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Posts from the "Transit Funding" Category

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Cuomo to Spend Lion’s Share of NY Bank Settlement Windfall on Highways

 

 

One of the looming questions as Governor Andrew Cuomo has unveiled his budget agenda over the past few days has been how he’ll divvy up the $5.4 billion windfall the state has reaped from bank settlements. At the State of the State address this afternoon, Cuomo revealed that the biggest chunk of that money will go to the Thruway Authority so highway drivers don’t have to pay higher tolls.

Of the nearly $1.7 billion for road and rail projects in Cuomo’s plan, more than three-quarters — $1.285 billion — would get sucked up by the Thruway Authority and the replacement Tappan Zee Bridge.

The MTA gets two comparatively small slices. The most significant is $250 million to bring Metro-North to Penn Station and build four new stations along the Hell Gate Line in the Bronx. This project was already in the MTA’s pipeline, so the allocation should shrink the $15.2 billion gap in the agency’s capital program by a small amount.

Cuomo also announced $150 million in settlement cash for parking garages at one Metro-North and two Long Island Rail Road stations — an idea that, like the Willets Point AirTrain, he sprung on the public yesterday. This is a subsidy for suburban commuters who park and ride at what are supposed to be transit-oriented development hubs.

But that’s all small potatoes compared to the chunk of change heading to the Thruway. It’s still not clear how much of the $1.285 billion will be for Tappan Zee construction and how much will be to directly bail out the authority’s deteriorating finances. Either way, this is money that will basically be used to keep drivers from squawking about tolls that better reflect the true cost of road building and maintenance.

Sorry, straphangers.

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Cuomo’s Transpo Vision: Huge Garages, Cheap Roads, Lots More MTA Debt

A day before his big statewide policy address, Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out his transportation and infrastructure agenda today at a Midtown breakfast hosted by the Association for a Better New York, a business group. This was not the speech where the governor finally laid out his plan to prevent runaway MTA debt, fix the traffic that is choking New York City’s economy, and revive cities around the state by tearing out decrepit 20th century highways and redeveloping downtowns.

Governor Cuomo talks transportation this morning. Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr

Governor Cuomo talks transportation this morning. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Instead, surprising no one, Cuomo promised subsidies to keep highway tolls cheap, train stations with tons of parking, and economic development centered around airports. The speech did not even mention the most pressing transportation issue in New York right now: the $15 billion gap in the MTA’s five-year capital program.

Cuomo did mention that the capital program will pay for new buses and subway cars, the Second Avenue subway, Metro-North along the Hell Gate Line, signal upgrades, and Bus Rapid Transit (which he called “a big part of the future”) — all part of the plan already. The governor also touted an attention-grabbing new proposal to build an AirTrain line to LaGuardia Airport from the Long Island Rail Road and 7 train stations at Willets Point, a 30-minute subway ride from Times Square.

Cuomo said the LaGuardia project is in “initial planning phases,” though the administration expects the 1.5-mile line to cost $450 million and take the Port Authority, in consultation with the MTA, five years to build. (A more direct proposal to extend the N train from Astoria to LaGuardia, championed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was scuttled by NIMBY opposition more than a decade ago.) Cuomo also proposed tax-free zones for businesses near Stewart and Republic airports in a bid to boost freight traffic there.

Meanwhile, the most significant new MTA proposal unveiled this morning involves building garages for park-and-ride commuters to Metro-North and LIRR stations at Ronkonkoma, Nassau Hub near Roosevelt Field, and Lighthouse Landing in Tarrytown. Tellingly, the images that flashed on screen as Cuomo spoke did not depict parking structures, but tree-lined streets with apartments and retail from transit-oriented development projects in Westchester County and Long Island. The state will subsidize the garages to the tune of $150 million, according to a press release, but it’s not clear if this will cover the total cost and, if not, whether the MTA will be on the hook for the rest.

The governor wants New Yorkers to think that this infrastructure construction will come at essentially no cost. “All the costs will be from existing state resources,” Cuomo said. He mentioned the $5 billion bank settlement windfall as a potential source of funding, but his staff couldn’t say after the event exactly how much of that kitty might go to transportation.

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Ex-MTA Chiefs: Fund the Capital Plan, Don’t Gamble With the Transit System

With the election over and Albany in session, the time for tiptoeing around the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA’s next five-year capital program is over. Today, three former MTA chiefs lined up to say that, one way or another, the plan must be fully funded.

