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Posts from the "Transit Funding" Category

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Affordable Bus and Subway Fares Are Still Worth Fighting For

When the MTA introduced the 30-day unlimited-ride MetroCard in 1998, it cost $63. Today the cost of the 30-day pass is up to $112, a 77 percent increase. Over that time the base subway and bus fare doubled, from $1.25 to $2.50.

Meanwhile, wage growth has lagged. The average wage in the five boroughs increased only 54 percent from 1998 to 2012 (the latest year we have data). We know that most of these wage gains went to the city’s wealthiest earners, whereas wages for the middle class have stagnated or declined. For the vast majority of New Yorkers, a bigger chunk of their earnings is now needed to cover the cost of transportation (not to mention housing).

Despite these trends, former PlaNYC sustainability chief Rohit Aggarwala recently suggested in CityLab that riders would be better off covering a greater share of New York City Transit’s operating costs, arguing that poor transit service is rooted in a fare structure designed to lose money. Higher fares would mean more money for running the trains and buses, Aggarwala writes, which in turn would free up public funds to pay for capital projects, rather than operations.

As one of the chief architects of the PlaNYC initiative and the Bloomberg administration’s congestion pricing proposal, Aggarwala knows how vital an improved transit system is for the city’s future growth and sustainability. He estimates that if the subway fare went up to $5.80, the MTA would be able to borrow an extra $85 billion for capital projects.

This would pack a wallop, but Aggarwala questions whether all transit riders actually deserve to be subsidized: “The only reason to subsidize every transit rider, for every ride, is if you assume that the vast majority of riders do, in fact, deserve public subsidy.”

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Hints About Woodhaven BRT at MTA Reinvention Commission Panel

No room for BRT here, Assembly Member Phil Goldfeder said yesterday to the commission charged with thinking big about the future of transit. Photo: Google Maps

No room for BRT here, Assembly Member Phil Goldfeder said yesterday to the commission charged with thinking big about the future of transit. Photo: Google Maps

The “transportation reinvention commission” convened at the request of Governor Andrew Cuomo kicked off its public hearings yesterday with a panel of experts at MTA headquarters. Appointees, still trying to figure out the commission’s exact role, chewed over some of the region’s big transportation issues in a discussion that mostly lacked specifics. Still, there were a few notable comments, including new information about Bus Rapid Transit on Woodhaven Boulevard from NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

BRT featured prominently yesterday, as panelists highlighted the need for closer collaboration between the MTA, NYC DOT, and other government agencies to bring robust transit improvements to low-income workers with long commutes in the outer boroughs.

“It seems that the less that you make, the further you have to travel,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told the commission. ”My union agrees with the BRT for NYC coalition that we can improve the situation.”

“We are going to look at going to a more full-blown BRT model, let’s say for Woodhaven Boulevard,” said Trottenberg, who also serves as an MTA board member. After the meeting, she said the budget for the project is close to $200 million, higher than the $100 million she put forward at the end of May and suggesting a more ambitious allocation of space for surface transit. Previous Select Bus Service projects, with painted bus lanes, signal improvements, and sidewalk extensions at bus stops, have cost between $7 million and $27 million to build [PDF]. (The full Woodhaven project corridor is about 14 miles — longer than other SBS routes but not dramatically so.)

It’s too early to say what the Woodhaven BRT project will look like — DOT Director of Transit Development Eric Beaton said the agency does not yet have a design for Woodhaven and is continuing to meet with local communities. But in another indication that the city is serious about pursuing a robust configuration for transit lanes on Woodhaven, Beaton said costs for Woodhaven should be compared with projects like Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, or Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Those projects feature center-running lanes (the SF busways have yet to be built).

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Four Tough Problems the MTA Reinvention Commission Needs to Tackle

Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission met for the first time last week at the agency’s midtown headquarters. Cuomo has charged the 22-member commission with developing a plan “to make our subways and our entire transit system ready for the challenges of the next century.” The commission’s recommendations are expected to shape the MTA’s next capital program — its five-year plan for maintenance and expansion — as well as the authority’s long-term planning and vision.

Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission will have to address the high cost of construction for mega-projects like the Second Avenue Subway. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/mtaphotos/12780228293/in/set-72157641529209245##MTA/Flickr##

Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission will have to address the high cost of construction for mega-projects like the Second Avenue Subway. Photo: MTA/Flickr

How effective the commission will be is unclear. Governor Cuomo has stymied other high profile commissions when they’ve gone against his inclinations, like when the McCall/Solomon tax commission suggested that the state scale back its film and TV tax credit, or when he disbanded the Moreland Commission.

Still, the commission provides a good opportunity to address some of the key challenges and questions facing the MTA.

