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Transit's New Ally?

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Have state lawmakers finally realized that it is they who are ultimately responsible for adequately funding mass transit? New York State Senator Pedro Espada, ardent opponent of bridge tolls in the past, has now proposed a $2 toll on the East River Bridges. The toll revenue would go to the MTA, which would have to promise to not cut funding for student MetroCards and to restore subway and bus lines that are currently marked for elimination.

"We can't just talk about the need to restore that service. We have to actually come up with the money."

This rhetoric would have come in much more handy a year ago when state lawmakers decided not to follow the recommendations of now Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch, who proposed bridge tolls as a way of shoring up the MTA's finances. It would have been handy two years ago, when congestion pricing was declared "dead on arrival" in Albany.

Because it took several years for reality to sink in, for lawmakers to realize that they couldn't just yell at the MTA and expect the budget deficits to disappear, the MTA has been forced to dig itself into a massively deep financial hole. Because the state has consistently cut its contribution to the region's mass transit system, the MTA is looking at a $750 million hole in its operating budget. On top of that, the MTA has about $10 billion in vital repairs, maintenance, and expansion in the pipeline that currently have no source of funding.

While I celebrate the fact that a state lawmaker has decided to take responsible steps toward adequately funding the region's transportation system, we must realize that the proposed bridge tolls are really just a band-aid. Senator Espada estimated that $2 bridge tolls would raise $525 million a year. This estimation is wildly optimistic. Two years ago, it was estimated that $4 tolls on the East River bridges would raise $531 million (see page 24). We can expect $2 tolls to raise just slightly more than half of that.

While this new revenue may help save student MetroCards, there is still a significant budget deficit remaining even after new toll revenue. We need to consider raising tolls to a level that can actually support the needs of mass transit. Otherwise, we will be looking for another new source of revenue in a year or two.

But why did Espada choose a plan that would let drivers from Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester County largely off the hook? Given that Espada's district is in the Bronx, it is easy to see why he chose to spare his constituents from new tolls or fees.

Unfortunately, congestion pricing, which would raise the most revenue for mass transit and have the most impact on reducing traffic congestion in New York City, is not under consideration. Congestion pricing would ensure that drivers from all parts of the city (and the suburbs) share the burden of maintaining our transportation system.

And there is still the perplexing problem of how the city and the state will manage to fund the MTA's much-needed backlog of repairs, maintenance, and system expansion. Whether the state finds innovative ways of partnering with the federal government, or simply prioritizes transit over other needs, there must be a plan in place to ensure that the transit system can meet the demands of a growing population.