Time to Step On the Gas

Cities -- like the human body -- are machines that need proper maintenance and repair.

New York City, the greatest metropolis in the world, looks great on the outside. There are gleaming luxury high-rise buildings, shiny new neighborhoods and energetic tourists everywhere.

But looks are deceiving.

Beneath the surface, there is urban rot. Our schools are in disrepair and built for the 19th century, not the 21st century. Our subways are antiquated, overcrowded and are becoming more unsafe. Our roads and bridges are barely hanging on.

In short, the infrastructure of our beloved town, like an 80-year-old who never exercised and smoked, is beginning to crumble. We do not have the money, the will or the foresight to make this an urgent cause.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is doing his best to become a modern-day Robert Moses, has feverishly announced a hodgepodge of new ideas throughout the state to upgrade our decrepit transportation system. His eagerness to do long overdue makeovers of Penn Station and LaGuardia airport are commendable. His call for more capital funding for the MTA - forcing the Mayor to kick in the city's fair share - is also very necessary.

But the pundits are asking: where will the money come from for these multi-billion dollar construction projects? Who will pay for the unsexy work of modernizing our transportation hubs and the system that transports millions of people to work and school each day?

Well, there's an answer right in front of our noses, but no elected leader dare utter it because it contains a dirty three-letter word: "gas tax."

Because of the worldwide collapse of the oil market, New Yorkers are now paying barely $2.00 per gallon for gas, almost half as much as its one time peak. There are many reasons to believe this is the new normal.

I am not an economist, but I know that even a 25 cents per gallon tax on gasoline would give our elected leaders a bountiful supply of funds to begin the important work of rebuilding New York. This kind of user tax will not be onerous because all drivers know that the price drop in the past 18 months has been an unexpected boon.

But, of course, any mention of raising taxes is a third rail in politics. Even staunch Democrats like Governor Cuomo know that raising any kind of tax will evoke the ire of a big slice of their voters.

Nonetheless, it's time to think big. If Robert Moses was able to build more than a dozen bridges, hundreds of public housing projects and thousands of acres of parkland almost a half century ago, we can rise to the occasion and fix our city's crumbling infrastructure.

Like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, the Governor of New York must articulate a comprehensive and well-thought out plan to justify this kind of a tax to help fund the bold projects on the table. He must give a realistic budget and timeline for each. He has to carefully explain the cost-benefit analysis so citizens can feel proud that every time they fill their car's gas tank they are contributing to a better future for our kids and our City.

Here's one example: if the MTA was able to replace the antiquated subway circuit system, our underground transportation would become 30 percent more efficient. That means more subway cars, shorter waits for commuters and fewer overstuffed cars. Let's hear Cuomo and the head of the MTA detail what this will cost, how the gas tax can fund it and a reasonable timeline to accomplish these goals.

I would hope that Mayor de Blasio would join this crucial effort but so far he has not shown much interest in transportation and infrastructure. This is unfortunate because one important way to combat inequality is to give all city workers access to efficient transportation so they can get to their jobs as fast and comfortably as possible.

On a national level, our next president should also recognize how vital the rebuilding of our transportation grid has become. We should be world leaders in implementing bullet trains and modern mass transit; yet each year that passes we see China and Japan and Europe modernize their systems while we lead lives of quiet desperation.

It may not be as sexy as fighting crime or terrorism or trying to help the homeless and build massive amounts of affordable housing, but strongly committing to rebuilding our infrastructure will create new jobs, help our economy and make us all proud New Yorkers.

Let's feel the fierce urgency of now and get those shovels in the ground.

Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, was a Liberal Party-backed candidate for Mayor. He can be reached at tallon@cityandstateny.com