Thursday, July 26, 2007

MTA: Getting Out of Our Way

With a fare hike looming once again, it took Norman Seabrook, the head of the correction officers union and an MTA board member, to put the entire fiasco into perspective: he suggested that the MTA sell off station naming rights to Disney. The mayor, on the other hand, thought that the idea was, well. Mickey Mouse.

Perhaps the idea is unrealistic but it does manage to highlight something about the agency and its entire operating methodology-it's Mickey Mouse through and through. The MTA's budget is not transparent, its functioning is beyond any outside accountability-and its reason for existence is no longer clear to anyone who has watched it operate over the past few decades.

Yet this is the same agency that we will sit back and allow to unilaterally raise subway and bus fares on New Yorkers because, well because it says that it must. What's fascinating here is that the MTA is apparently, at least according to the NY Post, earmarking fees raised through a congestion tax to defray its own projected operating deficits; "The MTA's latest financial plan-which already calls for a fare increase-is loaded with speculation about income from congestion-pricing charges..."

As MTA CEO Lee Sander tells the Post, "We need the money..." Well, don't we all, but we understood that congestion taxes were going to a separate authority under the mayor's scheme. Has something changed? This is just another example of the way in which the congestion tax is being unrealistically claimed for multiple purposes-and is therefore serving multiple masters. Since everyone is claiming the door prize, the likely result of all of this is- if the tax is ever enacted it will need to be constantly increased in order to feed the hungry hordes.

Which brings up the NY Times editorial point that is raised this morning: "While congestion fees would buoy the system in time, Mr. Sander needs to find an immediate way out of the MTA's fiscal pickle. Its revenues come from the state and local government coffers and the fare box. Fares have had to finance a big part of the budget-58 percent versus the national average of 40 percent-mostly because the state and city have long shortchanged public transit" (Emphasis added).

While we certainly disagree with the Times' view that the congestion tax could help to stabilize the system's finances-not with a projected deficit of $31 billion in transportation capital funding-we do agree that the bus and subway riders have been shortchanged-but sticking it to middle income auto commuters is not the proper response to this historic public transit penury.

The only likely result would be the rapid increase in both congestion taxes and fares-something that we see in embryo today. The funding for our mass transit infrastructure, and we mean for the entire region, needs to be addressed in a comprehensive an equitable manner. And the burden needs to be spread fairly across the board-and not by pitting middle income commuters against the folks on the E Train.

Part of this task would include an immediate-and prior-implementation of a mass transit expansion that would make the system a cheaper and attractive alternative, as it is in Paris As one Parisian emphasizes in this morning's Times Op-ed; "The lesson for big city mayors: If you're going to squeeze the cars, first primp the public ride."

So what the congestion tax commission needs to do is to expand the scope of the inquiry in order to avoid what C Wright Mils called "crackpot rationality," the seemingly rational planning that is done for an overall irrational enterprise. Congestion taxing will not save the fare, it will not build more transit infrastructure, it will not even reduce traffic congestion in any meaningful way-and, as importantly it is an inefficient way to raise money, as one of its own supporters admits in this morning's DN.

There is the need for a traffic congestion plan, but only as part of an overall plan to deal with mass transit funding. Part of this comprehensive oversight should include a real hard look at the continued usefulness of the MTA, and alternative ways to bettter administer our complex transit system. A congestion tax is the most inefficient, unfair and least comprehensive approach to this serious problem. Let's hope that our leaders in Albany understand this.