Former MTA Chairman (and current Alta Bicycle Share CEO) Jay Walder speaks at Grand Central Terminal today. Photo: Stephen Miller

Former MTA Chairman (and current Alta Bicycle Share CEO) Jay Walder at Grand Central Terminal today. Photo: Stephen Miller

“The governor, the legislature, and the mayor must do the heavy political lifting to find new revenue sources,” said former MTA chief Elliot Sander, joined by fellow ex-MTA leaders Peter Stangl and Jay Walder this morning in Grand Central Terminal. A roster of NYC civic groups and private sector interests, from environmental advocates to big business to the construction industry, stood behind them in support.

“The message today, in case you haven’t heard it, is ‘mind the gap,’” said Regional Plan Association Senior Advisor Bob Yaro. “Everybody’s gonna have to belly up for a piece of it.”

A variety of solutions have been floated to fill the funding gap, from a gas tax increase to a regressive sales tax hike. The best one from a transportation, environmental, and economic development perspective would involve reforming the region’s dysfunctional toll system. While no one speaking today would come out in favor of one fix over the others — “this is not the time for that,” Sander told a scrum of reporters after his remarks — with Albany in session, the clock is now ticking.

Ultimately, closing the capital program gap is up to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature.

The governor is set to combine his State of the State speech and budget address in one event on January 21. I asked Sander if he is looking for Cuomo to say anything about the MTA during the speech. “Whatever works for the governor and the legislature and the city in terms of how to deal with it,” he said. “We don’t — you know, no.”

Sander was less circumspect about City Hall’s role. “I think there’s a recognition by the mayor’s senior staff that the city may need to contribute more. There’s no greater beneficiary than the City of New York,” he said. “I am optimistic that the mayor will be there.”

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Will Maryland Gov-Elect Larry Hogan Kill the Red and Purple Lines?

The Purple Line, which Governor-elect Larry Hogan has threatened to kill, is seen as key to Montgomery County’s long-term economic viability.

Seeing shovel-ready transit projects destroyed by petty politics has been all too common the last few years (see: Scott Walker and Wisconsin high-speed rail, or Chris Christie and the ARC tunnel). Even so, this one’s a doozy.

The fate of two of the country's biggest planned transit projects rest in this man's hands: Maryland Governor-Elect Larry Hogan. Photo: Wikipedia

Larry Hogan. Photo: Wikipedia

Maryland Governor-elect Larry Hogan has the power to halt two major urban transit projects that have the planning and funding all lined up and and are all but ready to go: suburban DC’s 16-mile Purple Line as well as Baltimore’s 14-mile Red Line. More than a decade of planning has gone into each of these transit lines, and each has been awarded a competitive federal New Starts grant for $900 million [PDF], accounting for about a third of the total $5.5 billion combined cost.

Early in his gubernatorial campaign, Hogan promised to kill the projects, saying the money would be better spent on roads and that the western, eastern, and southern parts of the state deserved more attention. But closer to the election he moderated his views, saying the lines were “worth considering.”

Since winning the race, he has mostly kept mum about his intentions. When asked recently about the plans, he demurred, according to the Washington Post.

“They should just keep on guessing, because I’m going to be governor January 21, and we will start talking about policy then,” he said.

Although Hogan won’t take office for a few weeks yet, his indecision is already affecting construction timetables. Bids were due this month for the Purple Line project, but were delayed until March, after the swearing-in.

Maryland spent more than $170 million planning and purchasing right-of-way for the Purple Line and another $230+ million on planning for the Red Line. That work will go to waste if the projects are killed. Plus, because the Red Line has already gone out to bid, the state would be responsible for another $8 million in payments to the engineering firms that have prepared detailed, long-term plans to build the line.

Of the most concern to transit advocates is all the federal funding that would likely be lost if the state were to abandon or dramatically alter the plans at this late stage. In addition to the New Starts grant, the Purple Line has received $900 million in federally backed loans. None of the federal money could be used for other projects in the state.

Business groups in both the DC area and Baltimore strongly support the projects and have been urging the governor to continue with the plan.

Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect who served as a consultant and planner on the Red Line, said dirt could start flying this year in Baltimore. The $2.9 billion Red Line was expected to not just attract new passengers, but greatly expand the usefulness of the city’s existing two rail lines by creating a more extensive network. It was also expected to be a boon for struggling west Baltimore, where intensive community planning processes sought to get the most out of the stations for local neighborhoods.

“The hope is that with the Red Line [Baltimore's rail transit] would start to become a real system and we’d have a quantum leap in connectivity,” Philipsen told Streetsblog.

