MTA Votes Steep Fare Hike
In Transit Budget Minuet,
Media Blame State Senate
By Henry J. Stern
March 25, 2009
It’s hard to know where to begin when describing the transit budget minuet now being danced in Albany and New York City, with the tabloids playing a chorus of frogs.
The MTA today approved fare increases of between 25 and 30 per cent, and a package of service reductions for subway and bus service. The tabloids call it a “doomsday” budget. The drastic fare hikes and service cuts were crafted to intimidate the State Legislature into passing an array of new taxes, payable to the MTA, and imposing tolls on the remaining free bridges over the East River and the little Harlem River.
The 30-member Republican minority in the State Senate, seeking to regain the majority in 2010, which it had held for 43 years until this January, is at this point refusing to pass tax increases. They are currently leaving it to the 32-member Democratic majority to raise taxes and impose tolls. A group of Democrats, mainly from the outer boroughs, which would be required to pay each time it visits Manhattan (and vice versa), has balked at the tolls. The holdouts face daily denunciations by the News and the Post, which are following up on their support of the ill-fated congestion pricing scheme of 2007-08. See p1 of today’s News, in huge print, WE’RE MAD AS HELL (hommage to the movie, “Network”).
The only MTA board member to vote against the fare increases was Norman Seabrook, head of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association and a Pataki appointee from December 2006. The other gubernatorial and mayoral representatives voted en bloc, as they usually do, to comply with the wishes of their masters. Although they serve for fixed six-year terms, they owe respect to the elected official who put them on the board.
Under the Public Officers Law, appointees serve beyond the expiry of their terms until a successor is appointed and confirmed by the State Senate. By allowing their choices to serve beyond their terms while not re-nominating them, the appointing officers create a category of MTA board members who serve at their pleasure. This situation does not nurture independence, as the Ravitch Report points out in one of its more constructive sections.
Today’s action is somewhat disingenuous, because although some public officials want to raise fares moderately AND impose tolls, no one wants to be held primarily accountable for this by the great unwashed. The MTA functions as a screen to separate elected officials from unpopular, but sometimes necessary, decisions. The MTA board now consists of its chair, H. Dale Hemmerdinger, and about 16 largely anonymous functionaries, except for Board member Nancy Shevell, a Pataki appointee who has become a public figure as Paul McCartney’s girlfriend and traveling companion. Good for her.
There is some dysfunction in the MTA raising fares sharply before they know how much they will get from the State through subsidies and new taxes. We were told by an Assemblyman, however, that the legislature will not even take up transit issues until after the budget is adopted. There is an April 1 deadline (the start of the state’s 2010 fiscal year) for adoption of the budget, which has been met only twice in the last 20 years. Last year the budget was only one day late, which was reasonably compliant. However, the budget as adopted left many funding issues unresolved.
We have faulted the MTA over the years for inadequate efforts at cost reduction, coupled with extravagant expenditures. Some service reductions are justified – for example, express buses running with two or three passengers. Fares should increase with inflation. The political reality may be that you get so much grief over minor service cuts that one might as well make substantial reductions Judicious use of the scalpel would result in less frequent resort to the axe. That, however, requires a higher degree of site-specific knowledge and political courage than the MTA has so far demonstrated.
The proposed tolls over the relatively short Harlem River bridges are particularly iniquitous and divisive. They would isolate Manhattan from the mainland, separate poor neighborhoods from each other, and impact New Yorkerse who can least afford it. The Bronx and upper Manhattan Assemblymembers should be up in arms over this issue, although so far we have heard protest only from Ruben Diaz, one of the ‘three amigos.’ He may find other amigos on an issue which so directly affects their constituents. It is difficult, however, to be up in arms if one is in the tank.
It would be reasonable to suppose that, particularly in times of deep recession, and with many stores vacant and local businesses failing, the State would not want to impose additional burdens on people who wish to travel from borough to borough in search of shopping, recreation or culture. A higher tax on gasoline or auto registration fees depending on weight would bring in substantial additional revenue which could be diverted to an MTA subsidy. Those taxes and fees could be adjusted as needed, depending on economic conditions and financial needs.
On the other hand, a bridge toll, because of the great cost of constructing facilities, is far more likely to be permanent. There are also privacy concerns, since every vehicle entering or leaving Manhattan will have its license plate photographed by the authorities. This raises Fourth Amendment issues, as well as domestic relations problems.
You may ask why we write so frequently on this subject, while publishing the views of readers who disagree. The Daily News reported today that it wrote 23 editorials before the inside of the Statue of Liberty became open to the public, a cause championed for years by Congressman (and former mayoral candidate) Anthony Weiner. Raising the issue recalls Joshua trumpeting outside the walls of Jericho. You know what happened there.
While we agree that there are cogent arguments on each side, we see as a compelling consideration the right of free passage between the boroughs of one city. “A bridge is a street over water” was an old slogan, and the issue is more complicated than that. But it does seem to us that access should not be limited by toll barriers, or banks of cameras, which restrict citizens’ mobility, or automobility. We have enjoyed this right all our lives, and now it is being threatened by those who would tax anything that moves or stands still, like real property. The perennial deficit exists in part because of the inadequate performance of a high-minded but weak agency which is afraid to deal with its own employees and which spends injudiciously on ill-advised capital projects.
It is a kind of conservatism to want to keep certain things as they are, rather than to tax anything that moves. But there is nothing liberal about giving away the store, paying excessive pensions and overtime, building an unnecessary castle on Fulton Street and leasing 2 Broadway, a bungled real estate and construction deal which cost the state ten times as much as Hank Morris received in ‘commissions’ because of his intimacy with former Comptroller Alan Hevesi.
Now we understand why Hevesi caved so completely on the issue of the aide driving the wife, an offense we did not believe warranted his removal from elective office. At that time, December 2006, Hevesi pleaded guilty to an E-felony, and resigned the Comptrollership to which he had just been re-elected. We believe that by resigning, Hevesi hoped to head off an investigation into far more serious offenses.
To learn how a campaign consultant made over $30 million after his client was elected, read Tom Robbins’ piece in today’s Village Voice, ALAN HEVESI: SHAKEDOWN AT THE PENSION FUND. It sounds like a Western, but sadly it’s not.
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