The next mayor will have to take the lead on transportation funding challenges that, while difficult to address in campaign speeches, are critical to the city’s future, former lieutenant governor and MTA chairman Richard Ravitch said today at a Fordham University infrastructure forum.
Ravitch said that while raising fares to cover the MTA’s operating expenses is acceptable, using fare hikes to cover debt service for infrastructure investment — which is already happening — is highly problematic. “That’s when it begins to hurt,” he told Streetsblog after his afternoon panel wrapped up. There needs to be a new source of revenue for the MTA’s capital program, and congestion pricing is necessary, Ravitch added.
The next mayor will need to make congestion pricing a top-tier priority and work with Albany to make it happen, Ravitch said. (The other top priorities he mentioned are dealing with union contracts and retiree health care costs.) But Ravitch isn’t hopeful that a productive discussion will break out during the mayoral campaign.
“They probably won’t be talking about what they should be talking about,” he said. “It’s hard to get elected on a platform of increasing taxes. The next mayor’s going to have to do that.”
With shrinking federal support for transportation, the burden of investment will fall to the local tax base. “The planning commission has done a great job in rezoning large parts of the city, particularly in the outer boroughs,” Ravitch said, but he wants to drastically ramp up outer-borough growth to help generate revenue. “There is plenty of space; it’s a question of density and access,” he said.
But there’s one rezoning project that Ravitch remains skeptical of: East Midtown. “I’m personally not yet persuaded that that’s a good idea,” he said, saying that without major investment, the additional subway crowding and traffic congestion will be serious.
Although the city has proposed transit capacity improvements funded by new development, Ravitch is skeptical of geographically-targeted funding mechanisms, such as the 7 train extension, to address challenges that are regional in nature.
He is, however, bullish on the Tappan Zee Bridge’s chances to win a federal TIFIA loan. When Streetsblog asked how the multi-billion dollar loan will be repaid, given the Cuomo administration’s apparent lack of will to raise Thruway tolls, Ravitch said that TIFIA’s low interest rates are enough to keep repayment costs under control. “They’re going to solve the Tappan Zee Bridge problem,” he said.