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The Devilish Details of Albany’s MTA Budget Package


govcuomo photos

(photo: governor's office)


My organization, Reinvent Albany, applauds Governor Cuomo and the legislature for passing congestion pricing in the state budget. Yet we are concerned about it being undermined by boundless exemptions for politically powerful interest groups, and a proliferation of other new structures and requirements for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) that passed along with the tolling program.

Paradoxically, the MTA legislative “reform” package also included a deal for the Legislature to approve new CEO/Chair Pat Foye without the extensive confirmation hearings and scrutiny expected for the head of the MTA—a behemoth that is the biggest unit of state government, with a $17 billion operating budget and 75,000 staff.

We believe the net effect of the changes made to the MTA further confuse decision-making and aggravate the lack of public accountability.

We will be living with the details of the “MTA Reform and Traffic Mobility Act” for years, so it is worth taking a detailed look. Below is a summary of the various provisions and our brief analysis. (Those interested in reading the 30+ pages of law that makes up the package can read Part ZZZ -- yes, ZZZ -- of the state budget's Revenue Bill).

1. Congestion Pricing
Congestion pricing is officially known in law as the “Central Business District Tolling Program.” The program will be designed and implemented by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (known as MTA Bridges and Tunnels or informally as B&T), with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) laying out the details of how B&T will coordinate with the New York City Department of Transportation to get the program up and running. The law also gives B&T enforcement officers the power to issue notices of violations for transit infractions around B&T facilities, including the new tolling infrastructure.

The Central Business District is defined as 60th Street and south in Manhattan, but for FDR Drive, the West Side Highway, and the underpass to the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel (formerly the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel).

Tolls will be charged to vehicles entering the Central Business District by the B&T, with the amount of the tolls to be determined and approved by a majority of the MTA Board, as well as any exemptions. This will be informed by a new Traffic Mobility Review Board (TMRB). The CEO/Chair gets an additional vote if there is a tie.

The TMRB is to be appointed by the MTA Board. The TMRB’s plans must ensure that the recommendation would at a minimum raise $15 billion for the 2020-2024 capital plan, including costs of operating the program. The TMRB also is given the authority to “review” MTA capital plans, though what this will entail is unclear. It will have six members total, including a chair, with one member recommended by the Mayor of New York City, one member residing in the Metro North Railroad (MNR) region, and one residing in the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) region.

Some exemptions to the toll are listed in the law, such as for emergency vehicles and  “qualifying vehicles transporting a person with disabilities.” The TMRB will make additional recommendations for credits, discounts, or exemptions. This will include consideration of credits or discounts for the current fee imposed on for-hire vehicles that was passed as part of last year’s state budget. A separate tax credit was created for residents in the congestion pricing zone earning less than $60,000 annually, provided they aren’t using their vehicle for business purposes.

Revenue from the tolls will go into a “central business district tolling capital lockbox.” Funds are to only be used for the costs of implementing the program and for the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan. Funds will be split 80-10-10: 80% of funds are to be for capital costs for New York City Transit (NYCT), with priority to the subways, accessibility, buses, and expanding transit in outer boroughs; and 10% of funds for both LIRR and MNR, with priority given to parking, rolling stock, capacity enhancement, accessibility and expanding transit in areas with limited transit.

Annual reports are due from B&T to state and city government officials as well as the public on receipts and expenditures, to be posted on the MTA website. Another report is due from B&T due on success of program in terms of traffic congestion, air quality, transit ridership, and bus speeds after one year, and then every two years. NYC DOT is to conduct a separate study on parking around the central business district 18 months after congestion tolls go into effect.

The TMRB will make its recommendation to the MTA Board on exemptions no earlier than November 15, 2020, or no later than 30 days before a tolling program is initiated. The program will be in operation no earlier than Dec 31, 2020. There will be a 30-day testing period where no tolls are collected, and then another 60 days where only tolls are collected, but not other charges and fines.

2. MTA Reorganization
The budget requires the MTA to develop a reorganization plan by June 30, 2019. This will be informed by a separate “independent forensic audit.” The plan will require approval of the MTA Board by majority vote; Chair gets 2 votes in event of tie. The reorganization cannot result in dissolution or merger of the authority and its subsidiaries. The legislation also allows the MTA and its subsidiaries and affiliates to share employees within and between entities, provided the employee will be doing a similar function. The law states that employee sharing will not impede or infringe upon collective bargaining agreements currently in place.

3. Design-Build
The budget adds to the mission and purpose of the MTA, stating that design-build is to be used in all projects over $25 million; however, it allows for a waiver from this streamlined bidding-design-construction requirement to be issued by the Director of the New York State Division of the Budget (currently Robert Mujica), who is appointed by the Governor.

4. MTA Board Appointments
The budget makes the terms of appointees to the MTA Board coterminous with their appointers. It also limits the amount of time that MTA Board members can serve in “holdover” status to 60 days (several MTA Board members were ousted as a result of this change, with new nominations made by the Governor during the budget weekend). The law also puts in place a process for an acting CEO/Chair to be in place not more than six months unless the Senate has not acted on a nomination from the Governor to fill the position. Any candidate filling the vacancy requires advice and consent of the Senate, as for regular appointments.

5. Independent Forensic Audit and “Reviews” of Waste, Fraud and Abuse
A provision retained from the Senate’s one-house bill requires the MTA to hire a certified public accounting firm to conduct an “independent forensic audit” that will review the MTA capital program, among other items. The firm cannot have done business with MTA in the last five years, or employ a former MTA employee who moved over in the past three years. The forensic audit is to be completed by January 1, 2020, and will be posted on the MTA website 30 days after submission to the MTA Board.

