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De Blasio Deputy Anthony Shorris Ducks Questions on MTA Funding

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s One New York plan, focused on the intersection of income inequality and the environment, doesn’t hesitate to make big recommendations to the MTA, like a new subway line. To pay for those plans, de Blasio will need Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to take action, but the mayor isn’t putting forward his own ideas about how to fund the MTA.

First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris. Photo: Wikipedia

While the Move NY toll reform plan aligns with the mayor’s environmental and equity goals, de Blasio has avoided taking a position on it. Today, his top deputy wouldn’t elaborate on City Hall’s position except to note that the mayor is “leading the fight” to pass a federal transportation bill.

After his morning keynote at the annual Regional Plan Association assembly at the Waldorf-Astoria, First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris continued the administration’s waltz around the Move NY Fair Plan during a press scrum.

“Look, I think one thing we’ve said from the beginning is the full funding of the MTA capital program is essential to the city, to this mayor’s agenda, and to the whole One New York plan, and even more broadly, to the whole region,” Shorris said. “Everybody’s going to have to figure out how to come together and do that. That’s the city, the state, the MTA itself.”

Then Shorris shifted to Congress.

“It’s also very important that the transportation bill in Washington be passed. There’s actually a critical federal component,” Shorris said.

I asked if that meant the city wouldn’t talk about its transit funding preferences until a new transportation bill passes Congress. “No, it means that we all, though, have to fight to get that transportation bill funded,” Shorris replied, “and the mayor’s leading that fight right now.”

When it comes to funding the MTA, however, federal policy is the wrong place to focus. With power in Washington split between the Obama White House and the GOP Congress, federal transit funding isn’t about to change much. The arena where the mayor has allies and can actually make a difference is Albany.

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Cuomo Taps Syracuse Ex-Mayor Matt Driscoll, His “Go-To Guy,” for State DOT

News came yesterday afternoon that Governor Andrew Cuomo is changing leadership at the state Department of Transportation, replacing Joan McDonald with former Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll. Cuomo canned McDonald, who’s been on the job since 2011, over a dispute about snow removal in Buffalo, according to Jimmy Vielkind of Capital New York.

Incoming Transportation Commissioner Matt Driscoll. Photo: EFC

Incoming Transportation Commissioner Matt Driscoll. Photo: EFC

Driscoll might be familiar to Streetsblog readers for the role he played as president and CEO of the state Environmental Facilities Corporation. There, the Cuomo appointee was in charge of the administration’s request for a $511 million low-interest loan to finance construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge. The Environmental Protection Agency rejected most of the request, which would have used clean water funds on highway construction. It is currently tied up in litigation.

The Syracuse Post-Standard says Driscoll is Cuomo’s “go-to guy,” taking on tasks well beyond the scope of his job at the Environmental Facilities Corporation. Driscoll helped the governor “advise cash-strapped cities, lead storm recovery efforts in the Catskills, and help hire a New York State Fair director,” the paper reported.

In 2009, his last year as Syracuse mayor, the term-limited Driscoll endorsed Stephanie Miner to replace him, but the two have never been political allies, according to the Post-Standard. Miner’s relationship with Cuomo, meanwhile, is openly hostile.

All of which could complicate one of the biggest questions facing the state DOT today: whether to tear down Interstate 81 in downtown Syracuse or replace it with another highway. While Driscoll was ambivalent about the idea as mayor, Miner is a strong advocate of demolishing the expressway in favor of a surface boulevard.

McDonald had said removing I-81 “would be great for the community,” though her agency has yet to take a position. A report evaluating the options for I-81 is expected any day now from the state DOT.

Unlike McDonald, Driscoll does not have a background in transportation, though he would have had to deal with streets and transit issues as the executive of one of the state’s major cities. Driscoll’s most appealing attribute to the governor, however, probably isn’t those qualifications, but his track record as a loyal member of Team Cuomo.

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$100 Million in BRT Funding at Stake in Albany Budget Negotiations

There’s $100 million for Bus Rapid Transit in the Assembly’s budget proposal, and advocates are working to ensure the funds emerge intact from closed-door negotiations with Governor Cuomo and the State Senate.

Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

Will Governor Cuomo and the State Senate agree to include $100 million for BRT in the state budget? Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

The New York League of Conservation Voters, which has joined with Staten Island business interests to advocate for North Shore BRT, is asking supporters to contact lawmakers. The funding stream is also supported by TWU Local 100, which took out a full page ad in City & State backing BRT funding [PDF].

The North Shore plan, which was not included in the MTA capital program, is one of many projects that could benefit from dedicated BRT funds. In a press release, the Assembly said BRT funds would go toward “projects in Staten Island, the Bronx and Brooklyn” — though the budget bill itself doesn’t specify what those projects are.

