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Keeping It Running: Mass Transit's Future

by Cody Lyon, Oct 14, 2013
 

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NEW YORK — Subway trains arrive at stations late at night too crowded to board. A train that usually travels express often runs local after a certain hour, and some routes have been remapped entirely thanks to Superstorm Sandy repairs or other long-term upkeep. Scores of the city's bridges and highway overpasses are considered structurally deficient and fixes have been progressing at a snail’s pace. When construction happens, cars sit on highways for upwards of an hour, waiting to get from point A to B.

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The city’s mass transit is groaning under the weight of age and use. A labyrinth of governmental agencies that govern and fund construction, operating costs and daily repairs all share the same problem: they are either broke, in debt and set to sink further, and not one of them has figured out how they will get necessary funding.

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Yet if the city and state fail to maintain or expand mass transit, there is a possibility that the entire mess of it all could choke on its own congestion.

Figuring out where new transit money might come from is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing policymakers — and the next mayor — in the years ahead. Transit advocates say there are workable solutions, from levying “impact fees” on new development to a “toll swap” proposed by "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz.

But past attempts to raise money for transit, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan for congestion pricing or the (Richard) Ravitch Plan that included imposing more tolls on bridges along with other schemes, have failed once they made it up the political ladder to Albany.

During the primary, some Democratic mayoral candidates argued for the city to have a greater voice at the table of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-dominated agency that runs the subways and buses. But, for that to happen, City Hall can ill afford to sit on the sidelines.

"If the city is going to have some say, they are going to have to cough up more cash," said Ellyn Shannon, transportation planner at the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.

THE CITY’S SHARE OF THE COST

However you look at the MTA’s financial problem, long-time mass transit advocate and Straphangers Campaign spokesman Gene Russianoff argues the city's current contribution to transportation is inadequate. Just on the capital side, Russianoff says the city provides only $100 million a year or $500 million of the MTA’s $25 billion, five-year program.

"It's been this way since 1982, with the exception of the late 1980s when Koch gave $200 million a year. So inflation has also eaten away the value of the city's share of funding,” Russianoff said. He called the arrangement “quite a bargain for a transit system that literally is the engine of the city's economy."

Both leading mayoral candidates have refrained from detailed discussions on how to raise the city's voice at the MTA — if they'd even do that at all.

In a radio interview on Oct. 9, Democrat Bill de Blasio told Mark Riley on WWRL-AM that the city wasn’t in any position, fiscally, to increase its MTA budget contribution at this time. The mayoral frontrunner has proposed working with trustees of the city’s $140 billion-worth public pension funds to identify strategic local transportation infrastructure investments. .

Republican candidate Joe Lhota, a former MTA president, has argued that expansive city control of the MTA is unrealistic. Nevertheless, the Daily News reported that Lhota has said he would advocate for increasing city funds to the MTA. Lhota reportedly said the amount would be significant enough to have an impact on overall MTA finances. He has also called for a mayor’s board of transportation that would be a policy coordinating body for the city among transit agencies.

BILLIONS FOR MASS TRANSIT

It’s tough for New Yorkers to wrap their heads around a public agency that runs up such an incredibly high bill for expansion and upgrade projects. A 2012 Citizens Budget Commission report said that five big high-profile MTA capital projects — the Second Avenue subway line, East Side Access (linking the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal), and the Fulton Street Transit Center — are years behind schedule and $3.6 billion dollars over budget.

The growing bills contribute to distrust in the gargantuan agency — and trust in its ability to micromanage and budget big projects. Public faith in the MTA's ability to manage its budget as well as its day to day operations gets tested further each time fares increase, but service at least appears not to.

Around 38 percent of the MTA budget comes from fares. Another 38 percent comes from dedicated taxes — mostly commercial real estate which is subject to market swings. Another 12 percent comes from tolls on the bridges; eight percent comes from state and local subsidies.

Billions in debt, the MTA does not have sufficient funding to pay for its construction projects. So, the agency borrows money for the capital budget, then it takes more money from the operating budget to pay down interest on the debt.

A 2012 report by the Permanent Citizens Action Committee to the MTA, titled “The Road Back: A History of the MTA's Capital Program,” said the agency had $32 billion in long-term debt (bonds) on its balance sheet.

Annual debt service totals around $2.3 billion — and that $2.3 billion impacts daily service on the system.

According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, debt continues to consume a growing share of the operating budget, which means, if different financing source isn't identified, more and more fare increases are likely.

That's not to say the capital investments haven't borne fruit.

Recent history shows capital investments can fundamentally improve the New York subway commuter experience.

