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New York Post

 

Slapping The Subways

March 24, 2009

By Nicole Gelinas

No Excuse For Albany's Failure

AS the MTA started to vote on its double-digit fare hikes yesterday, state law makers seemed to give up altogether on a solution.

The irony is that Gov. Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith aren't just hurting mass transit and the city's future. The state's top three Democrats are also undoing much of President Obama's economic stimulus.

After all, a signature part of the stimulus bill was the provision to put extra cash in people's hands starting next month about $33 a month for the average person. But the MTA fare hikes will eat up at least half of that for New Yorkers.

If the pols don't step in with an 11th-hour fix for the MTA, the state-run authority is set to raise fares by 23 percent. That works out to a $22-a-month increase for an unlimited-ride MetroCard about two-thirds of the stimulus cash Obama earmarked for ordinary people. Even with programs that help commuters save, the fare hikes still would consume half of the "personal" stimulus.

And a fix seems more and more unlikely. "I don't think that the agency should delay any action," Paterson told the press yesterday. Yet, without a serious fix from Albany, even the huge fare hikes the MTA is set to approve probably won't be enough.

The MTA reported yesterday that its fare and toll revenues had come in $5.1 million below expectations through February, or more than half a percent. Especially sobering were drop-offs of nearly 2 percent at the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North. Subway ridership was a percent lower than expected, too.

These ridership drop-offs are terrible harbingers after years of growth and not only because they mean that more New Yorkers are losing their jobs.

The MTA's fare hikes depend on the idea that passenger traffic is fairly impervious to the higher fares that is, that ridership won't drop off significantly as fares and tolls go up.

But in this economy, customer behavior in response to any price hike is unpredictable as are future job losses in New York over the next year.

If more people simply start saving by skipping discretionary rides, the massive fare hikes on which the MTA began to vote today won't close the authority's operating deficits.

That's why it's important that the MTA keep the inevitable fare hike to a reasonable level along the lines of the 8 percent rise that it proposes to enact if it gets new money from Albany.

Yet, while state leaders dither, the MTA's budget gap widens. Yesterday, it said its revenues from real-estate-related taxes are also falling fast.

The authority's "mortgage-recording tax" revenues for the year so far are 42 percent less than it had budgeted even though it had already budgeted for tremendous declines here. Taxes on commercial-property transactions in New York City are 67 percent below expectations. And the rate of drop-off is increasing: The declines for March are 52 percent and 76 percent respectively.

Albany is being inexcusably negligent for standing by as these figures spiral out of control. New York's economic recovery will be in peril if the MTA doesn't get a new source of permanent financing not only to keep fares reasonable but also for its capital needs. Moreover, the authority needs a permanent fix for its fast-rising labor costs.

And Albany had plenty of time to get this money from elsewhere in the state's bloated $121 billion state budget. The pols have had months more than a year, really to work on this.

Allowing 23 percent fare hikes is not a solution it's playing with the city's future.

And the game gets more dangerous when fare hikes, inevitably, reach 30 percent or more, as budget deficits keep on widening without a real fix from the state.

If the Albany pols don't come up with something good, and fast, Sen. Chuck Schumer and others who fought in Washington for transit money as part of the stimulus bill should wonder: Why did they bother fighting so hard to get New York such a huge share? If Albany is going to treat mass transit with such transparent contempt, it's going to get awfully hard to convince Washington lawmakers that they should make it a priority.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/03242009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/slapping_the_subways_161009.htm

 

 
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