The funding could also support BRT elsewhere in the state. Albany’s first BusPlus route has proven popular, and the region has a plan for 40 miles of BRT. Suffolk County has been planning BRT routes, and Westchester County has proposed BRT on Central Avenue, which is linked to the bus network planned as part of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement.

How much BRT could be purchased with $100 million? A typical Select Bus Service project with painted bus lanes, bus bulbs, and off-board fare collection costs about $2-3 million per mile. More intensive street redesign and reconstruction can cost more: The 14-mile Woodhaven Boulevard route, for example, is anticipated to cost $200 million, or about $14 million per mile.

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Fed Up With the Latest Fare Hike? Be Sure to Say #ThanksCuomo

It’s easy to get annoyed with the MTA: Your train is slow and crowded, the station is dirty, the bus is late — and to top it off, you just got hit with another fare hike. You’re paying more for deteriorating service, and the only place to direct your anger is a faceless bureaucracy known as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Is there anyone responsible for this mess?

Andrew "Straphanger" Cuomo. Photo: MTA/Flickr

Meet the man responsible for your fare hike. Photo: MTA/Flickr

Actually, yes. Governor Andrew Cuomo appoints the authority’s leadership and he calls the shots in Albany when it comes to figuring out the MTA’s finances.

So far, the governor’s reaction to his agency’s escalating debt and declining service quality has been little more than a shrug.

In his first term, Cuomo worked with suburban legislators to hack away at one of the MTA’s most important dedicated funding sources, then looted the authority’s budget while denying it was a raid. More recently, he said the authority’s five-year investment plan was “bloated,” and his latest budget actually cuts the state’s contribution to the MTA’s capital program.

When there’s an opportunity to cut tolls before an election or announce post-Sandy recovery initiatives, the governor makes sure the press release comes straight from his office, and he’ll never miss the photo-op.

But when the fare rises or it’s time to keep the system in good working condition? Then the MTA is someone else’s problem.

Cuomo has twice gone out his way to dismiss the plan to reduce the threat of future fare hikes by reforming the region’s dysfunctional toll system. Although former congestion pricing opponents have come around to support the plan, the governor insists that the political reality hasn’t changed since 2008.

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Factchecking Cuomo’s Revisionist History of NYC Road Pricing [Updated]

Andrew Cuomo is not going to seize the chance to lead New York City out of its hellish traffic congestion and fund key improvements to its transit system, judging by this tweet from New York Times reporter Thomas Kaplan:

Both David Paterson and Eliot Spitzer, recognizing the burden that traffic imposes on New York City, supported road pricing as governor, but neither got the opportunity to sign something into law. Cuomo, however, has never taken much interest in New York City’s traffic and transit problems.

A few things to note:

1) Contra Cuomo, road pricing has in fact made it nearly all the way through the many veto points it must overcome. In 2009, tolling the East River and Harlem River bridges had the support of the governor, the mayor, the Assembly speaker, and nearly enough Senate Democrats to make it the law, but four bad apples (three of whom would go on to leave office in handcuffs) spoiled the whole thing.

2) In 2008, the City Council passed congestion pricing and Spitzer was on board, but the Assembly speaker did not bring it up for a vote in his chamber.

3) This time around the politics are more favorable because the plan is different, with a new toll structure that distributes the burden more evenly and cuts the rate on tolled crossings in more car-dependent parts of the city. The presence of former congestion pricing opponents like AAA New York and Mark Weprin in the Move NY coalition makes this shift plain.

4) Cuomo himself could make toll reform a live issue with a solid chance of becoming law just by saying that he wants it to happen.

The governor has not out-and-out rejected toll reform, but it’s clear that at the moment, he does not want to adopt the Move NY plan as his own. To fix New York’s crushing traffic congestion and shield transit riders from steeply rising fares, that will have to change.

Updated at 3:35 p.m. with full Cuomo quote and Move NY response:

Dana Rubinstein at Capital New York has the full quote from Cuomo:

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The Politics of NYC Toll Reform — What’s Different This Time?

Next month’s MTA fare and toll increase will be the seventh hike in 15 years, noted “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz this morning. “But there is one traveler that hasn’t seen any change in the cost of travel,” he said. “And that’s the person that drives into Manhattan.”

All eyes on the governor: What will he say about the Move NY fair tolling plan? Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr

One person could put toll reform in play instantaneously: Governor Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Schwartz was speaking at the public launch event for the Move NY “fair tolling” plan, which aims to dramatically reduce traffic while funding improvements to the region’s transit system (get all the details). The core of the plan is to charge for driving in Manhattan below 60th Street while reducing charges on outlying bridges. After years of careful preparation, Move NY made the case this morning that its plan is not only smart policy but a political winner.

