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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Election Special--The Transportation Bond Act

The biggest transportation issue in this fall's election is literally on the ballot -- the $3.8 billion Transportation Bond Act of 2000. The bond act's money is equally split between highway and transit projects. The transit money would contribute to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's newly minted construction program that includes to begin planning a Second Ave. subway, buy 1,100 new subway cars, rehab 64 subway stations and buy 1,200 clean-fuel buses.

The bond act raises a surprisingly diverse set of issues. No one disputes the need to improve the state's highways and transit systems. But there is much uneasiness over the MTA's construction plan, which covers the next five years. Many in the transportation community feel it relies too heavily on debt and future fare increases without enough money from state and city operating funds. They also are not sure what they are getting -- the list of projects in the memorandum of understanding signed by legislative leaders and the Governor contains only partial funding for many long-term projects. Fiscal conservatives oppose the bond act because it would further balloon the state's already sky-high debt.

What happens if the bond act passes? Defeat automatically reopens the MTA capital program. That would give Albany the opportunity to improve the financing plan. But what would emerge -- a better plan or even less "real" money?

Voters this fall are taking a chance either way they vote. Vote yes -- but not be sure what projects will actually be built or whether straphangers will pick up most of the tab. Vote no -- and chance sinking a once-in-a-generation chance for a Second Avenue Subway and other vital transit projects.

Where They Stand

Firmly in the Yes column are Hillary Clinton and Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields. Writing in the Daily News, Fields says: For years, city civic and political leaders have decried the state's dwindling commitment to mass transit in the metropolitan area. This bond issue represents a chance to set things right and to make the transit improvements our region needs to stay competitive in the 21st century.

It's an opportunity we can't afford to pass up.

Other key players are supporting the bond act but with less enthusiasm. Governor Pataki has not thrown his full weight behind the proposal, something many consider essential to passage given the fact that 6 of 11 previous ballot measures for general obligation borrowing have been defeated over the past two decades. Mayor Giuliani recently endorsed the bond act, but his support is tepid. State Comptroller Carl McCall calls the transportation improvements essential but would prefer less borrowing. Worried about likely fare hikes, the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign criticized funding for the balance of the MTA capital program and calls on Albany to provide more state aid to transportation.

The most vocal opponent has been the conservative group, Change New York, which generally opposes debt spending.

Curiously, other key players have not taken a position. This group includes Rick Lazio.

Is it a surprise that a major ballot proposition for transportation improvements gets so little attention? Perhaps not when transportation ranks only #6 on New York City residents' lists of concerns, according to a survey just released by the City Council. Transportation is below education, crime, housing, jobs and poverty. It does beat out #7 - "nothing -- no concerns."

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.

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