Share the Pain, Reap the Gain

The MTA, which carries eight million riders a day on our regional subway, bus, and commuter rail networks, is in grave danger of sliding back into the abyss of a generation ago. This would be economically and environmentally catastrophic to New York City and the surrounding suburbs — and thus to the state as a whole.

We have a profound crisis on our hands. The MTA needs money, lots of it, to keep the transit service we have at a fare that we can afford — $1.2 billion, starting this July, for its operations, and in the long run, another $20 billion every five years to maintain, replace, upgrade, and expand transit for the Region's survival.

Those of us who were on the scene in the 1970s — when the subways were a daily nightmare of cancelled trains, track fires, derailments, wall to wall to wall to wall graffiti, pervasive crime and even more pervasive fear of it, when Metro North and the LIRR were to be avoided rather than freely chosen — know what I am talking about. The condition of the transit system almost certainly helped to fuel the massive business flight out of the Region. One in five jobs in Manhattan evaporated between 1969 and 1977.

We cannot afford to let this happen again. We cannot afford to let the progress made on our transit system slip away. There are a half billion more riders a year on the subways, bus ridership is up by two-thirds, and commuter rail patronage up by almost one-quarter, all in the last fifteen years, the fruit of the re-investments that started in the 1980s.

We cannot afford to have the shift that has occurred toward transit — the share of travel to work trips using transit jumped up throughout the City and suburbs in the last five years — be reversed.

We cannot afford to contribute to the reliance on foreign oil that makes us prisoners to foreign potentates who do not have our best interests in mind.

We cannot afford to fritter away the hard-earned carbon-reducing benefit of transit; even as we recognize that each of us must act collectively to stem the climate crisis.

We cannot allow the New York Region's transit to disintegrate before our eyes after 25 years of reinvestment, renewal, revival, and economic growth.

We have only one choice. But it requires sacrifice, something that does not come easy after years of near-continuous prosperity, partially built on borrowing. Before us today is a proposal to overcome the MTA's financial gap. It is put forward by a gubernatorial commission headed by Richard Ravitch, who had such a vital part in formulating and securing the funds for the plan that revived the Region's transit system a generation ago.

The new Ravitch plan is a sensible one. It spreads the burden among transit users and drivers, the latter who gain so much when others use transit. It asks all businesses in the MTA region to pay a small levy on their payroll. These businesses would not thrive and might not even exist if it weren't for the transit system and the economic life it gives to the City and Region. The Ravitch Commission rejects the disastrous system of borrow now, pay-during-the-next-person's-term-of-office, akin to putting your groceries on a credit card. Almost one in five dollars of the MTA's operating budget is expected to be devoted to paying for that short-sighted policy, foisted on the MTA by the previous administration. (By the way, did we mention that RPA consistently told them this was not a good idea and that the chickens would come home to roost?).

The alternative to the Ravitch proposal is to allow the disintegration of the transit system through a thousand cuts (of service) and huge fare increases and a spiral of neglect of the MTA's vast and vital infrastructure. This is really no choice at all.

The fate of the transit system is now in the hands of Governor David Patterson and the New York State legislature. The good news is that most of them have begun to understand this crisis is real. The bad news is that they are subject to pressures from those businesses and drivers who don't yet get it, and enacting any type of tax or revenue increase is politically painful.

Some may question why a legislator north (or east) of the City should care. The answer is simple: if New York City's and the Region's transit system suffers, so does the City and Region's economy. And ultimately the state's economy depends on the thriving economy downstate.

If we share the pain, we reap the gain.