By failing to find a sustainable, long-term source of funding for the MTA, elected officials in Albany and City Hall are putting the region's future economic growth in jeopardy. Instead of short-term fixes that will do nothing to address the root causes of the MTA's financial stability, leaders at the state and city level must implement the most responsible, equitable, and sustainable solution to the MTA's budget woes: charging automobile drivers to enter the Manhattan central business district.
At stake is a series of service cuts that will hamper the region's ability to rebound from economic recession. But even these service cuts won't provide any long-term financial security for the nation's largest mass transit system. The MTA's next five-year program of repairs and replacements is already about $10 billion short of the amount needed to bring the system up to a state of good repair and to plan for future growth.
The MTA's budget troubles are the direct result of declining contributions from the state and the city, which forced the MTA to turn to costly borrowing to fund its capital needs--the replacement and repair of the tracks, trains and buses that keep the system running. Last year's ceiling collapse at the 181st Street station was a pertinent reminder that unless we continue to fund this program of replacement and repair, the mass transit system will literally fall apart.
But for more than fifteen years, New York State has not contributed any direct funding towards the MTA's capital program. And despite Mayor Bloomberg's campaign promises to fix mass transit, the city has actually taken the opposite approach and reduced its contributions to the MTA by tens of millions of dollars annually.
As a result, the MTA paid $1.4 billion to cover its borrowing in 2009. By 2013, that amount is projected to grow to $2.4 billion.
Unfortunately, elected officials in Albany and in City Hall seem unwilling to make the tough choices that will allow the MTA to operate on sound financial footing. Governor Paterson flatly refused to contribute more state funds to keep the system from deteriorating. Calling the MTA's capital program "simply unaffordable," Paterson told the transit agency to come back with a cheaper plan. But because of decades of disinvestment in the transit system, the MTA has backlogged billions of dollars in vital repairs.
On the other hand, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has called for some short-term measures to prevent the proposed service cuts and the elimination of free student fares. While the Speaker's plan is well intentioned and is better than nothing, it does not address the MTA's long-term needs and actually exacerbates the problem by diverting funds from the capital budget to the operating budget.
The most responsible, equitable, and sustainable approach to ensuring that New York's mass transit system receives the funding necessary to support the nation's largest metropolitan economy is to charge automobile drivers that drive into Manhattan's congested central business district.
This type of charge is responsible because it will provide a steady stream of revenue for the MTA and allow the transit authority to pay down its debts and plan for future repairs and improvements.
It is equitable because only five percent of New Yorkers drive into the central business district for work, and the median income of those that do choose to drive exceeds that of other commuters by 30 percent.
It is sustainable because it is a long-term solution that will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and harmful pollutants from the city's air.
And, perhaps most importantly, it is the only option left to Albany and City Hall. Both are out of money and, unfortunately, did not live up to their responsibility of investing in the region's future during the boom years. Now that times are tight, city and state budget troubles make it unlikely that either will be able to find the revenue from existing sources. If Governor Paterson, Mayor Bloomberg, and Speaker Christine Quinn truly want to save mass transit, they must support congestion pricing. Otherwise, the cycle of short-term fix followed by financial crisis will continue, and there won't be much mass transit system to save anymore.