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MTA-TWU Agreement: What’s the Plan Now, Governor?

The MTA’s financial situation became much murkier yesterday as Governor Cuomo announced that retroactive raises will be part of a labor agreement between the transit authority and the Transport Workers Union.

Photo: TWU

Senior Cuomo aide Howard Glaser, MTA Chair Tom Prendergast, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen at yesterday’s announcement. Photo: TWU

Up until yesterday’s announcement, MTA leadership had insisted that the authority’s financial health depended on “three years of net-zero wage growth.” Keeping labor costs flat was the key assumption behind the MTA’s financial plan.

Now the validity of the MTA’s financial plan is in doubt.

TWU members will receive raises of one percent for the first two years and 2 percent in each of the final three years. Since employees had been working without a contract for two years, the first two years represent retroactive raises.

MTA chairman Tom Prendergast insisted that the wage deal was “within the financial plan,” and that no fare hikes or service cuts would be necessary. But it is difficult to reconcile Prendergast’s claim with the MTA’s publicly available financial information.

The wage increases will likely cost the MTA between $200 million and $300 million a year, an amount that exceeds the agency’s projected cash balance for 2014 and beyond. The MTA financial plan projected a $64 million surplus by the end of 2014, falling to $6 million by 2015 and a $255 million deficit by 2017 [PDF].

So how will the MTA balance its budget without fare hikes or service cuts? Should we assume that the MTA leadership and Governor Cuomo have a plan?

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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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Albany Delays Speed Cam Expansion — Time to Draft a Better Bill

Governor Cuomo and the leaders of the Assembly and State Senate all purportedly favor expanding NYC’s speed camera program, yet they failed to authorize the use of more cameras during budget negotiations. As it stands a speed cam bill won’t be acted on until later in April at the earliest, as both houses are adjourned and Cuomo refused to expedite a vote.

An upside to the delay: Advocates now have time to push for a better bill.

According to Capital New York and the Daily News, Cuomo yesterday rejected a request from Silver and Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein to fast-track a bill that would add 120 speed cameras to NYC’s program, and authorize cameras in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Bills are normally subject to a three-day waiting period before they can be voted on, and since Cuomo declined to issue a “message of necessity,” the bill has stalled for now. The Assembly meets again on April 7, and the Senate is adjourned until April 23.

“A source said Cuomo initially agreed to give the message, but then changed his mind,” the Daily News reports. “The source said he didn’t want to give another budget victory to Mayor de Blasio — who sees the speed cameras as a big part of his Vision Zero plan to cut down on pedestrian deaths.”

Under the proposed bill, any new cameras allowed by Albany would be subject to the same restrictions as the 20 cameras the city has now, which can only be used near schools during the school day, though most fatal crashes occur during evening and nighttime hours and on weekends. If legislators could be convinced in the coming weeks to ease or eliminate these restrictions, speed cameras in NYC would be far more effective.

Meanwhile, an analysis from Right of Way assigned a number to what a built-out NYC speed camera program might look like. From a press release issued Monday:

The de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero Action Plan reports that “In Washington D.C., at intersections where speed cameras are in use, the number of crashes and injuries has gone down by 20%.” Based on population, for the same coverage and reduction of crashes as the D.C. model, New York needs 1,000 speed cameras.

Said another anonymous source to the Daily News: ”The Assembly and everyone knows the Senate and the governor supports speed cameras for New York City and Long Island and are committed to seeing this bill pass in April.” New Yorkers’ safety depends on it.

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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.

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What Transit Riders Could Get If Cuomo’s Transit Raid Doesn’t Go Through

How much transit service could the MTA add if Governor Cuomo’s proposed $40 million transit raid doesn’t make Albany’s final budget? Here’s a taste, courtesy of the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance.

Photo: Wikipedia

Service that was cut from seven subway lines in 2010, serving 300,000 weekday riders, could be restored. More than a dozen weekday bus routes could be added across the five boroughs, plus weekend service for more than a dozen other routes. The LIRR could run more trains and MetroNorth could add cars.

It would all add up to quicker commutes, less crowding, and more freedom for New Yorkers to get around without a car.

Straphangers and the Riders Alliance based the potential service restorations and additions on the MTA’s estimates of cost savings achieved with the 2010 service cuts.

In their budget proposals, both the Assembly and the State Senate rejected the $40 million transit raid in the governor’s executive budget. The issue is expected to be decided during final negotiations this week between the legislature and Cuomo.

