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Congestion Pricing Train Already Running Late in Albany


andrew cuomo mta columbus circle trs

photo via the Governor's office


There is plenty of debate ongoing 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 -- that 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 through 2024.

The MTA had estimated that both the existing plan (2015-19) and the prior plan (2010-14) would cost about $30 billion each. For both plans, the MTA, the Governor, and the Legislature had trouble figuring out how to raise the money to cover such immense costs, 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 subway, bus, and commuter rail system in a state of good repair and pay for expansion projects will continue for decades.

In October 2013 the MTA put out its 20-year Capital Needs Assessment, 2015-2034, and identified needs which would cost $106 billion (in 2012 dollars) to pay to keep the system in a state of good repair, without even considering the cost of expansion projects. The cost of the expansion projects, East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, and the LIRR Main Track, are $7 billion in the current plan. The State of Good Repair (replacing track, signals, stations, subway cars and buses, etc.) for the existing system is $25 billion in the current plan.

Governor Cuomo, MTA Chair Joe Lhota, and the Fix NYC panel have said very little about just how problematic the MTA’s long-term funding needs really are. There is a proposal in Gov. Cuomo’s new executive budget plan 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, which Mayor de Blasio is refusing to support, but that is primarily for a step-up in regular maintenance, not capital projects.

The current capital plan had a shortfall of half the needed funds, $15 billion, until the Governor and the Legislature patched up the problem in 2016 by promising in state law 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 submitted by the Governor for the Legislature to consider, although in January the Governor’s Fix NYC panel issued its report that framed a congestion pricing scenario about the same time as he released his budget. A new state budget is due by the April 1 start of next fiscal year. That means the current discussions are more about whether the Legislature will even entertain the idea of charging vehicles to enter the Manhattan business district, without considering the specifics of the charges or what to do with the money.

The Legislature will skip convening in Albany during its annual mid-February break and not return until the end of the month at which point the Assembly and Senate will develop their one-house proposals for the budget. That begins a process in March to negotiate and adopt the next state budget by the April 1 deadline. The budget itself is controversial, as usual, with the Governor seeking $1 billion in new revenue to plug the deficit, and New York City complaining that his budget plan reduces or limits state aid to the city, or forces cost shifts, of $750 million, not counting proposed MTA cost-shifts.

For each house to prepare its budget proposal, scheduled for passage in mid-March, decisions will need to be completed by the end of the first week in March. With so many tough perennial issues to resolve for the budget, it is very possible that resolving major mass transit issues will be delayed until after the budget, with congestion pricing an open question.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli reported last fall the MTA was likely to face another $15 billion shortfall for the 2020-24 capital plan, and possibly much more because phase two of the MTA Subway Action Plan indicated a need for another $8 billion for New York City Transit. But right now the Governor, Chair Lhota, and legislators aren’t articulating this problem.

It is always important to note that it is an election year. If congestion pricing fails there will be a shortfall for the MTA of at least the sum of money congestion pricing would raise. If that was the case, there would be no place to go except another tax increase (and/or several large fare hikes) to fund the mass transit system. The City of New York can only raise the property tax. Only the state government can raise the payroll tax, the personal income tax, the corporate income tax, the sales tax, real estate transaction taxes, etc., or approve the City of New York raising any of its own taxes beyond the property tax.

Chair Lhota claimed the City is responsible for the capital needs of New York City Transit ($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 $5 million a year, with anything more than that requiring mayoral approval.

That $5 million cap has not been changed since 1953; the law is an anachronism. When the MTA was created in 1968 the Legislature allowed the City to draw on bridge and toll surpluses for the mass transit system, and in 1981 began passing new state taxes within the MTA region, to dedicate to the MTA, for the obvious reason that the City can only raise the property tax. It is my considered opinion that the Legislature will not raise taxes (and the MTA will not do a fare hike) in an election year, so it’s congestion pricing or bust this year as far as mass transit is concerned.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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The real value of New York Islanders’ Belmont deal? Cuomo administration won’t say


Cuomo Long Island Islanders

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor’s Office)


A more transparent administration would reveal rival bid, economic estimates.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a triumphant press conference on Dec. 20 to announce that the New York Islanders would return home to Long Island, building a new arena and ancillary retail, office, hotel space at Belmont Park, his economic development chief, Howard Zemsky, called the new project an "engine for economic growth."

Yes, as backers stress, underutilized parking lots would become sites for major activity, the Islanders would return home from an awkward stint in Brooklyn, and the $1 billion project would be "privately funded" (as Newsday bannered on its cover).

But unanswered economic questions loom.

Consider: the Islanders' expected 49-year lease (with renewal options), is valued at $40 million upfront. For a 43-acre site and $1 billion in investment, that price seems remarkably cheap. (For example, a half-acre commercial site in Garden City South is on sale for $2.5 million.)

To assess the bid by New York Arena Partners, the Islanders' consortium, we might compare it to that of the only rival, New York City Football Club (NYCFC), which sought to build a soccer stadium within a mixed-use development.

So I filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with Empire State Development (ESD), the New York State economic development authority that oversaw the bids, to see them. My request was denied; the information “if disclosed would impair present or imminent contract awards,” I was told.

