Statement of City Council Member Brad Lander on MTA’s Emergency Rescue Plan

Statement of City Council Member Brad Lander on MTA’s Emergency Rescue Plan

 Statement of City Council Member Brad Lander on MTA’s Emergency Rescue Plan

A Good Start, but Nowhere Near Enough. Real Progress Will Require Significant, Long-Term Investment from Smart, Progressive Revenue Sources.

At long last, the voices of millions of anguished New York City transit riders are starting to be heard. After decades of deferred maintenance, five years of growing delays, and many months of dangerous incidents, the MTA is beginning to mobilize to confront the crisis we face. And it truly is a crisis: our subways (and buses) are the lifeblood of our city. We cannot succeed if they fail.

Chairman Lhota has moved quickly and admirably to take charge and put forward a plan. It is a good start, with a focus on fixing the signals that most frequently fail, putting more cars on a few lines, and hiring transit workers to help reduce delays. Establishing a transparent, customer-facing dashboard has the potential to help keep change on track (especially if it includes the type of rider-focused performance metrics urged by Transit Center).

But let’s be clear: this is nowhere near enough to confront the crisis we face, and to put our subway system on track for long-term stability in a growing city. As Streetsblog wrote:

It’s a sign of how far expectations have fallen that this hasty short-term rescue package is being held up as proof of Cuomo’s willingness to tackle the MTA’s problems. Peer cities like London and Paris are expanding transit capacity at a clip that puts New York to shame, and we’re supposed to be grateful that Cuomo is trying to meet minimum standards of service reliability?

If we want a transit system that meets the needs of our large and growing city – for today, and into the future – then much more is needed. And it needs to start with significant monetary increases in transit investment.

It’s a good step to fix the signals that cause the most problems – but we know that the real solution is to get modern, communications-based signals on all 22 lines. Right now, we have them on 1 line, with 1 more underway. The rest are functioning on 1930s technology. London has replaced 40% of theirs, and have another 40% underway. Here it NYC, at the current pace, it won’t be done in my lifetime.

And it’s not just new signals. We need new cars. We need to keep up with projects that expand capacity. We need significant new investments in buses (to significantly expand our bus-rapid transit network, and get off-board payment on every bus) We don’t have to choose between maintenance and new capacity. We need both. And we can have them … but only if we are willing to invest, and do it with new, smart, progressive revenue sources.

Chairman Lhota’s plan was described as “expensive.” But it is actually a drop in the bucket. He proposes to spend an additional $450 million in operating costs and $380 million in capital.  But the MTA’s Annual Operating Budget is $15 billion, and the current capital plan is $32.5 billion. That’s the cost of the status quo. So Lhota’s plan represents just a 3% operating increase, and a 1% capital increase. Does anyone think that can deliver the improvements we need?

Unfortunately, in addition to hiding from the investments we need, the Governor (with some help from the media) has also distracted us with a specious “city vs. state” debate. To understand why this is just distraction, read the Streetsblog article. Last time the Governor challenged the City to put up more money, he then used a bait-and-switch to replace the State money he promised with MTA debt.

New York City is not a piggybank for the MTA. And this is not just a political game. Money from the City would likely have to come from one of two places: By taking away money we are using for other critical services (schools, police, homelessness, etc). Or by increasing the property tax, which is the only tax that the City can raise without State approval.

Luckily, there are some other smart, progressive options. Here are three ways that we could fund significant increases in transit investment:

  • Congestion pricing: Whether we follow London’s model, or rationalize our toll system, implementing some form of congestion pricing will both reduce traffic and generate significant new revenue, over $1 billion per year.

  • Millionaire’s tax: While NYS has some of the highest inequality in the country (and it has increased significantly since 2010, when Governor Cuomo was elected), our tax system continue to be regressive. The wealthiest households pay a lower share of City and State taxes than middle-class or low-income families. A modest increase on the wealthiest 1% of New York could generate an additional $2 billion per year.

  • Close the “carried interest” loophole: Across the political spectrum, from Bernie Sanders through Mike Bloomberg to even Donald Trump, there is broad agreement that it is absurd to give a special tax break to private equity and hedge fund managers. New York State could close this loophole and generate over $3 billion every year.

It is also true, of course, that the MTA needs to do better at implementing its capital projects, which have taken far too long. I welcome Chairman Lhota’s focus on making projects more efficient, as well as the recent hiring of Janno Lieber to oversee major capital projects. But it would be a disastrous decision (as recommended by the Manhattan Institute) to further starve the transit system of necessary investments because the MTA has historically been poor at implementing them. After all, defunding of projects and deferred maintenance are how we ended up in the current situation.

With new revenue, we could have what we actually need: short-term fixes, managerial improvements, fully modern signals, and significant new investment to guarantee the transit system our city requires, now and into the future.

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