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Bronx High Schoolers Explain How MTA Funding Works

Who’s in charge of how much a MetroCard swipe costs? To most New York City teenagers, it’s a mystery. But not to a group of 16 Bronx high school students.

Monday night, the students presented a 12-minute video they made during a summer course with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP). It explains everything from who appoints the MTA board to the size of the gap in the capital budget.

Students interviewed everyday commuters, elected officials, and policy experts, including Assembly Member Jim Brennan, MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool.

The video was a project of CUP’s Urban Investigations program, which works with public high school students to illuminate public policy. “Really, what we try to do is choose topics that allow them to see how the city works,” said Christy Herbes, youth education program director at CUP. “We were trying to choose an issue that all the students in the Bronx could relate to.”

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Don’t Believe Team Cuomo’s Spin on the MTA “Lockbox”

This is rich. When Mayor Bill de Blasio told the Daily News he’s wary of upping the city’s contribution to the MTA capital program because Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly raided dedicated transit funds, MTA Chair Tom Prendergast said don’t worry, you can trust the governor:

“This is nothing more than rhetoric from a mayor who refuses to support mass transit. The state has stepped up and committed to fund $8.3 billion toward our capital program in a ‘lockbox’ that will only be used for capital expenses. There are no more excuses,” said MTA President Thomas Prendergast.

Don’t buy the spin. Prendergast’s boss, Andrew Cuomo, has refused to enact “lockbox” legislation that would require the state to disclose when it raids transit funds to cover other needs in the state budget. The governor remains free to divert revenue from the MTA without explaining the impact or even alerting the public.

The only way to seal off transit funding from Albany interference is through bonding. So maybe that’s what Prendergast means by “lockbox” — the Cuomo administration intends to borrow the $8.3 billion for the capital program, by issuing debt backed either by the state or by revenue from MTA fares. Fare-backed borrowing is the scenario that transit advocates most want to avoid, since it will create pressure for future fare hikes.

In either case, de Blasio’s objections are legit. The governor hasn’t explained where the $8.3 billion he’s promised for the MTA will come from. And if City Hall does contribute money to the capital program, there’s nothing to stop Cuomo from taking advantage by shuffling funds around and padding the state budget thanks to the city’s largesse.


Governors Want Feds to Pay for Half of Hudson Tunnel; They’ll Split the Rest

Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York sent a letter to President Barack Obama today with an offer: If the federal government picks up half the tab of building a new $20 billion Hudson River rail tunnel, the two states will split the rest [PDF].

It’s a step forward in negotiations as the governors try to secure grants from the federal government, which so far has only offered low-interest loans for the project. Ultimately, the Republican-controlled Congress must sign off on any federal funds for the rail tunnel.

The governors are also asking for expedited planning and environmental approvals, similar to how the Obama administration fast-tracked the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement.

In the letter, Christie and Cuomo peg the total cost of a rail tunnel at $20 billion. Numbers thrown around by agencies and officials have ranged from $14 billion to $25 billion, depending on the source and whether it includes related projects, like adding additional tracks from the tunnel to Newark.

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Uber Should Pay an MTA Fee Like Yellow Cabs, But the Fee Should Be Smarter

One of the points of debate over Uber’s operations in New York is whether its trips should contribute the same 50-cent surcharge to the MTA that yellow and green taxis do. It’s an easy question to answer in some ways: It doesn’t matter whether a car is yellow, green, or black — if some for-hire vehicles have to pay an MTA fee, they all should. But as long as this taxi surcharge is in the public eye, there’s also an opportunity to rethink the fee itself and make it smarter.

It shouldn't matter what color your taxi is -- but it should matter where the trip goes. Photo: Shuggy/Flickr

It shouldn’t matter what color your taxi is — but it should matter where the trip goes. Photo: Shuggy/Flickr

Ideally, the surcharge paid by yellow taxis, Uber, and other for-hire services would be higher in the congested Manhattan core than in outer-borough neighborhoods lacking decent transit service. While that wouldn’t be a substitute for real congestion pricing of all motor vehicle trips, it could set a precedent and demonstrate the impact of congestion-based fees on a substantial portion of Manhattan traffic.

