CONGESTION PRICING TRAIN ALREADY RUNNING LATE IN ALBANY

There is plenty of debate ongoing in Albany now about the pros and cons of congestion pricing-but little discussion yet about the purpose of creating such a large flow of money($1-1.5 billion a year), which logically must be a way to fund the next MTA Capital Plan. That plan is due out in the fall of 2019 for a five-year cycle from 2020-2024. The MTA had estimated that both the existing plan(15-19) and the prior plan(10-14) would cost about $30 billion each. But the Agency, the Governor, and the Legislature had trouble figuring out how to raise the money to cover the immense costs of both plans, and the 2010 plan was ultimately downsized. The next cycle will have the same problem-where to find money to pay for it. In fact, the problem of paying to keep the mass transit system in a state of good repair and pay for expansion projects will continue for decades.

In 2013 the MTA put out its 20-year Capital Needs Assessment for 2015-34. This assessment identified system needs which would cost $106 billion to keep mass transit in a state of good repair, without even considering the cost of the expansion projects. In the current plan, the big expansion projects like East Side Access and Second Avenue Subway cost $7 billion. The State of Good Repair( regular replacement of track,signals, stations,subway cars and buses, etc.) for the existing system costs $25 billion.

Governor Cuomo, MTA Chair Joe Lhota, and legislative leaders have said very little about just how problematic the MTA’s long-term funding needs really are. There is a proposal in the new State budget to force New York City to pay half the recurring maintenance costs of Lhota’s Subway Action Plan, estimated at $300 million a year by 2020, but that is primarily for a step-up in regular maintenance, not capital projects. Mayor DeBlasio has refused to support the idea. The current capital plan had a shortfall of half, or $15 billion, of the $30 billion in needed funds. The Governor and the Legislature patched up the problem in 2016 by promising in State law in 2016 that the MTA would get the money when it needed it, meaning it would have to spend down what it had available first.

There is still no congestion pricing bill to accompany the Fix NYC Panel report released by Governor Cuomo at the same time as his January budget,that gave a framework for a congestion pricing setup. The Legislature has already left Albany for its annual Presidents’ week break and will not return until the end of February, at which time it will have to begin the process of negotiating with the Governor and adopting the main budget, due April 1. The main budget itself is controversial, as always, with the Governor seeking $1 billion in new revenue to plug the deficit, and Mayor DeBlasio protesting cuts and cost shifts of $750 million to the New York City budget, excluding any MTA-related costs shifts.

Each house of the Legislature will adopt its own preliminary one-House budget in mid-March, and must decide what will be in those budgets by the end of the first week in March. With so many tough issues to resolve just for the regular budget, it is very possible that resolving major mass transit issues will be delayed until after the budget, with congestion pricing still an open question. This will leave the mass transit debate to continue until the end of this year’s legislative session in June.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli reported last fall the MTA was likely to face another $15 billion shortfall for its 2020-24 Capital Plan, and possibly much more because the MTA’s Subway Action Plan Phase Two indicated a need for another $8 billion for New York City Transit. But right now the State’s leadership is not articulating this problem. It is an election year and if congestion pricing fails there would be a shortfall for the MTA of the sum of money congestion pricing would raise. If that was the case, there would be no place to go to except tax increases or fare hikes to fund the long-term needs of the mass transit system. The City of New York can only raise its property tax. Only the State government can raise the payroll tax, the corporate income tax, the personal income tax, the sales tax, the real estate transaction taxes, and others. The City must get approval from the State to raise any of its own taxes except the property tax.

Chair Lhota claimed the City is responsible for the capital needs of the New York City Transit Authority ( $16-17 billion in the current 5-year plan) on the grounds that a 1953 law said so. That law, Section 1203 of the Public Authorities Law, did in fact say that but added that the City was responsible for a limit of $5 million a year without approval of the New York City Mayor. That $5 million cap has not been changed since 1953, making the law obsolete; an anachronism.

The concepts that have funded mass transit since have radically changed and are connected to the fact that New York City can only raise its property tax and is responsible for the City’s basic services and much of its social welfare and health care funding. When the MTA was created in 1968 the Legislature allowed the City to draw down bridge and tunnel surpluses to fund New York City Transit. In 1981 the Legislature began passing new State taxes within the MTA region to dedicate to the MTA because of the obvious limitations on the capacity of the City government.

Back to the obvious: it’s an election year and in my considered opinion the Governor and the Legislature are not likely to raise taxes, and the MTA will not do a fare hike. That means it’s congestion pricing or bust this year as far as mass transit is concerned.

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