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It’s His Commission: Blame Cuomo for MTA’s Underwhelming “Reinvention”

The MTA Reinvention Commission report, the product of months of work from a panel of experts, was unceremoniously dumped to the press by the governor’s office at 5:30 p.m. yesterday, shortly before Thanksgiving. While the document [PDF] includes a number of worthwhile suggestions, it fails to seriously grapple with the biggest challenges facing New York’s transit system. The MTA’s astronomical construction costs and the substantial systemwide benefits of funding transit with road pricing get only cursory mentions. This is disappointing, but not surprising, since the report is a reflection of the man who created and controlled the commission: Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Photo: MTA/Flickr

Photo: MTA/Flickr

Cuomo’s disinterest in transit goes back to the start of his administration. After a campaign where he cast doubts on the Payroll Mobility Tax that stabilized the MTA’s finances in 2009, Cuomo followed through in first year in office by cutting the PMT.

Cuomo has dipped into the MTA budget multiple times by diverting dedicated transit funding to the state’s general fund. When the legislature passed bills to require more disclosure of raids, Cuomo blew open a loophole and vetoed an effort to close it, all while denying that his financial maneuvers amounted to transit raids at all.

In an election-year stunt this February, Cuomo gave Staten Island voters drivers a 50 cent toll cut in February — a political ploy that came at transit riders’ expense.

When Cuomo worked out a labor agreement to avoid a Long Island Rail Road strike earlier this year, he hosted a press conference where smiles were in abundance but details about how much the deal would cost were not. Months later, it was revealed that new labor deals would cost the MTA at least $1.28 billion through 2017, paid for by cuts to retiree fund contributions and the authority’s own capital budget. Absent from the new labor agreements: Work rule reforms to ensure that, in addition to compensating employees well, operating funds are spent efficiently.

All the while, costs and delays continue to spiral upwards on the authority’s big-ticket projects, leading MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast to admit that large-scale capital construction might not be one of the authority’s “core competencies.”

Why does it takes so much time and so much money for the MTA to do things compared to its peer systems? The report acknowledged these problems but failed to offer much in the way of critical analysis or specific solutions, similar to how it failed to zero in on road pricing as an ideal revenue stream that can both lower the agency’s debt load and dramatically improve systemwide bus performance. (For some more food for thought about what’s missing from the report, read Alon Levy’s post at Pedestrian Observations.)

Don’t blame the commission for these shortcomings though. Blame Andrew Cuomo. He created the commission, so it’s no coincidence that it produced a document that skirts the most politically sensitive issues. The report is another sign that Cuomo’s interest in transit doesn’t extend deeper than press releases and photo-ops. The governor has no intention of confronting contractors, unions, or motorists to make a transit system that works better for all New Yorkers.

Streetsblog will not be publishing on Thursday or Friday. Happy Thanksgiving, and we’ll see you on Monday. 

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Cuomo’s MTA Commission Declines to Endorse New Funding Source

If you were hoping the release of the MTA Reinvention Commission report would be the moment when Governor Andrew Cuomo comes to his senses and makes an aggressive push to fund the region’s transit system by fixing its dysfunctional tolling structure, don’t hold your breath.

It's in Cuomo's hands now: The MTA Reinvention Commission is set to release its final report soon. Photo: MTA/Flickr

It’s in his hands now: The MTA Reinvention Commission is set to release its final report soon. A draft didn’t tackle many specific funding questions. Photo: MTA/Flickr

Yesterday, Dana Rubinstein at Capital New York published a draft copy of the report [PDF 1, 2, 3]. While the MTA won’t say when the commission plans on releasing the final version, it should be coming soon. A commission member tells Streetsblog that the panel met today to go over the document before its publication.

The report examines the current state of MTA funding and operations, using case studies from cities around the world to offer examples of how its recommendations could be put into practice. It covers a wide breadth of issues, including the management of large capital projects, how to improve customer service, and better regional planning and coordination with other agencies.

The recommendations are grouped into seven “strategies,” leaving funding for last. The report emphasizes the need to keep the Payroll Mobility Tax in place, and suggests revenue enhancements like requiring all-cash real estate transactions to pay a version of the mortgage recording tax, increasing the use of value capture throughout the region, and squeezing more revenue from advertising, which is already on the rise.

When it comes to larger revenue sources, the report is more circumspect. It raises the possibility of congestion pricing, parking fees, and even distance-based subway fares, which Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign called “the mother of all non-starters.” In the end, the draft report refuses to pick sides, suggesting “a comprehensive study that re-examines the MTA’s approach to fares and tolls.”

