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What We Know So Far About Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission

In early May, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the MTA to create a “transportation reinvention” panel as the authority prepared its next five-year capital plan. Members were appointed late last month, and the commission has launched Facebook and Twitter accounts. But details about its agenda and how open it will be to the public are scant. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: The MTA capital plan has to be finalized by October 1.

Think big, act fast: Details are still murky on Andrew Cuomo's MTA reinvention commission. Photo: joiseyshowaa/Flickr

Think big, act fast: Andrew Cuomo’s MTA reinvention commission doesn’t have much time to come up with its recommendations. joiseyshowaa/Flickr

The MTA says it will announce public meetings by the end of this week, and commission members say those sessions are likely to happen next week, just days after being announced. Beyond that, things are hazy: There is no agenda for future commission meetings and no schedule for reporting the commission’s recommendations.

The 24-member panel, chaired by former US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, is being advised by MTA staff as well as mega-consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is already working on the Fulton Street Transit Center, East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, and 7 train extension to Hudson Yards — all of which are in various states of budget overrun or delay.

Advocates on the commission say it’s off to a good start, however, and they’re optimistic about what will emerge from the process.

The panel met for the first time late last month and members have been broken into five subcommittees:

  • Operating and Maintaining the Existing System
  • Meeting and Exceeding Customer Needs
  • Spurring the Continued Growth of New York’s Economy
  • Financing Investments into the Future
  • Expediting Processes, Procedures and Project Delivery of Capital Infrastructure

The subcommittees, which have weighty issues to consider, have each met at least once, sometimes via conference call. Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, says members haven’t been afraid to think big. ”Many of us are taking it to heart that this is a reinvention commission, and that things that have not been discussed before really should be on the table going forward, even if they’re just ideas,” she said. ”It’s sort of rethinking our transportation network in this region.”

“The whole thing feels like it has more energy than the typical fare or service hearing,” said commission member Gene Russianoff of NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign. “I’m hoping the commission finds a serious way to get people to think along with it about how we improve on transit.”

How that will happen remains to be seen, even to commission members. “It’s hard to talk specifics,” Vanterpool said. ”I’m assuming this is going to be due this summer, but I don’t have any firm dates.”

“The commission hasn’t yet established a specific date by which it expects to conclude and/or report its work,” said MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan. There is one final deadline: The MTA will submit its five-year capital plan to the governor and the legislature by October 1.

The MTA reinvention commission isn’t the first transit panel created in New York state, but the three most recent examples all had more time to deliberate publicly and come up with recommendations than the MTA reinvention commission.

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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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Cuomo Panel Approves Clean Water Funds for Highway Bridge Construction

Earlier today, the state Environmental Facilities Corporation unanimously approved a $511 million loan from the state’s federally-funded clean water program to the Tappan Zee Bridge construction project, using funds intended for clean water initiatives in New York City.

The state says this is an estuary protection project worthy of low-interest clean water funds. Image: Thruway Authority

In its press release, the board of Cuomo appointees said the loan, which will help the Thruway Authority save at least $17 million over three years, will go to pay for projects that mitigate the negative impact of the highway and “will help keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible.”

The state says the highway qualifies for the loan — half of which is low-interest, the other half interest-free — because it is an estuary protection project that helps implement an EPA-approved estuary plan. The state claims the Tappan Zee project helps implement an estuary plan dating from 1996 focused on New York Harbor. While the bridge is just outside the plan’s core area, it does fall within its “watershed-based” boundaries.

Advocates aren’t buying it. According to their calculations, only $12.5 million of the $511 million loan would go to “genuine environmentally beneficial projects,” all of which the state agreed to as part of mitigation for the highway. In addition, the Tappan Zee environmental impact statement, completed two years ago, never mentions the estuary plan once. If the bridge project is related to protecting the estuary, why was that never mentioned before the state set out to get a clean water loan?

Robert Pirani is program director for the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Estuary Program, the EPA-funded initiative that created the 1996 plan. “They’re not projects that are discussed in the comprehensive management plan,” he said of the Tappan Zee loan.

Pirani noted that it’s up to the state to determine whether its own highway qualifies for the clean water loan. “There’s a lot of stuff we just don’t know,” he said. “They need to justify to themselves that this is an appropriate use of the funding.”

Advocates are also worried that the state could snap its fingers and turn this loan into funding with no expectation of repayment.

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EPA to Cuomo: Paying for a Highway With Clean Water Funds? Not So Fast

So where's the "highway" section of the clean water fund? Governor Cuomo thinks it's hidden under "estuary." Image: EPA

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to use “estuary protection” money from New York State’s clean water fund to build an enormous highway over the Hudson. Image: EPA

Will anyone stop Governor Andrew Cuomo from using the state’s clean water program to pay for a big new highway bridge to replace the Tappan Zee?

The governor wants to take out a $511 million low-interest loan to cover part of the multi-billion dollar Tappan Zee replacement. A panel of Cuomo appointees is expected to green-light the maneuver at an 11:30 a.m. vote today, but state legislators and good government advocates are putting up a fight, saying the deal sets a dangerous precedent for a program intended for projects like wastewater treatment plants.

