As the fate of a far-ranging congestion pricing plan to overhaul New York City commuting patterns and transit funding goes to state consideration, many questions linger.
Key variables include what Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would do with the upwards of $1 billion projected for mass transit; the city’s role and whether any support might come from Cuomo’s longtime adversary, Mayor Bill de Blasio; and what any final bill would contain once it grinds through the political egg beater in Albany.
Cuomo and the legislature will hash out the recommendations of Cuomo’s Fix NYC panel, which called for a surcharge on vehicles entering Manhattan borough south of 60th Street, beginning in 2020.
Car drivers would pay a surcharge of up to $11.52, truckers $25.34. Taxis and passengers of app-based ride services such as Uber and Lyft would pay a surcharge of $2 to $5 to enter the core part of Manhattan.
The report, compiled by infrastructure firm HNTB Corp., called for the immediate shoring up of mass transit funding. Cuomo last June declared a state of emergency for the MTA, one of the largest municipal issuers with $39 billion of debt, after a rash of breakdowns, delays and track fires.
“The panel has learned lessons from international examples that strongly support first investing in public transportation alternatives before implementing a zone pricing plan to reduce congestion,” the report said.
Howard Cure, director of municipal bond research for Evercore Wealth Management, called the MTA’s project cost containment an ongoing problem. Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota last month formed a committee of board members to study the matter.
“The report was sort of silent about that,” said Cure. “I’ve got to believe that the same problems about contracting and cost overruns are out there.”
Board member Scott Rechler, who is leading a cost-containment working group, said the MTA’s project-delivery system is broken.
“There’s no sugar-coating it,” Rechler said at Monday’s Long Island Rail Road committee meeting. “We’re putting layers and layers of processes and different organizational structures and silos that have made it difficult for our team to execute. Our personnel are handcuffed in many instances.”
In his maiden speech Monday before the board, Andy Byford, the new president of the MTA's New York City Transit unit, called for "a complete, top-to-bottom modernization of what we do." Byford, who is British, has run transit systems in London, Sydney and most recently, Toronto.
Also, said Cure, the Fix NYC report only touched the surface of tax increment financing, which the city and MTA used in the Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s West Side, while ignoring the city’s efforts to authorize design-build procurement, which the state has approved for itself.
“The other thing was that there was no real discussion about how to make up for any loss of federal funds,” said Cure. “I don’t see this administration being overly generous with mass transit.”
Both Cure and Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, envision tradeoffs with state Republican and breakaway Democratic lawmakers for the possible benefit of the LIRR and Metro-North Railroad, both of which serve suburban commuters. Upstate regions could also get road-improvement projects as part of the horse trading.
“This is just an opening bid,” said Gelinas.
“I think the idea of congestion pricing is solid. It’s just basic economics,” Gelinas added. “The problem is, what does Cuomo intend to do with the money? It opens up a whole bunch of problems. The city always pays a lot while the MTA uses much of that money for projects that don’t benefit subway riders, like East Side access [for Long Island Rail Road commuters].”
De Blasio warmed to congestion pricing, up to a point.
“There’s one thing I can say at the start, this plan certainly shows improvement over previous plans we’ve seen over the years, and that’s a good thing,” the mayor said.
De Blasio repeated his call for a millionaire’s tax – his default option on many initiatives – to fund mass transit and also provide half-fare MetroCards for lower-income New Yorkers.
“I think we're trying to get to the same place and I think the panel of experts is trying to get to the same place,” said Cuomo. “Look, this has been a problem for many, many years.”
Still, the report called for the city to contribute $418 million to fund half of the first phase of MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota’s emergency plan to fix the subway tracks and switches, which de Blasio has resisted. Cuomo said the state would backstop the other half.
The Fix NY plan dropped tolling of four now-free East River bridges to appease Brooklyn and Queens lawmakers, but some in the outer boroughs continue to support the MoveNY plan, backed by engineer and former city transportation commissioner “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz.
“I could support the surcharge for limos, rideshare and tour buses, but not on all New York City drivers, particularly Staten Islanders who are already subject to unfair tolls,” said 2017 mayoral candidate and state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, R-Staten Island, whose district includes parts of southern Brooklyn.
Malliotakis said the Move NY plan represents a much better starting point for negotiation and would work with a commitment to cap bridge tolls and dedicate revenue for projects in outer-borough “transportation deserts.”