It also requires the MTA to hire a financial advisory firm with a national practice to review waste, fraud, abuse, and conflicts of interest; duplication of functions; cost efficiencies; the 2015-2019 capital plan; the MTA’s performance metrics; and cash flow and accounting of expenditures. The firm will submit its “reviews” by July 31, 2019 to the MTA Board, which will be posted on the MTA’s website.

6. Major Construction Review Unit
The MTA is now required to create a Construction Review Unit within the authority, which will consist of a panel of “internal and external experts” appointed by the MTA Board. It will review all “large scale projects” (this is not defined). It is given specific authority to review plans involving signal upgrades, including Communications Based Train Control (CBTC), the current industry standard, and ultra-wideband technology before they are implemented. Ultra-wideband is one component of CBTC, the radio technology for potential use as the “communications” part of CBTC. Its review of any project must be completed within 30 days of submission by MTA staff.

7. Capital Program Review Board
Members of the Capital Program Review Board, which is made up of four voting members, one each from the Governor, Senate and Assembly majorities, and New York City Mayor, are now required to provide a written explanation if a member rejects the MTA’s capital plan or any amendments the Board is considering. The written explanation must include specific areas of concerns and steps to address these concerns. The MTA may provide a response to the rejection, and after 10 days the disapproving member can withdraw the disapproval.

8. Debarment of Contractors
The budget authorizes the MTA to develop a debarment process for contractors to prevent bidding on future contracts for a five-year period. Any regulations developed must ensure notice and an opportunity to be heard. Debarment is to only be provided for situations involving: failure to substantially complete work within time frame of contract, or in a subsequent change order by more than 10% of the contract term; or where disputed work exceeds 10% of the contract cost and claimed costs are deemed invalid.

9. Fare Evasion Plan
The MTA is required to establish a plan to combat fare evasion, in consultation with the Governor, Mayor, and District Attorneys within New York City by June 30, 2019. The details of this consultation are not defined, and presumably will be dependent on the interest of the official identified as being participants.

10. East Side Access
The budget requires that the “L Train independent review team” (the Deans of Columbia and Cornell University who provided an alternate plan for the L Train shutdown), will evaluate the East Side Access project, and make recommendations to accelerate its completion. The project is currently at $11.3 billion in total costs, up from a projected $4.3 billion in 2006, where it was projected to be finished in 2009. It now expected that service will start running in December 2022.

11. Capital Plan Legislative Funds
The budget gives the Legislature a pot of funding that is set aside from the 2020-2024 capital plan for transportation improvements for the subways, buses and commuter railroads, subject to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). These types of agreements have been used in the past for other pots of funds, and are not required to be made public. They have not been voted on publicly by the members of the Legislature, so the public in the past has not known which members are requesting individual projects.

This MOU is to be entered into by the Senate Finance Committee Chair (currently Senator Liz Krueger), Assembly Ways and Means Chair (currently Helene Weinstein) and Director of the Budget (the Director of the Division of the Budget - currently Robert Mujica). The MOU is to be approved not more than 90 days after approval of the capital plan by the Capital Plan Review Board.  It should be noted that last year’s budget created a separate $50 million outerborough transit fund, to be used annually by the Legislature for individual projects.

12. Procurement
The budget legislation made a number of changes to procurement at the MTA, relating to both how it selects contractors and who reviews any contracts before they are executed. It extends until 2023 requirements regarding the selection of lowest possible bidder, where possible. It also raises the threshold for requiring use of lowest possible bidder to contracts of $1 million or more from $100,000, and raises the threshold for MTA Board approval of contracts not awarded to the lowest possible bidder or conducted under formal competitive process to $1 million or more.

Where the State Comptroller has existing pre-audit authority for NYCT and MTA contracts (the ability to review noncompetitive contracts over $1 million or those involving state funds, and not making them enforceable until approved), the Comptroller must provide a determination within 30 days receiving the contract from the MTA.

13. Performance Metrics
Another component remaining from the Senate’s one-house bill is a requirement for the MTA to use specific performance metrics, largely borrowed from Transport for London, which are defined in law, including:

-Additional platform time
-Additional train time
-Customer journey time and excess journey time
-Elevator and escalator availability
-Major incidents metrics
-Staff hours lost to accidents
-Terminal on time-performance

On-time performance is defined as arriving within two minutes of scheduled time. Note that two minutes for the subway is very different than for Metro North and Long Island Rail Road, which are required to use the same standard though the frequency and length in terms of mileage of service are very different.

The new law also requires the MTA to publish weekly performance reports for NYCT, LIRR, and MNR, as well as release of an annual report with international benchmarking on costs per mile for operating and maintenance, as well as staff and contractor hours for passenger journeys, and staff hours lost to accidents. Lastly, the law requires release of an annual implementation report for the Legislature and Governor by December 31 every year, which will be posted on the MTA website.

14. Twenty-Year Capital Needs Assessment
The last component remaining from the Senate’s one-house bill requires for the next capital plan (2025-2029) that the MTA submit to the Legislature a 20-year capital needs assessment before October 1, 2023, and every five years after for future plans. Its last 20-year capital needs assessment was released in 2013 prior to the finalization of the current 2015-2019 capital plan.

The 20-year needs assessment will include broad long-term capital investments to be made, and establish a non-binding basis for planning of strategic investments involving capital elements of five-year capital plans. The assessment does not require the MTA Board or CPRB approval, and is for information purposes only, though it is required to be certified by the MTA CEO/Chair and entered into the formal records of the minutes of the CPRB.

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Policy Analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

 

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