Yesterday, the regional office of the EPA got involved, saying it wants the state to answer more questions before taking federal clean water funds designated for New York City and using them to build the new Tappan Zee.

The New York League of Conservation Voters is asking New Yorkers to contact members of the panel before the vote to urge them not to sign off on the loan.

Cuomo’s bridge funding ploy reeks of political desperation. Early in his term he committed to the Tappan Zee project as a symbol of his ability to get things done, but there’s no way to pay for the mega-bridge he wants to build without either large toll hikes or fiscal shenanigans and sleight of hand.

The governor is now entering a reelection campaign against Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is acutely aware of the Tappan Zee toll situation. Hence the current monkey business with the clean water fund.

So far, Cuomo has skirted the question of paying for the new Tappan Zee, delaying appointments to a promised toll and financing task force. While he has secured a $1.5 billion low-interest federal loan, the largest ever approved by U.S. DOT, he’ll need more cheap money to finance the $3.9 billion bridge. Cuomo is looking outside the Thruway Authority and its at-risk bond rating to better-rated state authorities that have lots of cash.

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NYC Bike-Ped Projects Get $21 Million in Federal Funds From State DOT

On Tuesday, Governor Cuomo announced that the state DOT is awarding $21.2 million in federal highway safety funds over three years to nine projects in New York City that all include big safety improvements for biking and walking. Advocates welcomed the news, but still have questions about whether the state is allocating enough money to active transportation projects statewide.

Concrete pedestrian islands on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park just received millions in state funding, but advocates question if too many other projects are missing out. Image: NYC DOT

Concrete pedestrian islands on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park just received millions in state funding, but advocates question if too many other projects are missing out. Rendering: NYC DOT

The New York City awards are:

  • $4 million for 1.3 miles of Atlantic Avenue between Georgia Avenue and Conduit Boulevard in Brooklyn. The project features median extensions at seven intersections, turn restrictions, and new street trees to slow driver speeds.
  • $900,000 for 2.4 miles of Bruckner Boulevard between Bronx River Avenue and East 132nd Street in the Bronx to establish what the governor’s press release calls “a north/south pedestrian and bicycle corridor.”
  • $800,000 for East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. This project widens and installs pedestrian islands, clarifies complex intersections, studies signal timing for potential phasing changes and new signals, and narrows wide travel lanes.
  • $4 million for the third phase of a project on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, for 0.6 miles between East 171st Street and East 175th Street. This road reconstruction will add medians, pedestrian refuges, bike lane buffers and bollards.
  • $4 million for 0.7 miles of Fourth Avenue from 33rd to 47th Streets in Brooklyn. This project widens medians to up to 19 feet to include planted areas and pedestrian refuges.
  • $4 million for Tillary and Adams Streets in Brooklyn. Improvements include bike lanes and protected paths, larger pedestrian islands, and shorter crossings.
  • $1 million for 0.4 miles of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard between West 117th and 110th Streets. This project will construct concrete pedestrian islands that were installed last year with paint and other low-cost materials.
  • $500,000 for one mile of Riverside Drive between West 116th and 135th Streets. The project will add crosswalks and bicycle markings, as well as pedestrian islands and curb extensions at 116th and Riverside.
  • $2 million for 4.3 miles of Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. This project, managed by state DOT, includes new traffic signals and pedestrian countdown clocks, modified signal timing, pedestrian islands, and turn restrictions.

These grants are funded by the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program. The state’s announcement covers 2015 through 2017, the final three fiscal years funded by the latest federal transportation bill.

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Will Cuomo Help the MTA Make “Every Dollar Count”?

cuomo_prendergast

Governor Andrew Cuomo and MTA Chair Tom Prendergast. Photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit via Flickr CC license 2.0

The MTA has made big strides in recent years to streamline its operations, but without political leadership from Governor Cuomo, the agency won’t be able to tackle the high costs and inefficiencies that continue to hamper the city’s transit system.

In 2010, after an acute budget crisis, the MTA began a program to cut costs called Making Every Dollar Count [PDF]. Four years later, the MTA is on target to save $3.8 billion since the effort began. By 2017, the agency predicts that annual recurring savings will top $1.5 billion.

MTA leadership felt the cost-cutting program was necessary not only to balance the agency’s budget, but also to counter the authority’s reputation for being wasteful and inefficient. Jay Walder, MTA chair at that time, said the program was “the only way we can restore the MTA’s credibility and continue improving service in difficult times.”

As the full effects of the Great Recession took hold, the bottom fell out of transit authority’s budget in 2008 and 2009. It was the drop in real estate tax revenue that stung the most, with the MTA’s share of these taxes falling from $1.6 billion in 2007 to $389 million in 2009 [PDF]. By April 2009, the transit authority was facing a two-year budget deficit of $5 billion.

The fix that the state legislature enacted — a new tax on payrolls — lacked the bridge tolls recommended by a gubernatorial commission headed by former MTA chair Richard Ravitch. Albany lawmakers repeatedly cited the MTA’s reputation for bloat and waste to justify their refusal to enact tolls, much as they had during the congestion pricing debate the previous year.

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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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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.