Wait a second. What's wrong with transparency? Why wouldn't it enhance legitimacy in this public process?

Even if the soccer team bid more, well, the ESD's Selection Committee scored base rent at just 20% of the overall evaluation. The hockey project could still be more deserving.

More importantly, what about the state’s overall estimate of economic benefits? My FOIL request met the same roadblock.

Such economic benefits -- along with the extent to which the proposed project “strengthens Belmont as a premier destination for entertainment, sports, recreation, retail and hospitality" -- made up only 30% of the overall score. The Isles' bid might again be a defensible choice, even if it scored lower on this metric.

But I doubt it scored lower. After all, over the regular season, the hockey team plays 41 home games, while the soccer team plays just 17.

Then again, what if the state's economic analysis ignored two elephants in the room, beyond the base rent and expected new jobs and taxes. "[T]he Long Island Railroad," Cuomo's press release stated vaguely, "is committed to developing a plan to expand LIRR service to Belmont Park Station for events year-round."

That commitment could be costly. Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chair Joe Lhota recently expressed concern, as Newsday noted, about the LIRR's capacity to add weeknight rush-hour trains.

He had no price tag for the service upgrade needed to accommodate westbound trains, something the Village Voice suggests would be extremely difficult. Shouldn't that overall cost, and the expected public share, have been part of the initial bid evaluation?

Moreover, Empire State Development has acknowledged that it conducted no market study to assess the Belmont arena's prospects. The new venue, especially if enhanced by LIRR service, likely would be successful -- but at the cost of luring events otherwise destined for the revamped, downsized Nassau Coliseum.

However, by announcing on Jan. 29 a part-time, short-term move by the Islanders to Nassau, Cuomo distracts from a decision his administration made that threatens the county-owned Coliseum. This twist comes with a $6 million state subsidy to upgrade Coliseum broadcast facilities and ice-making capacity, which also should be factored into the Belmont deal.

Cuomo seems to be rewarding not just Island hockey fans but also Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment (BS&E), which operates both Barclays and the Coliseum and seeks to shift Islanders' games from a money-losing environment in Brooklyn to an arena that could host more big events. (BS&E's not paying anything. Why shouldn't the arena operator and team shoulder the Coliseum costs, as Newsday suggested, or even ticket buyers and the NHL?)

These announcements may get Cuomo on TV. But successor elected officials likely will have to reckon with the ultimate public costs and untoward impacts of a new arena.

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Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder writes the daily blog Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report and is working on a book about the project. On Twitter @AYReport.

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This Must Be The Year For The New York Dream Act, A Game-Changer For Immigrant Youth Like Me


dream act presser mtr

The author at a press conference in Albany for the Dream Act


On Monday the New York State Assembly passed the New York Dream Act. For immigrant youth like me, this legislation would be a game-changer.

I am a Dreamer. I came to this country at the age of two from Mexico. I am an American through and through. I have worked hard to get ahead. I’ve excelled in school. Without state tuition assistance, I worked throughout college to be able to pay tuition and other costs. Finally, last year, I graduated from City College. It was harder than it should have been, because I couldn’t get financial aid. Still, I overcame the obstacles.

But others face even harder situations. Too many undocumented students graduate from public high schools every year only to face the reality of not being able to go to college because they can’t get financial aid. It’s bad for immigrant youth, and it’s bad for New York, which loses out on having more future doctors, lawyers, teachers, and nurses—and the additional tax revenue that these professionals bring to our state. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has found that Dreamers who obtain a bachelor’s degree would each pay more than $60,000 in additional state taxes over their working lives, which is far more than the maximum $20,000 state financial assistance that eligible students can get for that degree.

By passing the Dream Act today, members of the Assembly have shown once again that they understand the struggles that undocumented youth like me face. And we’re grateful to Speaker Carl Heastie, bill sponsor Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa, and City Councilmember Francisco Moya, who led the work on this bill for many years when in the state Legislature.

The Assembly believes what I believe: everyone deserves equal access to college. It’s why I’ve worked for years to organize with other students like me at City College and Make the Road New York to pass the Dream Act. And it’s why today is a critical day in our fight for equality.

Now, we need to make sure this bill becomes law. We know that this fight won’t be easy. We know that conservative State Senators have blocked this bill before, and that many will spread misinformation about it once again to block our progress. But we’re committed to finally passing our bill in both chambers of the Legislature, and to have it signed by Governor Cuomo, who says he supports it.

With Donald Trump in the White House, we’re living in a new time—with mounting attacks from Washington against immigrant youth and families. And, in this time, it’s up to New York to take bold action to offer protection and equal opportunity for all. The Dream Act is a critical way for our state to lead the way in defense of immigrant communities.

Immigrant youth like me are Americans in everything but paper. We go to school here, our families and communities are here. New York should finally pass the Dream Act to ensure that we are treated like the rest of our peers—and that the doors of colleges and universities across this state are open to us.

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Yatziri Tovar is a Dreamer and Media Specialist with Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community. On Twitter: @YatziriTovar & @MaketheRoadNY.

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