Here’s the way things are set up today: A 50-cent surcharge on all green and yellow taxi trips will generate an estimated $87 million for the MTA this year, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. Black cars, including Uber and Lyft, are subject to a sales tax that isn’t paid by metered taxis. A sliver of that — slightly more than one-third of one percent — will generate an estimated $7 million for the MTA this year.

Because of this imbalance, Uber’s growth is poised to eat into MTA funding. CBC projects the MTA will actually lose revenue as Uber trips grow and taxi trips continue to decline.

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about the problem on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show last week. “We also have to support the MTA, which is in the interest of all of us, and that happens right now through a certain number of taxis, but it doesn’t happen through Uber, for example,” he said.

The fee could also be restructured in a way that addresses problems beyond the MTA’s coffers.

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Trottenberg: DOT Will Soon Propose Amsterdam Avenue Bike Lane

DOT will release a long-awaited proposal for a bike lane and other traffic calming measures on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side this September or October, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show this morning.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says her agency will propose a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue in the next couple months. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says DOT will propose a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue in the next couple months. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

The announcement comes after years of requests from local advocates and Manhattan Community Board 7 for a northbound pair to the southbound protected bike lane on Columbus Avenue. Council members Helen Rosenthal and Mark Levine, who represent the area, have also backed a protected bike lane on Amsterdam, which was recently repaved. Citi Bike will expand to the Upper West Side this fall.

“Amsterdam Avenue is challenging… Just the way the traffic moves and the configuration of the roadway do make it a more challenging road to redesign [than Columbus],” Trottenberg said. “But we’re going to come up with some plans and we’re going to lay them out for the community board and for everyone who’s interested.”

The wide-ranging interview also discussed a proposal from Assembly Member Aravella Simotas for a car-free Shore Boulevard in Astoria Park (“We are taking a look at it,” Trottenberg said) and the redesign of Queens Boulevard, which she called one of DOT’s “marquee” projects. Noting the new bike lanes on Queens Boulevard, Lehrer said callers are often “more afraid of the bicycles, because they seem to go every which way, than they are of the cars.”

Much of the interview was driven by Lehrer’s focus on congestion and bikes.

“Is there an upside to congestion?” he asked Trottenberg. “Like, is traffic congestion good for Vision Zero, because you want cars to go slower in general?”

“They’re really two separate issues, and I understand why people put them together,” Trottenberg said, before explaining the difference between making sure free-flowing traffic moves at a safe speed and combatting gridlock in the Central Business District, which is attracting fewer cars each day even as congestion has worsened.

Cruising by Uber drivers and other growing for-hire services is a likely cause of the additional congestion, Trottenberg said, and she acknowledged other factors, such as deliveries. The city will study CBD congestion after backing away from legislation to cap the number of cars operated by Uber.

“How about the bikes as a factor?” Lehrer asked.

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Cuomo and Christie Play Chicken With Trans-Hudson Train Commuters

It’s been almost five years since New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC tunnel. Things haven’t improved since.

The existing two-track rail tunnel, already at capacity, has continued to shoulder growing ridership comprised mostly of NJ Transit commuters. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy added a dose of corrosive salt water to the century-old tunnels. Amtrak warns that one or both of the tubes must shut down in the next couple decades, forcing trains going both directions to share a single track. Commuters got a taste of this nightmare scenario just weeks ago when high-voltage power cables in the tunnel failed, cutting service to and from Penn Station.

Moving those commuters onto buses is unlikely. Like the rail tunnel, the Port Authority Bus Terminal is both falling apart and at capacity. Replacing and expanding that facility would cost up to $11 billion — a number the Port Authority is struggling to come to terms with.

Amtrak’s plan for a new tunnel, known as Gateway, has stalled without backing from Christie or his New York counterpart, Governor Andrew Cuomo. This morning, Senator Charles Schumer of New York pushed the governors to take the first of many necessary steps to getting the project built. Schumer wants a new partnership, which he’s dubbed the Gateway Development Corporation, to build the tunnel.