The issue of resilience immediately comes to mind. Hurricane Sandy made it clear that future storms and rising seas are an immediate threat to the system. This is an issue that is well understood and is likely to enjoy strong political support. Government tends to act effectively in the aftermath of disasters because the effects are immediate and observable. They rise above politics.

However, there are other, more difficult problems that will require taking political risk to solve.

The authority has racked up $32 billion in debt, up from $16.6 billion in 2003. It shelled out $2.3 billion for debt service payments last year — nearly a fifth of the operating budget — and debt service is projected to rise to $2.8 billion by 2017. The growing share of the budget that goes toward debt payments creates pressure for fare hikes and eats into what the agency can spend on delivering service.

A more stable and reliable source of revenue must be established. The best plan out there right now is the Gridlock Sam/Move NY “Fair Plan” — raising tolls to enter the Manhattan CBD while lowering them on MTA crossings in the outer boroughs. This would have the added benefit of relieving congestion where it is most intense, speeding up surface transit for hundreds of thousands of riders. A key indicator of the commission’s independence will be whether it takes on an issue as vital and contentious as toll reform.

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City Council: Drivers With Free On-Street Parking Have Suffered Enough

It may be the Vision Zero era, but some things never change. If you’re looking for cost-free, consequence-free storage of your private automobile in public space, the City Council still has your back.

The bill under consideration today by the City Council’s transportation committee, to nibble away at alternate side parking restrictions, may not be as egregious as previous council ideas like free time at unpaid meters or changing city law to mandate parking permits for teachers. But it did offer an opportunity for council members to inveigh on behalf of put-upon “real New Yorkers” who store their cars on the street for free.

Although the average car owner in New York City has a much higher income than a car-free counterpart, that didn’t stop council members from constantly referring to parking tickets as a tax on the middle and working class.

“It’s the anger of real New Yorkers who feel that the city is using them as a piggy bank and that the middle class is being squeezed by unnecessary tickets,” said Council Member Costa Constantinides of Astoria, who signed on to the legislation after seeing illegally-parked drivers on a swept street get tickets before the parking restriction ended. ”It felt as if it was just for revenue,” he said.

The bill would allow drivers to park during prohibited hours so long as they are “in the vehicle and ready to move” when the street sweeper comes through. ”We should not be going after the working class or middle class,” said Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, who has pushed the legislation for years. ”[It's] a struggle New Yorkers are all too familiar with.”

The city’s sanitation and police departments testified today in opposition to the bill. ”The signs are put up there for a reason,” said NYPD Inspector Dennis Fulton. “The streets need to be cleaned.”

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Why the Senate Transportation Bill Will Devastate Transit

Transit officials lined up today to make clear that holding transit spending at current levels — as the Senate’s transportation authorization bill does — will put transit systems at risk of falling further into dangerous disrepair.

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are "woefully insufficient."

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are “woefully insufficient.”

The backlog for transit maintenance and replacement stands “conservatively” at $86 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That backlog is expected to keep growing at a rate of $2.5 billion each year without a significant infusion of funds.

To put it another way, the country needs to spend $2.5 billion more per year – from federal, state and local sources – just to keep the state of the nation’s transit systems from getting even worse.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was determined to expose the shortcomings of the bill Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently shepherded through the Environment and Public Works Committee. While the bill’s transit title hasn’t been written yet, EPW has been clear about its intentions to keep spending at current levels plus inflation. That means no help toward the $2.5 billion boost needed to keep things from getting worse.

Menendez chaired a hearing today of the Banking Committee — the very committee tasked with writing the transit title within the framework established by EPW — to demonstrate the problem with the bill’s funding levels.

“By a simple yes or no,” Menendez asked the transit officials before him, “does anyone on the panel believe that current funding levels are enough to help you achieve a state of good repair?”

“They are insufficient,” answered Joseph Casey, general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA.

“Woefully insufficient,” added Beverly Scott, head of Boston’s MBTA and a nationally respected transportation visionary.

“No sir,” said Gary Thomas of Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

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Questions Linger Over Cuomo’s Tappan Zee Transit Plans

On Monday, Governor Cuomo announced that the state would provide $20 million for transit service across the new Tappan Zee Bridge, and is applying for a federal grant as well. While this first step is welcome news, there are still more questions than answers about what this money will pay for and how the rest of the project’s bus system will be funded and operated.

That bus now has $20 million behind it, but more work remains before service can begin. Image: Tappan Zee Constructors/HDR Engineering

That bus now has $20 million behind it, but more work remains before service can begin. Image: Tappan Zee Constructors/HDR Engineering

Two months ago, the Tappan Zee transit task force issued its recommendations, proposing a series of bus improvements that should be operational when the bridge opens in 2018, plus further investments to follow. The report did not include cost estimates and was short on details about funding and implementation.

