Officials from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority testified about the agency’s recently released subway action plan at a hearing Tuesday before the New York City Council’s transportation committee.
The MTA, a state-controlled agency since it was taken over by Albany during the city’s fiscal crises in the 1970s, has come under increasing criticism by both the public and city officials as service deteriorates due to an aging infrastructure and signal system.
In June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the subway system, and the MTA responded with the detailed action plan. The proposal calls on the city and the state to put an additional $456 million into the operating budget and $380 million in the capital budget to address short-term needs.
“The action plan marks the beginning of a new chapter for the MTA,” Veronique Hakim, MTA’s Managing Director, told the council. “It outlines the specific actions we are taking -- some immediately -- to stabilize and improve subway service for our customers in the short-term. And it lays a foundation for modernization of the system in the longer term.”
She said there were two phases the MTA was working toward. Phase 1 was the immediate injection of those funds for the short-term fixes to stabilize the system and a Phase 2, which could cost up to $8 billion for longer-term challenges dealing with the modernization of the subway system.
“We estimate that this effort – this Phase 1 to stabilize the subway system and delivery early improvements in reliability and service – will require an immediate investment of $456 million added to the current operating budget of the MTA - and an additional $380 million in capital expenses,” she said. “Phase 2 of the plan, for the long-term modernization of the system will require and additional capital investment of $8 billion.
Hakim said details of Phase 2 would be released in the next few weeks, but added that Cuomo has pledged the state would cover half of the Phase 1 costs.
Also testifying before the council on Tuesday, the city’s Independent Budget Office weighed in on problems with the subways.
“There has been much debate over who should be responsible for paying for these investments - the state, the city, or some combination of both - although there can be little doubt that residents and businesses in the MTA region already account for the vast majority of MTA revenue through fares, direct taxes and indirectly through state and local subsidies,” George Sweeting, IBO deputy director, testified on Tuesday.
“Most recently the mayor announced that the city would up its commitment provided the state legislature authorizes a tax increase on city residents to provide the necessary funds, highlighting the city’s lack of fiscal autonomy even as it asked to contribute more,” he said. “However, given the historical pattern of spending under the MTA’s capital plans, the issue of when these new investments will actually be made, and when they will begin to benefit subway-riders, is perhaps even less clear than the source of funding.”
In testimony submitted to the New York City Council Committee on Transportation, Jamison Dague, director at the Citizens Budget Commission, said the MTA has long underinvested in infrastructure while pursuing system expansions.
“The ambitious plan proposed to remedy this underinvestment is sensible, but should be funded by motorists and increased productivity at the MTA,” he said. “In the long term, a new revenue source should come not from taxpayers, who already fund 40% of the mass transit budget, but from a congestion pricing plan, a vehicle-miles traveled tax, a fee on taxicabs and for-hire vehicles, or other charges for motor vehicle use.”
Council Speaker Mark-Viverito criticized the MTA, saying she was “very disappointed that Chairman [Joe] Lhota is not here himself, especially considering the significant amount of money he has asked the city to contribute to the MTA’s plan.”
She stressed that while Mayor Bill de Blasio has already taken a position on the MTA’s request for funds, “Let me remind everyone that the council must approve any additional city spending.”
She added that then discussion of taxes and revenue raising was open for discussion.
“I am supportive of proposals to find a long-term revenue stream to fund the MTA, such as congestion pricing, a surcharge on for-hire vehicle trips, a commuter tax, a millionaire’s tax, and value capture, but we need solutions now, not next year,” she said. “So I am open to discussing all options on the table with our partners in government.”
At a press conference before the hearing, Ydanis Rodriguez, chairman of the Council’s transportation committee, said he was standing behind all of the plans that have put forward in recent weeks, saying that each one is a necessary part of competing on a global scale.
“We need to raise revenue, real, dedicated and recurring revenue to bring this system into the 21st century,” he said. “It is why I not only support the millionaires tax put forward by our Mayor Bill de Blasio, but the Move New York plan, as well as plans put forward by Comptroller Scott Stringer to raise new funds through bonds, as well as the plan put forward by Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz to set aside revenue to the state specifically for transportation infrastructure needs.”
Rodriguez said the city could raise between $27 billion and $28 billion every 10 years, “and even more if we bond out this revenue into the future. Our signal systems need an upgrade that, when completed, can help ease both delays and overcrowding. Our subway stations need major facelifts, including the need for working elevators for the disabled. We need new trains and buses to communicate with signals in the subways and on our roads so they can move people through our city faster.”
He said that while short-term fixes were laudable, the real issue was looking at the long-term needs and taking action now so as to “take our transportation system into the 21st century.”