“It was beyond the scope of this Commission to recommend a specific set of revenue-raisers,” reads the report. “[But] existing sources fall short of what will be needed for sustaining a truly great regional transportation system in the years ahead.” In short: Albany will have to make a decision, so stay tuned.

There’s a lot more to the report than the funding section. The first strategy deals with how the MTA could reform its procurement and project delivery methods. It suggests greater use of public-private partnerships and design-build contracts in a bid to encourage “risk sharing with the private sector” and to reduce the costs and timelines of MTA projects.

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How NYC Could Get More Transit Funding From Developers

As the MTA capital plan funding gap has come into focus, there’s been a lot of discussion about how new development can help pay for the transit service it requires. It turns out the city already has a tool that links real estate with transit improvements, but it’s so limited that it’s been used to fund transit upgrades only 10 times in more than three decades. For a more robust model, planners should look to San Francisco.

The iconic "lipstick building" is one of only 10 developments that have taken advantage of the city's "subway bonus" since 1982. Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

The “lipstick building” is one of only 10 developments that have taken advantage of the city’s “subway bonus” since 1982. Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

In 1982, the Department of City Planning created the “subway bonus,” which allows developers to construct buildings up to 20 percent larger than normally allowed. In exchange, the developer must pay for and install subway station improvements requested by the city.

The subway bonus only applies to sites adjacent to a subway station. At first, it only covered qualifying sites in Midtown. The program was expanded in 1984 to more of Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn; in 1986, a slightly modified subway bonus was created for the Court Square area of Long Island City. In addition, the city requires developers atop future Second Avenue Subway stops to keep a public easement in new development for future station entrances.

Although tools to extract transit improvements from developers pop up sporadically in the city’s zoning code, only 10 projects have used the subway bonus program since it was first created in 1982, according to a DCP report [PDF]. The report also lists two completed projects and one proposal that offered subway improvements using other incentive programs.

Most of these projects brought upgrades like wider platforms, new or expanded walkways between stations, elevator installations, and redesigns to allow more natural light into subway stations, among other changes.

These projects might be familiar to regular subway users. The Lexington-53rd Street station, for example, received upgrades from office towers at 599 Lexington Avenue and the “Lipstick Building” on Third Avenue. In other locations, the developer of Zeckendorf Towers expanded the mezzanine at Union Square, new office buildings brought connections between platforms at the Court Square station, and the Hearst Building added stairs and elevators at the southern end of Columbus Circle.

The city is moving forward with a modified version of the subway bonus on Vanderbilt Avenue, where it is working with developer SL Green to swap increased density for a pedestrian plaza and station improvements beneath Grand Central Terminal.

While this handful of projects over the years have provided beneficial upgrades to the subway system, it’s hard to see them as anything more than spot improvements that occur only if a big new office building happens to be located on top of a subway station. New development a block away from the subway creates just as much demand for transit, but there’s no mechanism in the city’s zoning code to recapture the costs of providing that service. What’s missing is a more comprehensive value capture system.

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Prendergast: $15 Billion Gap in MTA Capital Program “Unconscionable”

Post-election, the political discussion about transit funding in New York has entered a new phase. Albany can now turn its attention to the most pressing transportation issue in the state: closing the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA’s next capital program. Yesterday, MTA Chair and CEO Tom Prendergast made his first public comments since the election. He said elected officials must be educated on the need for transit investment and repeated his call for new revenue sources to keep the region’s trains and buses running smoothly.

Tom Prendergast says elected officials must learn Photo: Kevin Harber/Flickr

A $15 billion gap in the MTA capital program threatens to saddle straphangers with the burden of even more debt. Photo: Kevin Harber/Flickr

Prendergast’s remarks came at an event hosted by a construction industry group — the General Contractors Association of New York. Also participating in a panel on the MTA capital program and transit funding were Citizens Budget Commission President Carol Kellermann, NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Director Mitchell Moss, former NYC Economic Development Corporation chief Seth Pinsky (now with RXR Realty), and CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance Chair Marc Shaw.

Debt levels at the MTA have skyrocketed as capital programs have grown while state and city funding has shrunk. Borrowing costs consume an ever-greater share of the agency’s operating budget, contributing to higher fares and less service for riders. “Continuing to the load the MTA up with debt is dangerous,” Pinsky said. “We do need to talk about new sources of revenue.”

