Budgets reveal priorities and politics, and never is this more true than when the budget needs to be cut. The importance of Staten Island voters to a Republican mayor was therefore evident on June 8 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced $90 million in budget restorations. Keeping the fourth boat on the Staten Island ferry in service during rush hour was one of nine restorations proposed by the mayor. This budget cut would have saved $2.4 million annually by reducing the ferry schedule from every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes.
Other cuts proposed in the mayor's budget show how the city's current budget woes are likely to affect New Yorkers' daily lives. The budget details also show how budgets can drive transportation policy in ways both good and bad.
Winners and Losers
The mayor proposed to cut the city Department of Transportation's budget by about $50 million, or about $48 million after the ferry restoration. Under the mayor's proposals, fewer streets would be re-surfaced by city crews, saving $7.2 million. This is the biggest single cut in the transportation department budget.
Smaller cuts would eliminate East River bridge necklace lighting ($75,000 savings) and fire callbox lights maintenance ($472 million savings) and reduce bridge preventive maintenance ($1.34 million savings).
Some "cuts" are really improvements, however. A prime example is $4.9 million in maintenance and electricity savings resulting from switching traffic signals to Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). Not only do LEDs save money but they are brighter and far more visible.
Another example is an increase of $4 million in revenue from expanding the commercial parking program, which the Department of Transportation says will improve traffic flow. In the current program in Midtown Manhattan, trucks and other commercial vehicles are charged escalating parking rates to encourage short stays and thus free up parking for the next driver making a delivery.
Other items listed as budget cuts are actually ways to dip into the citizenry's pockets a bit deeper. For example, cutting subsidies to privately operated bus companies will save $8 million and result in express bus fares rising from $3 to $4, keeping in line with the fare increase by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority..
Some of the mayor's proposed cuts are simply catching up to reality. The mayor proposes to save $324,000 from the elimination of vehicle transport on the Staten Island ferry, which were in fact eliminated after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Beyond the transportation department budget, the mayor proposes to raise $65 million a year for the next three years through the sale of 900 new taxicab medallion licenses (300 a year). Whether environmental constraints will prevent the city from issuing the full 900 remains to be seen, but the first 300 is probably a safe bet. This initiative is not only good news for the budget but good news for taxi riders, who have had a notably hard time finding a cab even with the recession. This is a case of the budget driving good policy.
All of these figures pale in comparison with one of the biggest and vaguest items in the mayoral budget, $200 million in "regional transportation initiatives." About one-half this savings could come from the MTA taking over the seven city-subsidized private bus companies that serve eastern Queens and parts of the other boroughs. The city and Metropolitan Transportation Authority have discussed the MTA taking over the lines and assuming at least some portion of the financial responsibility. Officials said at a State Assembly hearing on June 4 that the framework for a deal should be completed by June 30.
Many complexities need to be resolved, including who will foot the bill for bus service, putting in doubt whether a deal will be made any time soon. If a deal is made, it might be good news for not only the cty budget but also riders on the private lines, who have had to put up with years of substandard service. It might be bad news for the MTA' current riders, however, who may have to shoulder the $100 million or more cost through future fare increases.
According to the New York Post , the mayor' budget also envisions additional cuts in the city's subsidy to the MTA, which again, could result in transit service reductions or quicken the next fare increase.
Saved by the State Budget Deal
Some other possible cuts were averted when the State Legislature and City Council approved $700 million in higher taxes. The most visible cuts in the mayor's "doomsday" budget included eliminating the elderly and disabled fare subsidy to the MTA and private bus lines, increasing the fare on private bus lines to $2, cuts in service on the private bus lines, reductions in street maintenance, cleaning and pothole repairs, cutting Staten Island ferry service from half-hour to hourly on nights and weekends, and a 50 percent cut in the city's subsidy to the MTA for van service for persons with disabilities.
Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.