Take, for instance, the implementation of automated signaling technology called “Communications-Based Train Control,” which makes use of telecommunications between a train and track equipment for signaling.

With the exception of the L-train, almost all the city’s subways operate on a 1930s-era system that limits the number of trains that can run at a given time on a particular subway line. Replacement parts for much of the old system aren't even manufactured any longer today.

In 2000, MTA began installing CBTC on the Carnarsie (L) line. That project was finally completed in 2006. Once CBTC was up and running, MTA had the ability to increase the number of trains that operate on the line each hour. By 2010, MTA had increased the number of hourly trains from 15 to 26.

The improved subway service coupled with rezoning along Brooklyn's East River contributed to a huge spurt of growth in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as well as surrounding areas.

By 2011, a study conducted at the urging of State Sen. Daniel Squadron found that ridership on the L train had grown at three times the rate of the subway system as a whole.

NEW REVENUE STREAMS

Transportation advocates say new development along the city’s transportation arteries could be a source of future revenue — and that just as development attracts more people it will also demand more infrastructure.

Shannon, a transportation planner at PCAC, pointed to the East Midtown rezoning as a missed opportunity to identify a new potential source of dedicated MTA revenue. "Currently the East Midtown rezoning effort has the MTA getting a one-time payment for transit investments within the zone," Shannon said.

But, Shannon pointed out, as these buildings are up-scaled, they will be providing the city with more tax money. Therefore, she said the city could propose that new tax revenue from any resulting development, be earmarked for the MTA. But Shannon says the city hasn't pursued that idea — yet.

"One thing that has surprised us has been the city's reluctance to push for impact fees with the commercial real estate developers like those who would benefit from newly relaxed air rights in a rezoned East Midtown," Shannon said.

Impact fees are imposed by local governments on new or proposed development projects to help pay for the costs of providing public services such as public transit. In East Midtown, the city and MTA settled for one time-existing subway station improvements and a few other items, but not a new funding stream.

"The city has not embraced that idea at all," Shannon said.

Yet another potential source of new MTA income comes from what supporters of the scheme are calling "fair pricing."

Created by New York City transportation expert “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, supporters say the proposal would provide a continuous source of city produced MTA funding, while providing relief for drivers in the far outer boroughs as well.

The fundamental difference between this plan and plans touted in the past is that toll money from freight, car drivers and others, would be redistributed back throughout the city. In basic terms, it is a"toll swap" where tolls on "outer borough" bridges such as the Whitestone, Throggs Neck, Triboro and Verrazano are reduced, while crossings into Manhattan's Central Business District are tolled at the same rate ($5.33 E-ZPass) as the East River tunnels.

Schwartz says the plan would generate a billion-and-a-half dollars each year; the first $500 million would go to maintaining the mass transit system in a "state of good repair"; the remaining $1 billion would go to invest in improving area roads and bridges and the transit system.

Last year, Schwartz teamed up with environmental advocate, Alex Matthiessen, and his Move NY campaign to build support for fixing the region's transportation system. The plan has earned the support of the Regional Planning Association.

But, at this point, Schwartz and Matthiesen say they don't need or even want elected officials to take a position on the plan although they say at some point, politicians will need to be honest about the problems the city's transportation network faces.

"If it is agreed that these are serious problems in need of a serious solution, then we can have a public discussion about what those solutions might be," Matthiessen said.

Schwartz and Matthiesen said they are on a years-long journey, where they hope to engage as many stakeholders as possible. The two say they believe by taking a more holistic approach to New York City's often antagonistic transportation conundrum, and by engaging all affected stakeholders, their plan might someday become a reality.

NYPIRG’S Russianoff said there have been periods in the New York's past when the city tied its transit funding to particular projects, such as the subway car overhaul program in the early 1980s.

“So let's do something similar now," said Russianoff, who has an idea for the city to up its contribution and spread the popular “Select Bus Service” to the outer boroughs.

He said the city should give at least $100 million more in capital to make it possible to jumpstart the popular "Select Bus Service" route program. He said the SBS programs makes it possible to increase the speed and reliability of transit service in many neighborhoods underserved by the current MTA system.

"Transportation groups are very enthusiastic about the ability of SBS to bring reliable and faster service. The Second Avenue Subway cost a billion dollars a mile but SBS cost about a million (a mile)," Russianoff said.

Most transit advocates agree with Russianoff that it's the outer boroughs that are underserved by transit. He said SBS may be the only cost-effective solution.

"We are unlikely to bring train service to these underserved areas for decades or maybe, even, never," he said.


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