The partnership, comprised of Amtrak, the Port Authority, the MTA, and the two states, would be able to access a wide range of funding sources. “Amtrak can’t access federal mass transit funding. The Port Authority and regional transit agencies can’t access federal railroad dollars the way Amtrak can,” Schumer said, reported the Observer. “We’ll only get Gateway done by adding up several pieces of financing, with an eye toward getting the maximum amount possible from the federal government.”

Neither governor has yet agreed to the partnership. Last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asked the governors to meet with him about the Gateway project, but the two executives want cash from the feds, not just loans, before they’ll commit to anything.

In fact, the governors — neither of whom hesitates to spend big on highways and airports — have tried to portray the rail tunnel between their two states as somehow not their problem.

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Prendergast’s Objections to Toll Reform Don’t Make Any Sense

On WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show this morning, MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast joined his boss Andrew Cuomo in dumping cold water on the Move NY toll reform plan as a way to fund the transit authority’s capital program. Trouble is, his critiques don’t make much sense.

Photo: Marc A. Hermann for MTA/Flickr

Toll reform? Nope and no way, say Cuomo and Prendergast. Photo: Marc A. Hermann for MTA/Flickr

Lehrer played a clip of Cuomo arguing against toll reform on the radio yesterday, then asked Prendergast what he thought of the idea. The MTA chief said he isn’t being dismissive of the plan and that he’s not opposed to it. He then ticked off what, in his view, are a bunch of reasons to dismiss the plan and oppose it.

First, Prendergast said that Move NY “leaves some bridges free.” Exactly what he’s referring to here is a mystery. Maybe Prendergast is concerned that the plan doesn’t put tolls on the Harlem River bridges. He never explains. “I’m not saying this is my position,” he said, “but there some local elected leaders that are concerned [that] some bridges are left free.”

Then, the MTA head said these mysterious free bridges would lead to toll shopping. “I’m not so sure it accurately predicts what driver behavior will be,” he said of Move NY. “I’ve been other places where people drive a long way out of their way to avoid paying a toll.”

Again, it’s not clear what Prendergast is talking about here. The most fundamental component of Move NY is a consistent toll for driving into the central business district, thereby eliminating the incentive to shop for a free bridge and clog up local streets.

Prendergast was also concerned that Move NY would not provide enough revenue to maintain the existing East River bridges — a cost that’s already paid for in the city’s capital budget.

But Prendergast’s objections don’t stop at the bridges. “There’s also some concerns about what will happen with the 60th Street cordon,” he said, without explaining the problem. “I’ll let others speak to the political process.”

Prendergast was also concerned that toll reform wouldn’t start generating revenue soon enough. “To implement this and see your first dollar of revenue, you measure it in years, not months. You see it in three or four years,” he said. “Let’s not count this capital program dependent on that process.”

Even if it took four years to implement — which Move NY says is unlikely — a portion of the toll revenue could back bonds, which would provide cash for the capital plan more quickly than a purely pay-as-you-go program.

These answers are unlikely to sway the Cuomo administration. Apparently, the governor and his MTA are just not interested in reforming the city’s broken toll system to raise revenue for transit.


Here Are Six Times the MTA Was a State Entity Under Cuomo’s Control

It’s his authority. Image: NYGovCuomo/YouTube

Yesterday on WCNY’s “Capitol Pressroom,” Susan Arbetter hosted Governor Andrew Cuomo for a discussion of the MTA capital program. Lately, the governor has been pushing City Hall to fund a greater share of the authority’s investment plan. Arbetter, pressing the governor, asked a simple question: “Isn’t the MTA a state entity?”

“It’s not, actually,” Cuomo replied. “It [covers] a metropolitan downstate region.”

The answer, of course, is nonsense. The MTA’s own list of board members reminds the public that “all board members are appointed by the governor, some on the recommendation of city and county officials.” The chair of the authority serves at the governor’s behest. The MTA is chartered by the state, and taxes levied by the state help fund more than a third of its operating budget.

