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Talking to Albany, let’s hope they are listening!

On Wednesday, January 30th, MTA leadership traveled to Albany to testify at the Joint Legislative Public Hearing on the 2019-2020 Executive Budget Proposal. We were there as well, representing the more than eight million transit riders who use New York City Transit, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad every day. In our testimony, we stressed that all of our riders want the same thing: a safe, affordable and reliable way to get where they’re going. We asked the legislators to keep riders top of mind as they collaborate on and negotiate the budget.

The hearing focused on the MTA’s dire financial situation and the need for sustainable and recurring funding sources to support the operating and capital budgets. More than a dozen Senate members grilled MTA President Patrick Foye, Managing Director Veronique Hakim, Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran, and Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber for over five hours on the Governor’s Executive Budget proposals, with a focus on Congestion Pricing and how it would be implemented.

During their lengthy testimony, it became increasingly clear that while Congestion Pricing is critical to funding the improvements spelled out in Fast Forward, there is no plan yet, just a concept. It’s a concept that we strongly support, but agree with the elected officials – and riders – who want to know how it’s going to work: Will it mirror the FixNYC Report? Will there in fact be “…variable and dynamic pricing options…” as the panel suggests? How much will it cost to enter the Congestion Zone? How much money will it yield, and how will that money be spent? Will it go into a lockbox for transit use only? Will there be a flat fee for trucks and delivery services that enter and leave the zone several times a day? How will trucks be charged? Where will the toll gantries be placed, what kind of construction will be needed – and how will that be coordinated with New York City?

Support for Congestion Pricing has never been stronger, but time is running out for its inclusion in the 2019-2020 Adopted Budget. Missing the deadline could mean missing key milestones for critical subway and bus improvements – and that could mean more time for riders stuck going nowhere fast.

We urge the MTA and the Governor’s office to develop and release a real plan that New Yorkers can understand: Riders want to know what Congestion Pricing is going to mean to their families and neighbors – and they deserve answers. Earlier this week, we participated in a press conference with TransitCenter, elected officials and other advocacy organizations that highlighted TransitCenter’s analysis of how much time New Yorkers could save if Fast Forward is funded. The answer: tens of thousands of hours a year – hours that could be better spent doing just about anything else.

Don’t Forget LIRR and Metro-North!

In addition to the Fast Forward plan, LIRR Forward and Metro-North Way Ahead set the stage for capital improvements across the region. While Congestion Pricing has been tied directly to Fast Forward, significant investment is needed to meet the needs of all of the agencies. Two other key aspects of the Governor’s proposed budget got less attention but are equally important since funding for the capital plan has been linked to their enactment:  expansion of speed camera zones in New York City; and MTA restructuring.  While we support each of these, we do not agree that critical infrastructure funds should be tied so directly to passage of these requirements.

New York City Speed camera zones expansion in New York City

Speed cameras will keep children safer in school zones, help buses move faster, catch people running red lights – and add a layer of enforcement in the Congestion Pricing zone. Why wait? Start putting them up now and lift the restrictions on how many can be placed and where. Tell us how much revenue will be brought in and how it will be spent.  We support allocating revenues from the fines to transit-related purposes and street-based safety-related projects.

MTA Restructuring

Here’s a term that’s been bandied about, but without a definition of what it even means: changing board membership and voting structure? Breaking down agency boundaries? Bringing in new leadership at the top and keeping the agency heads? We agree that there is a need to continue to make process improvements and that efficiencies can be found – but the strong leadership at NYC Transit, the LIRR, and Metro-North are making a difference, which riders can see. A new and independent Chair is needed to support the agency heads in their efforts and work with them to identify savings, but structural review and revision are too important to do in haste. There should be a longer, multi-stepped approach leading to a well thought out proposal.

But Wait, We Need More…

These funding sources are a good start, but will not meet all the needs of the MTA or its riders.

Finding creative ways of raising transit funds

Consistently capturing and use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) would create tremendous opportunities for the MTA. Transit access can A portion of that value should be captured and funding set aside to finance transit infrastructure improvements when proximate projects – such as upzonings, Amazon’s H2Q in LIC, and TOD on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley – are developed. We’ve seen how successful these programs can be and mechanisms already exist for the types of agreements; they should be used consistently and constantly.

They say that desperate times call for desperate measures.

These are desperate times: delays and disrepair are causing people to flee the system, leading to declining ridership, which means less revenue, less faith in the system, and less investment.  We’ve been down this slope before and it doesn’t end well. We need to look at every possible revenue source, including incremental tax increases in the sales tax, gas tax, recording tax, Millionaire’s tax, corporate tax, and future cannabis taxes, to address the real state of emergency that we are seeing unfold. Now’s the time for the state to pony up the more than $8 billion it has committed to the MTA, and for the city to kick in its share. We shouldn’t have to wait for the MTA to accrue more debt before getting these desperately needed funds. Getting out of debt by getting into more debt doesn’t work at home, and it won’t work for the MTA.

It is clear that the MTA must do its part to regain the trust of the legislature, and the faith of the riders it serves. The New York region is built around a robust transit system. It’s critical that it remain the driver that supports our growth, vitality, and identity. Investment in the future of the transit system is investment in the region’s economic stability and ability.