One potential source is the city’s own capital budget. Under Ed Koch, the city chipped in $200 million annually. Under Giuliani, the city cut its contribution down to $100 million. The number has stayed steady ever since. The MTA’s new capital plan assumes the city’s annual contribution will increase to $125 million, and Shaw, a former Giuliani budget director, was bullish that the city would commit to it. If it does, an extra $25 million in cash per year is still just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the capital plan’s budget gap.

Pinsky, the former NYC EDC president, sees potential in the real estate sector. Local governments could levy special taxes on development near transit — a strategy known as value capture — both in the city and around suburban rail stations, which he said are too often surrounded by a “sea of parking” in areas that could serve as vibrant downtowns.

Investing in transit by tapping the increased value of real estate has promise, but the devil is in the details, and it hasn’t always worked well in New York. Kellermann pointed out that development at Hudson Yards, which was supposed to pay for the 7 train extension, has been lackluster, leaving city taxpayers to pick up the tab. And even if the value capture mechanism is calibrated perfectly, she said, it can’t bridge a $15.2 billion gap.

Kellermann suggested the cost of a MetroCard should go up to help fill the gap, on top of back-to-back four percent fare hikes already scheduled for 2015 and 2017. She also thinks drivers should pony up. “There needs to be a lot more money contributed by auto users,” she said. “I wouldn’t give up on the East River tolls. The Move New York plan is a good start.”

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Livable Streets Progress in Albany Will Have to Go Through a GOP Senate

Andrew Cuomo may have won re-election, but New York was no exception to the national Republican wave in yesterday’s elections. The GOP regained control of the State Senate, weakening its bond with the Independent Democratic Conference and keeping mainline Democrats in the minority. With last night’s results, the landscape for transit and livable streets legislation in Albany has shifted.

Dean Skelos, right, is back as the sole leader of the State Senate. What will it mean for the MTA? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Dean Skelos, right, could come back as the sole leader of the State Senate. What will it mean for transit in NYC? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Republicans now have 32 of 63 seats in the State Senate. They gained control by ousting three upstate Democrats and losing only one seat, in a tight three-way Buffalo-area race. The balance of power no longer rests with the breakaway IDC, which formed a power-sharing agreement with Republicans. Leadership of the Senate could be consolidated next session in Dean Skelos of Long Island, who currently splits control with IDC leader Jeff Klein.

With Republicans in the majority, NYC’s two GOP senators — Martin Golden of Brooklyn and Andrew Lanza of Staten Island, who both won re-election last night – will be key for any street safety legislation affecting the city. Golden initially resisted speed camera legislation earlier this year, though he ultimately voted for the bill. Lanza is best known to Streetsblog readers for refusing to allow flashing lights on Select Bus Service vehicles.

The rest of the statewide political landscape did not change much. The Assembly will remain in the hands of Democrats, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver and Skelos will return to Albany next year with Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and Governor Cuomo, who all secured expected victories over Republican challengers.

The most pressing transportation issue facing Cuomo, Silver, and Skelos — the proverbial “three men in a room” — will be closing the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA capital program.

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Highlights From Today’s City Council Transportation Infrastructure Hearing

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Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, center, with NYC DOT deputy commissioners Bob Collyer, left, and Joseph Jarrin, right.

Today, the City Council transportation and economic development committees held a marathon joint hearing on New York’s transportation investment needs. Top staff from the MTA and NYC DOT, including Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, fielded questions from council members for the better part of the day.

Here are some highlights:

  • Council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Julissa Ferreras both asked for more bike lanes in their Queens districts. “We are striving to build out the bike infrastructure in all five boroughs,” Trottenberg said, ”and we have a couple of really big projects planned in Queens.”
  • Van Bramer also pushed for more details on when the delayed Pulaski Bridge protected bike lane would open. Deputy Commissioner Bob Collyer said the project’s contractor received final sign-off from DOT two weeks ago and will release a construction timeline soon. Collyer expected the bikeway to be complete sometime this spring.
  • Bus Rapid Transit also came up during today’s hearing. Responding to a question from Council Member Donovan Richards, a vocal proponent of BRT on Woodhaven Boulevard, Trottenberg said the city is speaking with U.S. DOT about securing funds for street redesigns that feature full-fledged BRT.
  • Not all council members were as enthusiastic about BRT. I. Daneek Miller questioned the wisdom of Select Bus Service between Flushing and Jamaica, which led Trottenberg to say the project is “not written in stone.”
  • Trottenberg said the mayor’s housing plan demands coordination between new housing and transportation infrastructure, and that BRT on the North Shore of Staten Island should be accompanied by zoning changes near stations to maximize ridership.

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