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New York Post

 

Will Next Mayor Save The Subway?

June 17, 2013

By Nicole Gelinas

PRINTER FRIENDLY

After crime, commuting is the top quality-of-life issue for the vast majority of New Yorkers. That’s why, even though the mayor doesn’t control the MTA, the next resident of Gracie Mansion needs to make the subways a top priority.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in a deep financial hole; the next mayor can and should offer to help out — provided that the agency gets tough about the union privileges that are draining it dry.

The MTA’s fiscal corrosion could push us back to the 1980s, when the subways were in shambles, with 140 trains a day breaking down midroute.

Under chief Dick Ravitch, the MTA began reversing that decay in the mid-’80s. Over 30 years, the authority has invested $52 billion in its century-old system.

Today, you can live in New York without ever getting off a stuck train. Trains fail every 166,000 miles, not every 6,700.

But the MTA has abused one tool to finance this golden age (such as it is): debt.

Just since Mayor Bloomberg took office nearly 12 years ago, the MTA’s debt has almost doubled, from $16.7 billion to $32 billion. Debt costs, now $2.2 billion a year, eat up 16.7 percent of its annual budget, up from 10.6 percent.

Why has the MTA relied so much on debt? Well, it can’t draw money from its operating budget, which has more than doubled in a decade, thanks to pension costs that have quadrupled, to $1.4 billion a year, and health-care costs that have doubled, to $2.2 billion.

The agency can’t keep borrowing this heavily — especially when interest rates have nowhere to go but up. But the MTA still needs to invest. According to a Manhattan Institute poll, only 20.7 percent of New Yorkers think the outer boroughs are “adequately served by public transportation.” Improving those commutes will take serious cash.

Fare hikes can’t replace borrowing. Since 2002, the cost of a 30-day MetroCard has already jumped from $63 to $112. Nor can tolls on the MTA bridges, where a roundtrip toll on a major crossing has risen from $6 to $10.66 with E-ZPass.

The MTA already needs money from future fare and toll hikes to pay for past debt and pension promises. “For 45 years now,” the bridges “have been a cash cow for the MTA,” says former city Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz. But “it isn’t going to work” any more “because the price is getting too high.”

The MTA also can’t count on still more taxes. Just three years ago, it got its latest tax (on top of existing taxes on everything from mortgage to petroleum), most of it in the form of a third-of-a-percentage-point payroll-tax levy on everyone downstate, which brings in $1.9 billion a year.

Schwartz has a plan: Albany and City Hall should start charging tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges and other crossings into Manhattan – and use some of the money to reduce tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island and other crossings.

The rest — $1.5 billion a year — he’d spend on both MTA and city infrastructure. A third would go to keeping trains and bridges in “a state of good repair,” and the rest to new investments — including raising overpasses on the Belt Parkway so truckers could use it to get to JFK rather than beating up residential streets.

Yeah, it’s a gamble. Bloomberg couldn’t get his “congestion pricing” for the East River bridges. But at some point, it’s more of a political gamble to keep raising tolls for everyone else or to add yet another tax on all New Yorkers.

Since the city owns the bridges, tolls would need the next mayor’s support. And he (or she) could use that leverage to first help the MTA cut its costs.

The new mayor should say: No money until the MTA signs a contract with the Transport Workers Union (its biggest labor force) that slashes the authority’s health-care costs and pays for raises only through more efficient work rules. Otherwise, the union will suck up any new money provided to the MTA.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/will_next_mayor_save_the_subway_L81XzG6aq87DSXlbUPrELL

 

 
 
 

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