Will New York's Suburbs Engineer a Mass Transit Train Wreck?

In honor of the back-to-work season, let's send some positive thoughts toward the New York mass transit system.
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In honor of the back-to-work season, let's send some positive thoughts toward the New York mass transit system.

You may not remember the days when the subways sucked, but there was a long, dark, dreary period back in the 1970s and '80s when nothing was reliable. Would a train come? If it did, would it make it all the way to your destination without a breakdown? While you were waiting in the station, would that homeless guy who had set up camp on the platform start hassling you for money?

Now, things are better. Perhaps not great, but almost every part of the system is functional. Ditto for the bus service, and the commuter railroads. If you use any of them, you could offer a list of needed improvements. (Why can't the LIRR do something about the overcrowding?) But every day, the regional mass transit system moves masses of people to and from work with a minimum of disruption. It's the beating heart of our economy.

Enter the suburban governments, which are trying to destroy it.

They won't put it that way. Judging from their press releases, they would say that they're battling against a "job-killing tax." This comes up so often I'm wondering if Republicans tattoo "job-killing tax" on the back of their offsprings' necks.

Here's the story: In 2009, the economic downturn had sent the Metropolitan Transportation Authority deep into the hole. To get it out, the legislature authorized a small payroll tax for the metropolitan region.

The levy was up to 34 cents for every $100 in payroll. By my calculation, if you have a million dollar payroll you owe the MTA $3,400. Although you wouldn't actually be paying it at all, since the law exempts businesses with payrolls under $1.25 million.

My point, however, is that if you have a business with a million dollar payroll, you can probably handle a $3,400 tax. But you can't handle a region in which the trains, buses and subways don't work.

With the support of his fellow suburban pols, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano filed a lawsuit arguing that the legislature had no right to pass the tax without the approval of all the regional county governments, a concurrence that would happen shortly after hell freezes over.

In August, while we were all on vacation, a friendly Long Island judge ruled that Mangano was right. Cheers from the suburban governments, who apparently look forward to the MTA losing nearly 15 percent of its funding.

The MTA is appealing, and reasonable people seem to feel it should win over the long run.

"We believe the ruling is wrong, and we believe the ruling is going to be reversed," said Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Let's hope so. It's depressing to think the suburban governments can't see the point of supporting a mass transit system that many of their own residents use to get to work, and which everybody depends on to support a local economy that provides the state with half its tax revenue.

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