The governor controls more than just board appointments. At the MTA, the governor calls the shots. Perhaps these recent events will remind Cuomo that the MTA is a state entity under his control:

  1. When storms threaten the region, the governor is the one who shuts down the entire transit system.
  2. He smiled for the cameras and brokered a labor deal between Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the MTA.
  3. Early in his first term, he cut the Payroll Mobility Tax, one of the authority’s major sources of funding.
  4. Last year, he cut tolls for Staten Island motorists in an election-year ploy, then stuck the MTA with half of the bill.
  5. His budgets regularly include diversions of MTA operating funds to cover expenses in the state’s budget.
  6. Ten days ago, his own budget office directed the MTA to trim the size of its capital plan, which it did [PDF].

The list goes on. While it’s nice to see Cuomo committing to fully funding the (slightly reduced) capital program, it’s hard to take his latest comments seriously until he acknowledges the need for a new source of revenue. Generating billions of dollars over five years is no simple task.

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Anthony Shorris: City Hall Open to Funding Transit Via Toll Reform

After an Albany legislative session that came and went without any serious effort from Governor Cuomo to address the $14 billion shortfall in the MTA’s next five-year capital program, there are faint stirrings of action.

First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris

Most intriguing: Yesterday, First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris sent a letter to MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast outlining the city’s interest in a number of possible funding solutions, including the Move NY toll reform plan [PDF].

Without additional funding, the MTA capital plan — which Cuomo has called “bloated” — will continue to saddle straphangers with excessive debt and bigger fare hikes in the future. Significant investments to increase systemwide capacity could be trimmed, like the MTA’s effort to modernize its ancient signals. With subways getting more crowded and delays becoming more common, transit riders face the prospect of higher prices for worse service if nothing is done.

Previously, the de Blasio administration had sidestepped any discussion of Move NY. In April, Shorris told reporters that he hadn’t actually read the details of the proposal. Recently, the administration has faced some criticism for its silence on toll reform while it cites Manhattan congestion as a reason to limit the growth of Uber and other car services.

Cuomo controls the MTA and is the one elected official with the power to make toll reform a live issue. Previously he has dismissed toll reform as a non-starter, so it’s not surprising de Blasio hasn’t jumped to make the first move. With this letter, the administration is at least keeping the option of Move NY on the table if the governor comes around on it.

Now that City Hall has cracked open the door to toll reform ever so slightly, is there any sign that Cuomo will show some leadership on this issue?

In response to Shorris’s letter, the MTA would only discuss the governor’s involvement in the vaguest terms. “The MTA has been working closely with Governor Cuomo’s office on a plan to meet the essential capital needs of a system that is critical to the City’s daily life and economic strength of the region,” said MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg.


Lawmakers Beg Cuomo to Show Some Leadership on MTA Capital Plan Gap

As the end approaches for the Albany legislative session, things are looking bleak for New York City transit riders. With no action from Governor Cuomo to close the $14 billion gap in the MTA capital program, the burden will end up falling on straphangers in the form of greater debt and higher fares.

The man in charge of the MTA has very little to say about its funding gap. Photo: Marc A. Hermann for MTA on Flickr

The man in charge of the MTA has shown no leadership on closing the gap in the MTA capital plan. Photo: Marc A. Hermann for MTA/Flickr

A group of 25 Assembly members and 10 state senators, led by Assembly Member James Brennan, sent a plea for help to Cuomo and legislative leaders yesterday [PDF]:

Our transit agencies have experienced a decrease in federal, state, and local monies for far too long. If new sources of funding are not identified soon, agencies will be forced to raise fares and tolls or reduce service to pay for much-needed infrastructure needs — taking more money from the pockets of millions of daily riders, many of whom have no other transportation options. Viable funding options exist to support these initiatives, and the time is now to take action.

“The time is running out in this legislative session to reach consensus on how to make this happen,” Brennan said in a press release. “I hope that our Governor will help us find a solution.”

The solution staring Cuomo in the face is the congestion-busting Move NY toll reform plan. This time around, advocates recruited new allies to support an overhaul of NYC’s dysfunctional toll system, but the governor never showed any interest.

Without leadership from Cuomo, the person ultimately in charge of the MTA, there’s not much incentive for anyone else to make a move.

The likely scenario: super-sized fare hikes in a few years. When that happens, just remember that when the opportunity was there to do some good for transit riders, Cuomo did nothing.