s free bridges — to exit Albany in disgrace. Two others, Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate, were run out of town by voters and their fellow legislators under clouds of scandal. Ruben Diaz, Sr. is the only one who remains, reduced to irrelevance now that marriage equality is the law of the land and the Republicans control the Senate.

So you can blame the Fare Hike Four for the 2010 service cuts (and you can also blame the Assembly Democrats, who killed congestion pricing in 2008), but these aren’t the guys who are going to write the next chapter in the MTA funding story. If New York is going to fix the transit mess that Kruger and company bequeathed to us, don’t look to the state legislature just yet.

First, Governor Andrew Cuomo has to show some glimmer of understanding that New York’s transit system matters. So far, he hasn’t displayed an inkling.

2011 began with a $100 million Albany raid on dedicated MTA funds. It ended with a tax deal where Cuomo used $320 million in annual transit funding as a bargaining chit to gain suburban Republican votes. In both cases, city residents were sacrificed to achieve the governor’s political ends. That seems to be the Cuomo MO.

Meanwhile, millions of New York City transit riders are left with a diminished system and few prospects for any sort of improvement. If you ride the bus or the train, then you know all about the longer waits and additional crowding since the 2010 service cuts took effect. Does the governor?

Cuomo didn’t cause the cuts, but he should be making it a priority to restore that service and add more. (Remember when we were talking about hundreds of millions of dollars for additional bus service?) Instead, the MTA is limping along, its budget patched up with Band-Aids.

Yesterday the MTA Board approved a 2012 budget that manages to preserve current service levels even though the agency’s CFO doesn’t know how he’ll find the money. They also voted to fund most of the gap in the agency’s five-year capital plan with $4.5 billion in new borrowing. The official line is that the MTA can handle the debt because it will be paid off with revenue from the (recently slashed) Payroll Mobility Tax.

But with each passing year, debt payments swallow up a bigger chunk of the MTA’s budget. And every dollar spent on debt is a dollar that can’t be spent to run trains and buses. In the last two years alone, according to a recent report from Moody’s, “the MTA’s outstanding debt supported by operations has increased by nearly 14%.” By 2015, the amount the MTA spends on debt service each year will grow nearly 32 percent compared to 2011, according to the transit agency’s forecasts [PDF, page 102].

The projected increase in debt service works out to around 30 cents more per ride by 2015, according to transportation analyst Charles Komanoff. Wondering why the fare keeps rising while the economy stagnates? That’s a big reason.

Does Andrew Cuomo understand that New York City’s transit system is the engine of the state’s economy? Does he care about the millions of people who depend on subways and buses? If he does, he can’t ignore the MTA funding problem much longer.