The Cuomo camp has tried to diminish the significance of the raid, which would compel the MTA to pay off bonds for capital projects that the state had previously promised to cover. The advocates’ list of foregone service helps bring home the point that there is in fact a very real cost whenever Albany decides to divert revenue from transit.

Here’s the full list of service that $40 million could buy, according to Straphangers and the Riders Alliance:

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Without Action From Cuomo, Subways Doomed to Endless State of Disrepair

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing for $2 billion in tax cuts in his next budget, citing growing surpluses. But a new report on New York City’s infrastructure from the Center for an Urban Future makes it clear that there is no surplus — the state is responsible for billions in unfunded infrastructure repairs to city subways.

Like his toll cuts, Cuomo’s planned tax cuts will hurt New Yorkers who depend on transit. Photo: AP/SI Advance

All told, the city faces a $34 billion gap between basic repairs and maintenance and the amount of money available over the next five years. Surprisingly, a large chunk of this funding gap is attributable to New York’s subway system, which has a $10.5 billion backlog of needed maintenance and repair.

Thirty-seven percent of subway signals have exceeded their 50-year useful life, and 26 percent are over 70 years old. Signal upgrades are essential because modern signals dramatically increase the number of trains that can run in an hour. When the L train’s system was upgraded, the MTA increased the number of rush hour trains from 15 to 26.

Subway stations have gotten to such a state of disrepair, says the report, that a former MTA spokesman confesses, “The MTA has basically conceded that you will never get to a state of good repair… It’s simply not possible.” Under current funding levels, at least.

Funding the subways isn’t the city’s responsibility. The MTA is under the control of the governor, who appoints the authority’s president and nominates its board members. But the governor has largely ignored the MTA’s needs. Instead, Cuomo threatens to take $40 million in dedicated revenues from the MTA in the next budget.

He also pushed the MTA board to cut tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (again, less money for the MTA), a move so fiscally irresponsible that it led former Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch to testify that it may be illegal.

The MTA’s shortfall isn’t entirely Cuomo’s fault. In 1975 the federal government contributed 78 percent of the MTA’s capital budget, “but only 25 percent of the MTA budget for 2010-11,” the report notes.

But that certainly doesn’t excuse the governor for actually taking money from transit. Cuomo should assume leadership of the issue and make the case for more transit funds to Congress and the president.

Instead, Cuomo focuses on cutting taxes for corporations and property owners. The governor argues that cutting taxes will make New York more “business friendly.” But to underfund critical infrastructure is to harm the state’s business climate. Until we fund basic repairs and maintenance, there simply is no surplus.

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Assembly to Reject Cuomo’s $40M Transit Raid; No Word From State Senate

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver will look to block Governor Cuomo’s $40 million transit raid, according to the Daily News.

Cuomo’s executive budget proposes to divert $40 million in dedicated transit revenue to pay for MTA bonds the state had pledged to pay off from the general fund. The move could cost the MTA around $350 million over the life of the bonds.

Last week a group of 32 Assembly members called on Silver to restore the funds in the legislative budget, which is scheduled to be voted on Wednesday.

From the News:

The Assembly will reject the governor’s plan in a formal response it unveils this week to Cuomo’s budget proposal, a source close to Speaker Sheldon Silver said.

“These funds could be used to offset fare increases, restore past service cuts or help fund the MTA capital plan,” the source said.

Sources tell Streetsblog there is no word yet from the State Senate. When Cuomo put a $20 million raid in the budget last year, the Senate removed the provision from its budget proposal. The Assembly went along with Cuomo, however, and the cut was enacted.

This is a developing story. We will post updates as we get them.

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Until Now, NYS DMV Shielded Driver Violation Histories From Prosecutors

Governor Cuomo announced this week that the state Department of Motor Vehicles will make additional traffic violation data available to prosecutors, but it’s too soon to tell if the change will help make more cases against dangerous drivers.

A Monday press release from Cuomo’s office said prosecutors will in the future be able to obtain information on traffic charges dating back 10 years, even if the original charge was reduced through a plea bargain. Affected charges include violations resulting in license points, drug- and alcohol-related offenses, and aggravated unlicensed operation. The information will be shared so ”prosecutors can make more informed judgments when considering a plea for a current driving charge,” the press release said.

There were a couple of disturbing points about Cuomo’s announcement. One is that this information is only just now being opened up to prosecutors. The second is that drivers are often able to get away with speeding by pleading down to an unrelated charge.

Many times when a motorist goes to court, the original ticket is pled down to a lesser charge. Often this is done because the prosecutor or the court is not aware that the driver has a pattern of dangerous driving behaviors. As an example, it is common practice for courts and prosecutors to allow motorists charged with speeding offenses to plead those charges down to lesser offenses such as parking violations.