While the governor’s announcement appears to follow through on the task force’s work, it’s not clear exactly what the governor’s commitment of $20 million will pay for. The Journal News reports that “a state official said the $20 million has been earmarked in the state transportation budget,” but there are no other details, including which of the task force’s recommendations will be funded by the state money.

Cuomo also announced that the state DOT is applying for a $26.7 million federal TIGER grant to fund additional improvements. These include a mix of upgrades that have direct and indirect benefits to bus riders, including new bus stations, improved pedestrian connections to transit, “smart” traffic signals on Route 59 in Rockland County that include queue-jumps for buses, a “transit boulevard” on Route 119 in White Plains, and metering on ramps to I-287.

Streetsblog has asked the governor’s office and state DOT for more information about the $20 million announcement and its TIGER grant application. (Applications for the latest round of TIGER funds were due on Monday, but U.S. DOT refused to provide information on pending applications.)

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Panel: NYC Electeds Need to Get Serious About Funding Infrastructure

From right, Jonathan Bowles of Center for an Urban Future, Chris Hamel of RBC Capital Markets, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, Chris Ward of Dragados, Denise Richardson of the General Contractors Association of New York and "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz at this morning's panel. Photo: Stephen Miller

From left, Jonathan Bowles of Center for an Urban Future, Chris Hamel of RBC Capital Markets, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, Chris Ward of Dragados, Denise Richardson of the General Contractors Association of New York, and “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz at this morning’s panel. Photo: Stephen Miller

This morning, the Association for a Better New York, a business group, hosted a discussion on the city’s infrastructure. The focus was squarely on transportation, and the message wasn’t pretty. Panelists warned of dire consequences if elected officials don’t act on the precarious state of transportation funding.

Calling himself “the ghost of infrastructure past,” former traffic commissioner “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz reminded the audience of the sorry state of New York’s infrastructure in the 1980s, when major bridges had to be closed because they were in such poor condition. While things are in better shape today, without attention to maintenance, history could repeat itself. ”We can very well have those problems again tomorrow,” said Schwartz.

“Back when we rebuilt all those bridges, there was an enormous federal contribution,” said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Since the 1980s, federal transportation funds have flatlined as the gas tax has stagnated, she said, and “city and state coffers aren’t flowing either.”

“Forget about the federal government. Local areas have to fix their problems,” Schwartz said, citing Los Angeles as a region where voters have backed major transportation funding measures. “The biggest amount of transit spending in the country is happening in Los Angeles, not in New York.”

But Trottenberg cautioned against using Los Angeles as a model. “[Voters] usually tax themselves to build new things. They rarely tax themselves to keep up the old stuff,” she said. “At New York City DOT, almost our entire budget is keeping up the old.”

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No, the MTA Can’t Afford Cuomo’s Transit Raids

I think most transit riders would laugh — cynically — at the idea that the MTA has more than enough funds to meet its needs. But this is exactly what the MTA’s chairman Tom Prendergast said when he learned that the state would be diverting $30 million from the MTA’s funding stream to balance the state budget.

Crowding on the 7 train platform. Photo: @lreynolds21363 via Gothamist

“Our needs are being met,” Prendergast said, apparently unwilling to speak out against his boss, Governor Cuomo.

Mayor de Blasio was equally sanguine about this raid on MTA funds. “We have to make sure the MTA has the resources they need. But from what I’m hearing at this point, they’re doing well,” de Blasio said.

Is this the same MTA that is regularly described in the press as “cash-strapped,” that made deep service cuts in 2009, leaving hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with longer waits, more crowded platforms, or no local bus route at all?

When asked about the $30 million diversion, an MTA spokesperson noted that the MTA was actually receiving more state funds this year.

Technically he is correct. The state collects a number of taxes and fees that are then sent into a fund that is “dedicated” for transit. The economy is recovering, more tax revenue is coming in, and as a result the pot of transit-dedicated funds is larger than it has been in recent years.

And it’s true that the $30 million diversion represents a small percentage of the MTA’s $13 billion annual budget. One has to appreciate the amount of public funds that do support transit, either from special taxes or state and local general funds. Last year, $5.1 billion in subsidies helped the MTA run the largest transit system in the nation, which is slightly more than it took in at the farebox.

But there are several reasons why the state’s raid on transit funds is bad policy and is fiscally irresponsible.

First, this year’s raid is not an isolated incident but rather comes on top of $280 million in diversions since 2009. Worse, Cuomo intends to take at least $20 million from the state’s transit fund every year until 2031, adding up to another $350 million.

Second, the tax revenue that the MTA relies on is volatile and subject to the ups and downs of the economy. Tax revenue is up this year, but could just as easily drop in the event of the next recession. The MTA should be able to take advantage of the “good times” to prepare for the next recession.

