Thank you, Chairman Liu, Chairman Weprin, and
members of the Council, for this opportunity
to testify on the recommendations of the state's
Commission on Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Financing, led by Richard Ravitch, who saved
our public transit network thirty years ago
by convincing legislators, taxpayers, business
leaders, and riders that all must share in the
costs of building, rebuilding, and operating
this system so vital to the region. I am Hope
Cohen, Deputy Director of the Manhattan Institute's
Center for Rethinking Development. Let me also
note that I bring to my testimony the experience
of eleven years at MTA New York City Transit,
The Ravitch Commission's report addresses a
range of issues concerning MTA financing, management,
and governance. Mazel tov on its sensible recommendation
that fares rise predictably with inflation rather
than spawning silly and counterproductive political
battles year after year.
The report rightly identifies the "over-reliance
on self-supported debt to fund its capital needs"
as a structural burden on the MTA's operating
budget and recommends as a general rule that
"fares and current subsidies should pay
for regular operating expenses, exclusive of
new debt service [while] growth in capital expenses
should be funded separately and exclusively."
Capital expenses really are the focus of the
reportclosing the gap in the current operating
budget was an urgent addition to the Commission's
mandate in recent months. The report recommends
several long-overdue changes to reduce the costs
and timeframes involved in managing capital
projects (including streamlining the change-order
process and limiting the ability of operating
departments to delay accepting completed capital
work). Perhaps it is the emphasis on the capital
program that explains why the report does not
recommend any operational efficiencies or discuss
the long-term budget issues related to labor
The Commission recommends two major new sources
of revenue to support the MTA's capital program
(and plug the operating budget hole this year
only): a region-wide "mobility tax"
on employer payrolls and tolls on the East and
Harlem River bridges currently owned by New
York City and operated without tolls.
Of all the items discussed in the report, this
question of transferring ownership of these
crossings to the MTA, which would impose tolls
on them, is most likely to come before you in
some way. As you did with congestion pricing
earlier this year - a program designed to reduce
traffic congestion, rationalize traffic patterns
in Brooklyn and Queens, and raise funds for
the MTA capital programyou should approve
this proposal. It is unfortunate that your colleagues
in Albany chose not to approve congestion pricing.
We are now in essentially the same situation
we were in March concerning capital fundingexcept
that the hole is bigger and the state legislature
passed up the $350 million head start the Feds
wanted to give the city to provide transit alternatives
for neighborhoods with the highest proportion
of car commuters. Those transit options were
a fine use of Federal funds. New Yorkers need
them; now New Yorkers will end up paying for
It is time to return tolls to the Brooklyn,
Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges.
Yes, return tolls. Toll revenue helped
finance the construction of the Brooklyn and
Williamsburg bridges. These tolls were discontinuedalong
with those that existed on the Manhattan and
Queensboro bridgesin 1911 by Mayor William
J. Gaynor, who proposed making up the lost revenue
through an annual tax levy. The result? These
bridges - along with the others the city operatescompete
for funding with all other municipal budget
priorities. Over the years, the lack of a dedicated
revenue stream has resulted in deferred maintenance
and sometimes dangerous disrepair. These bridges
are not "free" as they are so often
portrayed; it's just that they are paid for
in tax dollars, rusting metal, and crumbling
stone, rather than by tolls.
Meanwhile, the MTA's tolled East River
crossings (the Triborough Bridge and Queens-Midtown
and Brooklyn-Battery tunnels)and the Hudson
River crossings, which are all tolled by the
Port Authorityare in exemplary condition.
Tolls yield enough revenue not only to maintain
the facilities to the highest standards, but
also to help subsidize the public transit operations
of the MTA and Port Authority.
The first new toll revenue will be used to
bring the MTA's newly acquired bridges up to
the maintenance level of its existing inventory.
After that, revenue would be used for the MTA
capital program more generallywhich, by
the way, includes capital work on MTA bridges,
which would now include all East and Harlem
River crossings. As you've already heard today,
it also includes signal-system upgrades, subway
car and bus purchases, and much, much more.
Drivers who now cross the East and Harlem rivers
without paying will not like the new tolls.
But we all like having the buses, subways, and
railroadswhether they bring employees
and customers to our place of business, provide
transportation to people who would otherwise
worsen our traffic jams, or, yes, use them ourselves.