A Sustainable City Requires Increased Mass Transit Subsidies

As New York City moves to advance its sustainability agenda, New York State's relentless budget crisis is having a dramatic impact on the cost structure of the region's mass transit.
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As New York City moves to advance its sustainability agenda, New York State's relentless budget crisis is having a dramatic impact on the cost structure of the region's mass transit. The New York region's mass transportation system has long been funded by a complex set of cross subsidies and what many experts believe to be an over-reliance on the fare box. Given the size and density of our region's population and the economic necessity of moving people as quickly and safely as possible from place to place, mass transit is a vital piece of our economic infrastructure.

Space on our roadways is a scarce commodity. To ensure that the roads are not hopelessly choked by traffic, we must ration that space somehow. The logic of the Bloomberg Administration's proposal for congestion pricing was that people driving private cars in the region should pay to subsidize people riding mass transit. In addition, businesses that rely on a large and diverse labor and customer base should pay some of the costs of transporting people through this densely settled region. Bridge tolls and business taxes have been used to subsidize mass transit, along with funds from the state's budget. Unfortunately, current funds cannot cover the costs of running and restoring our aging transit system.

Using the state's fiscal crisis for cover, the state has been cutting back mass transit subsidies. According to Michael M. Grynbaum of the New York Times:

"The authority has been floundering financially since last fall, when state legislators voted to strip away some of its money. The economy has also depressed tax revenues and legislators have shown little interest in restoring money for mass transit."

The MTA is now proposing a raise in the costs of monthly subway commuter passes. A 17% increase in cost, from today's $89 to a proposed fare of $104 per month, is most likely. Bus and subway increases are among the more regressive taxes imaginable. They hit transit users equally regardless of their income level. Wall Street wizards and the waiters who bring them their cocktails at dinner pay the same fare. Of course, many of the wizards manage to avoid the subway and won't face a 17% increase in their transit costs. I doubt limo prices will go up that much in 2011.

In addition to the inequity of fare increases, raising the price of mass transit is absolutely idiotic public policy. All over America, communities choked in auto and truck traffic wish they had access to a mass transit system as comprehensive as the one we have in New York. Getting people out of cars and into mass transit is their fondest dream. So here in New York, we seem determined to drive people out of mass transit and back to their cars. Go figure.

As Mayor Bloomberg argued repeatedly during the debate over congestion pricing, we need to make driving cars more expensive and mass transit less expensive, more convenient and more comfortable. Instead we are heading in the opposite direction. The MTA is cutting services and raising prices. This will make busses and subways more crowded (since fewer will come by), and increase commuting times. If you miss your subway, make sure your iPod is charged -- you'll be waiting a long time for the next one.

Who in the state legislature is responsible for all this non-decision making and pathetic transit policy? Once again we have to look in the direction of lower Manhattan's own Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. If he had shown "interest in restoring money for mass transit," you can be sure it would have been done. The state's overall budget crisis and the lack of leadership in Albany explains declining subsidies for mass transit but does not excuse it. The public seems too willing to accept the argument that since other cuts make sense, these cuts make sense as well.

It seems absurd to be working to develop a green economy and reduce energy consumption on one hand, and on the other hand reduce the incentive to use mass transit. It is yet another example of the dysfunctional state government New Yorkers continue to live with. The economic power of the Empire State was once mighty enough to mask the inefficiencies, corruption and self-dealing that is all too common in New York state government. The empire has disintegrated, and if we don't get smarter in a hurry, the state will too.

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