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Instead of Reforming NYC Tolls, Ruben Diaz, Jr. Proposes Soaking the Bronx

Like the Tea Party adherents who are always going to equate walkability and sustainable transportation with a global UN conspiracy, some New York City electeds are always going to call road pricing “regressive” no matter how much the evidence suggests otherwise.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.

But Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. really ought to know better. Diaz has a piece in the Daily News attacking the Move New York plan, which would inject some reason into New York’s tolling system by raising rates in the congested heart of the city and lowering rates on less-trafficked crossings farther from the core, yielding significant funds for transit in the process. Not only would Diaz’s counter-proposal do nothing to solve the chronic traffic congestion that makes trips miserable for bus riders — to raise as much revenue as the Move NY plan, his proposal would also end up costing Bronx residents a lot more than toll reform.

Unlike the dyed-in-the-wool road pricing opponents New York got to know so well in 2007 — the Richard Brodskys and Lew Fidlers — Diaz doesn’t represent the region’s car-oriented edges. More than 60 percent of Bronx households don’t own cars, according to the 2000 Census [PDF].  The allegation of a “regressive tax” collapses when you consider that the average car-free household in the Bronx earns less than half as much as the average car-owning household.

Even in terms of the cost to drivers, though, the Diaz approach doesn’t add up. Diaz says it’s a certainty that the Move NY toll discounts on outer borough bridges won’t last. So that’s how he can dismiss the 40 percent or larger drop in rates on all four of the Bronx’s tolled bridges. But the Move NY plan needs enabling legislation from the state to move forward, so the new toll ratios would be enshrined in law.

Taking a page from Fidler, Diaz does float a counterproposal — a weight-based vehicle registration fee — that’s supposed to signal that he really does care about transit, but is destined to go nowhere.

To raise the same amount of money as the Move NY plan, about $1.45 billion per year, the registration fee assessed in the five boroughs would have to be raised by $785 per vehicle, reports Move NY analyst Charles Komanoff. Because car ownership is higher in the Bronx than in Manhattan, the Diaz proposal would actually cost his constituents much more than Move NY.

In the Bronx, the average cost per household would work out to $390, according to Komanoff, but just $187 per household in much wealthier Manhattan.

This is a significantly worse deal for the Bronx than the Move NY plan, which calls for Manhattan residents to shoulder a much greater share of the costs. Probably not what Diaz wants out of a transit funding plan.

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Cuomo Gets His Way, and Transit Riders Get the Shaft

Straphangers pack a subway platform in Queens this morning. The $30 million Governor Cuomo diverted from the MTA budget could have been used to address subway overcrowding. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/lreynolds21363/status/450610751632588800##@lreynolds21363## via ##http://gothamist.com/2014/03/31/mta_is_trying_to_break_your_heart.php##Gothamist##

Straphangers pack a train platform in Queens this morning. The $30 million Governor Cuomo diverted from the MTA budget could have been used to address subway overcrowding. Photo: @lreynolds21363 via Gothamist

Governor Andrew Cuomo won’t be denied. Overriding proposals from the Assembly and State Senate, the governor continues to pick the pocket of New York City’s transit system, diverting $30 million from the MTA in the state budget.

Cuomo had originally proposed a $40 million raid, so it could have been worse. But because this diversion will be used to pay off bonds that don’t mature until 2031, it sets a troubling precedent — Cuomo envisions yanking $20 million from the MTA every year to cover borrowing costs the state had previously promised to take care of.

Albany transit raids have become an annual rite in recent years, as the state government tries to make up for a structural budget deficit by treating the MTA like a piggy bank. While today’s raids aren’t as big as five years ago (advocates have significantly raised public awareness of them), Cuomo still managed to reach a new low this year. By keeping a $30 million diversion in the final budget, the governor overrode both houses of the state legislature, which had rejected any theft from the MTA in their budget proposals.

This time around, Cuomo also got a last-minute assist from MTA Chair Tom Prendergast, who said the agency never asked the governor to let it keep the money because its “needs are being met.” But what about the needs of transit riders?

While this transit raid won’t set off a round of service cuts, it also deprives the MTA of funds that could be used to expand service or defray future fare hikes. Significant service cuts enacted in 2010 have yet to be restored, and Cuomo’s budgetary monkey business makes it a lot harder to bring those trains and buses back. As the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance pointed out earlier this month, if not for this raid, the MTA would have funds to improve frequency and reduce crowding on several subway lines while expanding bus service on more than a dozen routes.

Cuomo has repeatedly refused to enact legislation that would make the impact of these raids more transparent to the public. This weekend New Yorkers got another reminder why.