MAYOR Bloomberg, in his plan for a "Greener, Greater NYC," acknowledges a key problem: New York's transportation infrastructure - the backbone of the city's private-sector economy - is badly out of date and insufficient to meet the needs of a 21st-century city.
But the mayor is murky on the $31 billion question: How to pay to fix it, and how to create the accountability needed to ensure wise spending.
In his blueprint for the next three decades, the mayor rightly notes that "for the last 50 years, we have underinvested in our most critical network, transit." By including stories from real New Yorkers about how miserable their long commutes are, he implicitly acknowledged that misplaced government priorities (social spending over infrastructure spending) have harmed working people's quality of life.
To fix the problem, the mayor wants to do two things. First, he'd spend money to whip existing transportation assets into a "state of good repair." That means mending roads, as well as spending city funds so that the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city's subway and bus system, can complete maintenance and upgrade projects there.
Second, the city would fund new projects. The mayor plans to invest in the Second Avenue Subway project, help pay to add a new track to the MTA-run Long Island Rail Road and create dedicated express-bus lanes in the city. He'd also invest in the technology needed to implement "congestion pricing" in Manhattan, reducing car traffic into the borough.
Bloomberg estimates that these and other transit projects would cost $50 billion, or a little less than $2 billion a year. That's hardly revolutionary - after all, under its current capital plan, the MTA plans to spend $4.2 billion a year. (And New York City spends $5 billion a year on Medicaid.)
Bloomberg says we can "reasonably" expect just under $20 billion for these projects from existing sources, including Washington. That means the city must find another $31 billion.
It's unlikely to come from cutting back other outlays. Under Bloomberg, the city's operating spending is up more than 40 percent, more than twice the inflation rate. Debt-service costs are up about 25 percent and rising. Absent reform of big-ticket items of the city budget like Medicaid and pension benefits for city workers, there's little room for more debt.
The MTA can't be much help, either: Its debt spending is set to skyrocket in the next few years.
So to pay for much-needed improvements without sacrificing anything else, the mayor will turn to a time-honored New York tradition: creating a new public authority.
The "Sustainable Mobility and Regional Transportation Financing Authority" (SMART), an "independent" city-state "partnership," "would not operate or build anything," says the mayor, "but rather would invest in projects proposed by other transportation agencies," like the MTA, and "would then monitor those investments, assuring accountability."
So that SMART could raise its own billions in debt, the city would award the authority a new, "dedicated" source of revenue: the annual proceeds collected from drivers through congestion pricing ($400 million the first year alone).
And the city and state would also contribute - more than $200 million each the first year, with the annual amounts rising thereafter. (One mystery: Why would the state commit to giving money to SMART every year, when it often can barely afford its subsidies to the MTA?)
The idea is that with money as a lever, SMART could hold the MTA accountable for project-cost overruns and wasteful spending.
Funny: The state created the MTA in 1968, taking the management of the subways away from the city, to solve the opposite problem: The city had stopped caring for its transit system.
Sure, the MTA, as an unaccountable and opaque government entity in its own right, has its own share of problems. But it's not clear that the solution is to create a new authority that will scrutinize the state authority created because the city wasn't accountable in the first place. Plus, the new board can't be "independent" of politicians and "accountable" to them at the same time - it's either one or the other. (Another mystery: If the mayor, who has some votes on the MTA board, can't work with the governor to hold the MTA itself accountable, why would they be so much more effective when working through a new authority?)
The mayor's own language on this point isn't comforting. Bloomberg notes that the city "will seek a grant from the SMART Authority to cover the MTA's funding gap." If we're already "seeking" things from a benevolent public authority that doesn't exist yet, we're in trouble.
It's hard to buy the argument that the way to a bright future of accountability and efficiency is by further complicating both the city and state government. Instead, maybe the mayor and the governor should do the opposite: simplify. They could start by reforming the MTA.
Now that would be smart.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/04242007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/nys_sick_transit_opedcolumnists_nicole_gelinas.htm