Past arguments "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz and his MoveNY coalition made for congestion pricing and a tolling overhaul for New York City fell on deaf ears, but he says times have changed.
"The boulder isn't rolling back downhill anymore. We're pushing the boulder over the top until it rolls down the other side of the hill," Schwartz, an engineer and former city transportation commissioner, said in an interview.
They want the boulder to roll all the way to Albany, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders must sign off on the politically volatile proposal.
The final MoveNY Fair Plan, which the Schwartz group announced Feb. 17, is intended to bring in $1.5 billion in annual revenue — with $1.1 billion for mass transit and $375 million for bridges and roads.
"People in the bonding world looked at some of our numbers and said this could generate $15 billion and upwards through bonding," said Schwartz. "That can go a long way toward generating support."
Within New York transit circles, $15 billion is a magic number. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's proposed $32 billion capital plan for 2015-2019 has a $15.2 billion shortfall. The MTA, one of the largest municipal issuers with $34 billion of debt, operates the city's subways, the Metro-North and Long Island commuter railroads, seven intra-borough bridges and two tunnels.
The state Capital Program Review Board, which includes Cuomo and state transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald, rejected the capital plan last fall without prejudice. Urgency surrounding the MTA's situation could help generate momentum for the MoveNY Fair Plan.
The plan would impose tolls on now-free East River bridges and traffic moving south across 60th Street in Manhattan, just north of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, the northernmost of the now-free bridges that would be tolled.
The toll would be $5.54, matching the Brooklyn Battery and Queens Midtown tunnels. Tolls would drop by up to 48% on all other bridges. Schwartz added that bond covenants could create a lockbox account to guard against raids and ensure full reinvestment in transportation.
New York State the past few years has tapped what had been a dedicated MTA account to replenish its general fund.
"Considering the public's exasperation with what seem like yearly diversions of 'dedicated' tax revenues to other purposes, this financial authority will serve as a vital 'lockboxing' mechanism to ensure that drivers' tolls are properly spent on the transportation," the MoveNY report said.
Transit advocates say inadequate funding would push the MTA back to its dark days of 35 years ago, when its graffiti-covered trains were frequently stalled by track fires and derailments. They also point to Boston, whose rickety, dysfunctional system — $5 billion maintenance backlog and all — failed this month under an avalanche of snow and ice.
"Today, you can't just bond to fund a system and then let maintenance fall into disrepair," said Schwartz. "People are seeing problems even in a brand new system like Washington, D.C."
Other favorable dynamics for the new plan could include a recent leadership change in Albany. Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie recently succeeded Sheldon Silver as Assembly speaker. A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted Silver on corruption charges.
"Carl Heastie is from the progressive, enlightened wing of the Assembly," said Schwartz, though Heastie's immediate reaction to the new proposal has been noncommittal.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has also been riding the fence.
Cuomo, too, remained skeptical. "I don't think anything has happened since [the last time] that will have changed that political dynamic," Cuomo told reporters.
Schwartz parsed through Cuomo's overall comments and saw glimmers of hope.
"He did soften somewhat and say it was an interesting plan while questioning whether it would fly politically," he said. "We're building that groundswell."
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008 advocated congestion pricing, but it quickly died in Albany.
Schwartz cited some new allies, including the American Automobile Association, the New York State Motor Truck Association, Queens City Councilman and prior opponent Mark Weprin, and local chambers of commerce.
"This is a Herculean task but it's not Sisyphean," said Schwartz.
The plan's new proposed demarcation line for Manhattan congestion pricing at 60th Street, as opposed to 86th Street, puts many hospitals out of the fee zone and could generate additional support, according to Schwartz. Affected hospitals would include Memorial Sloan Kettering — noted primarily for cancer treatment. — New York Presbyterian, Hospital for Special Surgery and Lenox Hill.
Business backing, if robust, could sway momentum for the change.
Former MTA chairman Richard Ravitch, who crafted the authority's initial capital plan in 1981 and sold it to Albany leaders, likes to recall the predawn tour of the then-decrepit subway system he gave Chase chief executive David Rockefeller.
It triggered support among business leaders, who pushed state Republicans for a critical funding package.
"The MTA should ask for help from the business community," Ravitch, who served as lieutenant governor in 2009 and 2010, said recently.
Transit officials call the MTA a $1 trillion asset, citing the nearly 20 million residents in the metro region the 7 million workers in its service area, which includes some outlying New York State counties and Connecticut, and the 70% of the metro region's wages concentrated in the MTA's service area.
It fields more railcars than all other U.S. metro and commuter railroads combined, and has the largest bus fleet in the U.S.
The most pressing number these days is the $15.2 billion shortfall in the $32 billion capital plan.
MTA officials are scheduled to appear March 2 in Albany before two Senate joint committees — transportation and capital investment — to discuss the capital plan. A blizzard earlier in February forced postponement of that hearing.
Joan Byron, director of policy for the Pratt Center for Community Development, said transit lobbying has become more unified. "Business interests, social justice interests, we're more and more on the same page," Byron said at an Urban Land Institute conference at New York University earlier in February.
Byron called on business leaders to step up. "It could be a 'Nixon goes to China' thing," she said.
Under the MoveNY Fair plan, the state legislature would create a "MoveNY Highway and Transit Authority."
It would be unit of the MTA bridges and tunnels division — still called the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in bond documents — to ensure "with a high degree of certainty" that TBTA bondholders' interests, which rely on current levels of revenue on the MTA bridges, are protected despite the lowering of tolls on those crossings.
The new authority would exist as a state-authorized a public benefit corporation merely to collect and disburse the funds generated by the MoveNY Fair Plan.
Transportation investments laid out in the plan would be part of the MTA's 2015-2019 and 2020-2024 capital plans, which the Capital Program Review Board would approve, up or down, as it does now.