Losing One's Head for Transit

They say that politics requires sacrifices. Last week we saw that it also requires victims, such as Lee Sander, the departing CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 

Sander's departure was the price that Governor David Paterson, who appoints the MTA leader, agreed to in return for legislative support for an MTA funding package. This is unfair. There is not the slightest indication that Sander, who has been on the job just over two years, had any responsibility for the MTA budget woes that are rooted in decisions made before his watch. In fact, he has been a leader in attempting to solve them. Under Lee Sander's capable leadership, ridership on the MTA's trains and buses grew to a six-decade high, while on-time performance improved. But apparently a sacrifice was needed, and Sander is walking the plank.

This leaves the MTA with a bit more money but a lot less leadership. Now more than ever, the MTA needs strong professional guidance to help it be first class even if resources are limited. After all, not to put too fine a point on it, the MTA is the largest transit agency in the country. 

The funding package that prompted Sander's sacrifice is far better than the financial abyss we were staring at a week ago, but still well short of what's needed. It gets a substantial portion of the original comprehensive funding package for the agency proposed by the commission led by former MTA Chairman and RPA Board member Richard Ravitch. 

In a classic Albany late-night compromise, the Senate adopted a payroll tax, slightly higher fares and tolls, a grab-bag of automobile fees (such as increased registration fees), and new taxes on taxi rides and rental cars. Although this package totals $2.2 billion per year, it will not fund the MTA's capital program beyond 2010. The original Ravitch proposal raised $2.5 billion annually: $1.5 billion through the mobility tax, $400 million through an 8% fare increase, and $600 million net from tolls, although this last number included funding for expanded bus service. When you add these numbers up, the final number on the Ravitch plan was probably closer to $2.2 billion on an annual basis.

The plan the state legislature passed Friday will generate about $2.26 billion, which sounds pretty good initially. But an estimated $625 million of this amount will be needed to close the additional deficits that have cropped up given the MTA's over-reliance on highly cyclical taxes — especially the real estate transfer tax. East River bridge tolls, long needed, remain out of grasp.

In summary, although the financing plan  adopted by the Legislature is a big step in the right direction, it is not the long-range financing strategy that Ravitch and the Governor had been advocating for months. Advocates for better transit — the life blood of the region and its economy — will need to be back in Albany soon, fighting for a healthy, long-term funding source.