The main message from Move NY was that its plan is unlike past congestion pricing or bridge toll proposals, which did not adjust prices on outer borough bridges. “AAA is now working with us on this plan, so we have some strange bedfellows,” Schwartz said. “The bed is getting larger. I think we’ve got something going.”

The coalition supporting Move NY includes groups like the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and the New York State Motor Truck Association that either opposed congestion pricing in 2008 or sat on the sidelines. Move NY’s most recent polling indicates that a plurality of the region’s voters are in favor of the plan, with support highest in the suburbs.

“I’m as outer borough as you get, and I indeed was an opponent of the 2008 plan,” said Council Member and former Assemblyman Mark Weprin. “[The Move NY] plan is about, how do we increase the benefit for the outer boroughs?”

Weprin said this shift has made the plan more appealing to most (though not all) elected officials. “I definitely know they have more support than they had last time, just in my conversations with my colleagues,” he said. “This plan is about helping the outer boroughs. The 2008 plan, in my mind, was about helping Manhattan.”

In the Move NY plan, three quarters of the additional revenue generated by the toll swap would go to the MTA, leaving a substantial chunk for roads, which could appeal to legislators who opposed congestion pricing. (Unlike earlier drafts, the final plan does not spell out specific road projects to spend on.)

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Albany Has Already Saddled the MTA With More Debt Than 30 Nations

As Albany contemplates paying for the MTA capital program by borrowing as much as $15 billion, it’s worth pausing to examine the debt load straphangers are already shouldering. To put it in perspective, the MTA carries more debt than Bolivia, Tanzania, and Luxembourg combined, according to numbers compiled by the Straphangers Campaign. The MTA owes more than at least 30 nations, including several with populations much larger than New York City.

"If I inflate the MTA's debt load, straphangers are the ones who will be left underwater." Photo: MTA/Flickr

With no action from Governor Cuomo, MTA debt will balloon even more. Photo: MTA/Flickr

Some level of borrowing makes sense, but shrinking state and city support for the MTA capital program has led to a ballooning debt load that pushes fares higher and impedes service.

The MTA currently owes $34.1 billion to pay off bonds issued for capital investments, according to Straphangers, and the agency is spending $2.2 billion on debt service this year. That’s 17 percent of its operating budget, a hair shy of the amount it spends to run Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.

Unless Governor Cuomo and the legislature decide to stop treating your MetroCard as a credit card, things will only get worse.

Even with no new borrowing, MTA debt is on track to exceed $39 billion by 2018, according to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

The $32 billion capital program, which fixes track, replaces trains and buses, and expands the system, is facing a $15.2 billion shortfall. Without a new revenue stream (this is where toll reform would come in handy), straphangers will soon be paying off the difference in the form of higher fares.

With several fare hikes since 2007, a four percent hike approved for this year, and another on deck in 2017, fares are already increasing faster than inflation. DiNapoli estimates that every billion dollars in new debt will translate to an additional 1 percent fare hike.

Does Governor Cuomo care enough about New York City transit riders to prevent super-sized fare hikes? Albany budget season is heating up, so it’s now or never. So far, though, Cuomo has given no indication that he’s serious about fixing the MTA’s debt problem.

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De Blasio: Albany Failing to Meet Its Obligation to NYC Transit Riders

Mayor de Blasio at today’s budget press conference. Photo: @NYCMayorsOffice

Mayor de Blasio at today’s budget press conference. Photo: @NYCMayorsOffice

Mayor de Blasio unveiled his preliminary budget proposal this afternoon. In an address outlining the broad strokes of the budget, de Blasio called out Albany for neglecting the MTA and warned that inaction on federal transportation funding could undercut the Vision Zero program.

During his address, de Blasio alluded to the failure of state lawmakers to address the MTA’s $15 billion capital plan shortfall. Responding to a reporter’s question about the city’s transit funding commitment, de Blasio said, “Really, that’s an April discussion,” referring to when City Hall will deliver a more detailed executive budget. “The bigger issue, of course, is Albany’s commitment, and in what we’ve seen initially, we don’t see as substantial a commitment to the MTA as we think is necessary.”

The mayor may have been dodging the question, but it makes sense to bounce it to Governor Cuomo, who controls the agency. Only the governor can advance a major proposal like funding the capital program with toll reform. But so far Cuomo hasn’t shown any leadership on closing the gap, instead sticking to his usual menu of raids and opaque budget transfers.

As for street safety, the mayor said the federal transportation funding impasse could threaten implementation of Vision Zero projects. Pots of federal money like the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program have played a crucial role in funding safer street designs in NYC for several years.