In 2010, in town, village, city and district courts, 129,628 speeding charges were pled down from a speeding violation to “parking on pavement.” In 2011, 112,996 such pleas were accepted.

A speeding ticket can add three to 11 license points and can result in DMV action against a license, the press release says. while a “parking on pavement” charge carries no license points. 

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, which advocates for transparency in state government, said the policy change was a positive step, but doubted it would make a difference in the number of prosecutions.

“The question is, how will this work in practice?” said Kaehny. “If it’s not totally automated, it won’t be used except in the most serious cases. Prosecutors and investigators are not going to make ad hoc requests to DMV for the tens of thousands cases they see. My guess is that this will be used only for building prosecutions against drivers who kill or almost kill.”

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The Tappan Zee Transit Task Force Has Issued Its Report. Now What?

Looks nice, but will the state follow through on building this system before the new Tappan Zee Bridge opens in 2018? Map: New NY Bridge

Nice transit map, but will it be complete when the new Tappan Zee Bridge opens in four years? Map: New NY Bridge

On Friday, the Tappan Zee Mass Transit Task Force released its final report [PDF], recommending bus improvements across Westchester and Rockland counties that could be completed when the new Hudson River span opens in 2018. But the path to implementation is vague at best. If these bus upgrades are going to materialize, task force members say it’s up to the governor to push for them.

The transit task force, created by Governor Cuomo in exchange for the backing of his bridge replacement plan by county executives more than 18 months ago, represents the first regional transit planning for the area since the governor ended previous Tappan Zee replacement studies three years ago.

Calling transit one of the “obstacles to building a replacement for the TZB,” the report says, “Governor Cuomo decided to put the development of transit proposals on a separate track from the bridge replacement project.”

The plan released Friday calls for a watered-down version of Bus Rapid Transit, with the potential for future bus or rail expansions after 2018. It is short on details about cost, funding, and implementation.

The bus system would use 50 buses on seven routes. Every route would have buses arrive every 10-15 minutes during peak hours and every 20-30 minutes at other times. The routes are focused on the I-287 corridor and downtown White Plains, with a few spurs to nearby destinations, plus Yonkers and the Bronx. The new system is expected to attract 10,150 new riders daily and speed bus trips by 25 percent on local roads and 20 percent on I-287.

Capital improvements to increase bus speed focus mostly on queue-jump lanes, which allow buses to get a head-start on traffic at red lights at selected intersections, and transit signal priority, which can hold green lights for buses.

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Assembly Members: We Have to Stop Cuomo’s $40 Million Transit Raid

John Raskin of Riders Alliance speaks with some of the 32 Assembly members who signed a letter urging Speaker Sheldon Silver to take Governor Cuomo's transit raid out of the state budget. Photo: Stephen Miller

John Raskin of Riders Alliance speaks with some of the 32 Assembly members who signed a letter urging Speaker Sheldon Silver to take Governor Cuomo’s transit raid out of the state budget. Photo: Stephen Miller

Yesterday, a group of Assembly members and advocates took Governor Cuomo to task for the $40 million transit raid in his budget proposal. The legislators unveiled a letter [PDF] urging Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to restore the funds in the legislative budget, due for a vote on March 12.

In the executive budget, Cuomo wants to take $40 million in dedicated transit revenue to pay for MTA bonds the state had promised to pay off. In addition, the governor’s financial plan includes annual raids of at least $20 million for the foreseeable future.

The governor argues the transfer isn’t a raid because the money is going to pay off bonds that support the MTA, but John Raskin of Riders Alliance said that Cuomo is breaking a long-standing promise by the state. “The state agreed to help the MTA by supporting bonds,” he said. “What the governor is doing now is saying that the state will no longer pay for all of those bonds that were supposed to help the MTA and instead, we’ll take money out of the MTA’s budget to pay for it.”

Using MTA money instead of state money to pay the bonds effectively creates new money on the state’s ledger. “The governor is proposing to take taxes that now pay for bonds, and use it to pay for something else, like to help pay for tax cuts,” Assembly Member Richard Gottfried said. “However you slice it, it’s a $40 million cut to the transit system, and that’s wrong.”

“That is money the MTA could otherwise use to restore service that was cut in 2010, to keep fares more affordable, because there are fare hikes expected in 2015 and 2017,” Raskin said. Other speakers want to improve service affected by a major round of cuts in 2010. Assembly members Michael DenDekker and Nily Rozic of Queens said the $40 million could be used to improve outer-borough buses.

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