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Cuomo’s Transit Budget Is a Confusing Jumble of Raids and Transfers

It’s state budget season! Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget is chock-a-block with raids of dedicated transit funds, questionable transfers, and toll cuts doled out as election-year favors. It’s a mess that doesn’t answer how the state will close the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA capital program.

Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr

“So how can we make this MTA budget as confusing as possible?” Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Cuomo’s attempts to satisfy MTA haters in the suburbs, shuffle bits and pieces to the capital program, and squeeze money out of the agency as surreptitiously as possible — without a noticeable effect on service — create a confusing blur in his transit budget. The overall effect is a lack of transparency, because it’s difficult to tell whether funds are being used for their intended purpose.

Here’s our guide to the tangle of transit funding proposals in the governor’s budget, starting with MTA operations.

Stealing from operations to pay for capital. In what the Tri-State Transportation Campaign calls “an unprecedented and troubling move,” Cuomo’s budget would shift $121.5 million from transit operations to pay for capital programs. More than 85 percent of those funds would go to the MTA capital plan; the rest would go to other metro area transit operators. This makes the capital plan’s balance sheet look better while harming day-to-day operations.

MTA raids continue. Remember how the governor raided the MTA’s operating budget to take care of debt the state had agreed to pay? In 2013, he took out $20 million, followed by $30 million last year. Now, the governor is proposing another $20 million raid, and more to come in the future.

Extra cash for operations? Even as he’s raiding MTA operations with one hand, the governor is proposing an additional $37 million in operating assistance from the state’s general fund with the other. But is this really coming from general taxes? The State Senate claims that the increase is attributable not to Cuomo’s largesse, but an increase in revenue from the Payroll Mobility Tax.

Falling short on making the PMT whole. In 2011, Cuomo trimmed the payroll tax while promising to fill the hole with a transfer from the state’s general fund. This year, the general fund transfer will total $309 million, in line with previous budgets. But while the MTA expects payroll tax revenues to increase 23 percent by 2018, it projects replacement revenues from the state will remain flat [PDF]. The bottom line: The 2011 deal is on track to hurt straphangers in the long run. It enabled Cuomo to appease suburban politicos immediately while delaying the loss of tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue for transit operations.

Meanwhile, suburban Republicans continue to strongly oppose the payroll tax. The Senate recommends phasing it out entirely and replacing it with one-time cash from the state’s windfall $5.4 billion bank settlement [PDF]. Agreeing to this reckless plan would quickly starve the transit system of funds needed to keep trains and buses running.

Funding Cuomo’s Verrazano toll cut: Last year, the governor announced an election year toll cut for Staten Islanders and commercial drivers on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, with the state budget and the MTA splitting the tab. Cuomo’s budget does not come up with the state’s half, leaving it to the legislature to find funding for the program or let it expire.

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Tomorrow: Advocates Ask Albany to Guarantee Bike/Ped Funds

Nearly four dozen advocates from across the state will travel to Albany tomorrow to make the case for better policies to support walking and biking as budget hearings get underway in the state legislature. The push comes days after the Cuomo administration told legislators that while it is committed to active transportation, dedicated funding that would make up for shrinking federal funds isn’t necessary.

State DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald on bike-ped funding: Trust us. Image via YouTube

State DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald on bike/ped funding: Trust us. Image via YouTube

The advocacy day is organized by New Yorkers for Active Transportation, a coalition of the New York Bicycling Coalition, Parks & Trails New York, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and other groups.

Their main ask: $20 million in dedicated annual funding from the state budget for bicycle and pedestrian projects. While pedestrians and cyclists comprise 29 percent of New York’s traffic fatalities, advocates estimate that only two percent of the state’s transportation spending goes to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. They are calling for a “fair share for safety.”

It’s hard to know exactly how much the state is spending on walking and biking infrastructure. While it’s easy to account for funding given to a specific project, like a bike path, larger projects and funding streams can include active transportation upgrades, and the amount spent directly on bike-ped improvements is not tracked.

At a hearing last Thursday on the state’s transportation budget, Senator Marc Panepinto of Buffalo asked Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald if the budget includes dedicated funding for walking and biking.

“It doesn’t contain dedicated,” she said, explaining that the state allocates funding to those projects as needed. McDonald pointed to distributions of $26.5 million in January 2013, $67 million in January 2014, and $70 million last October.

But these allocations don’t mean that the state is actually spending its own money on safer streets. In each case, the state DOT is passing through funds from the federal government. What McDonald didn’t mention is that federal support for bicycle and pedestrian projects has dropped significantly in recent years.

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