Monday, December 08, 2008

A Bridge Toll to Nowhere?

We haven't been commenting on the Ravitch Report on the MTA's finances until this point, but we think that it is in some ways a fitting epilogue to the congestion tax follies. After all, the plan to toll the East River bridges could be called the Son of Congestion Tax. As the NY Times observed yesterday: "The commission, led by Richard Ravitch, a former chairman of the transportation authority, proposed its rescue plan for the financially teetering authority on Thursday. The recommendations also included a regional payroll tax and regular fare increases. All are controversial. But the notion of bridge tolls, an idea that has been raised and rejected in the past, seems to have already become the political hot potato that no one wants to handle."

Of course, what was missing in the Ravitch magnum opus was any detailing of the authorities finances, and suggestions for making it more efficient and accountable to the public it is supposed to serve. And the idea of taxing in the current economic climate, has come under fire. Here's Nicole Gelinas in last week's NY Post: "After that, Ravitch's proposals get dicier. His biggest idea is to levy a new income-based payroll tax on downstate employers. At one-third of one percent, the tax is supposed to raise $1.5 billion annually. One problem here is that downstate, already so heavily taxed, is well past the ability to absorb new income-based taxes...But the larger problem with the tax is that it imposes another cost on New Yorkers - without asking anything reasonable of the MTA labor force."

Or changes in the governance structure of the MTA, for that matter-labor shouldn't be the only target of cost savings; and, what about all of the patronage jobs at the authority? But it will be the bridge tolls that get all of the attention; and getting this done won't be easy. nor should it. It appears that tolling will have to go through a complex legislative process, one that will impact all layers of local government.

As the Times tells us: "Besides the political hurdles, a key part of the challenge is the complex legal path that must be followed to allow the authority to oversee the bridges. Mr. Ravitch revealed nothing when asked about the legal approvals needed for the authority to take control of the bridges and begin collecting tolls. “It’s very complicated,” he said Thursday, when he announced the rescue plan. He said it was not clear how the transfer would be accomplished and that lawyers for the state and the city would have to study the issue."

Yes, study hall for the politicians; a grand idea! “Our conclusion is that the city would not be permitted to transfer the bridges to the M.T.A. without a new state law,” Kate O’Brien Ahlers, the communications director for the city’s Law Department, said in a written statement on Friday. City officials said that under state law, the bridges were similar to streets and parks, which are inalienable properties of the city. It is a status that requires state legislative action if they are to be sold, leased or otherwise removed from city control."

And the city council will need to emerge from its study hall and vote on this as well: "Ross Sandler, a former commissioner of the city’s Transportation Department who is now the director of the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School, agreed that the Legislature would have to pass a law allowing the city to give up control of the bridges. But he said it was also likely that the Legislature would not do so without seeking a home rule vote from the City Council backing the move, because a provision in the state law protects city property from certain state actions. The Legislature could act without the home rule message, he said, but then it could expose itself to a legal challenge. Mr. Sandler also said that the Legislature would almost certainly have to vote to give the authority the power to collect bridge tolls. Under state law, he said, roads are free, except in the cases where legislation has authorized the collection of tolls."

So what's the prospect of this occurring? "That could create a bleak prospect for bridge tolls because many members of the Assembly and the Council have spoken out against them." And isn't the mayor's silence deafening here? "The legal and political landscapes defining the issue present political risks for the mayor. He invested large amounts of political capital in persuading the Council to extend the term-limit law. But now that he will run next year, it could be politically damaging to embrace bridge tolls, which have long been unpopular with voters, especially in the boroughs outside Manhattan. And yet the toll proposal is similar to the mayor’s congestion pricing plan, which failed this year when the State Assembly refused to vote on it."

Leadership anyone? But Adam Lisberg at the NY Daily News apparently thinks that the mayor's silence is golden: "Last time, Bloomberg tried to play with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He cut deals and twisted arms to win City Council approval of the plan, but when it went to Albany, Silver wouldn't bring it up for a vote. This time, Bloomberg isn't going to play. When Gov. Paterson and Richard Ravitch unveiled their new plan for bridge tolls and a payroll tax to save the MTA, Bloomberg stood off to the side, praising their work but saying he wouldn't get involved until Albany reached a consensus."The one thing I don't want to do is make this proposal my own," Bloomberg said. "This should not be about personalities. This is for the greater good of everybody."

So, according the the wisdom of Mayor Mike, "the buck stops...elsewhere." Or, as Damon Wayons might have said, "Homey don't play that." But there's wisdom in the old adage, "you can run. but you can't hide." And Mike Bloomberg will not be able to shuck and duck on the MTA and all of the policy issues that go with it. As the Times points out: "As a result, remaining neutral on the toll proposal could be risky for Mr. Bloomberg if it makes him look as if he is moving away from a cause he once championed. So far, the mayor has been cautious, praising Mr. Ravitch while stopping short of endorsing his plan. Instead, he has pointed to the Legislature’s role in aborting congestion pricing and said it was the responsibility of state lawmakers to find a solution to the authority’s financial crisis."

That's what so sweet about having to stand before the voters periodically. The mayor cannot continue to hide under his desk for any length of time-and simply wait for Albany to sort this all out. The same forces that smacked Bloomberg down on his congestion tax, are mobilizing once again: "Some officials from the outer boroughs immediately took aim at the plan's proposal to toll the East River and Harlem River bridges."Many low- and middle-income residents in the outer boroughs live in areas that are underserved by public transit," Councilman Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) said in a statement. "To have them disproportionately carry the burden of rescuing the MTA is unfair. How can you tax people to enter Manhattan when you don't provide them reasonable alternatives?"

And now, one of Bloomberg's potential opponents has also weighed in: "Comptroller Bill Thompson yesterday blasted Mayor Bloomberg for ducking the politically sensitive issue of tolling the free East River bridges. "Mayor Michael Bloomberg should not be given an E-ZPass on this issue. The mayor needs to lead on this issue and not hide," said Thompson, a Democrat who plans to challenge Bloomberg for mayor."

Something needs to be done; but without leadership, this could all go south pretty fast. People like the mayor-and new senate majority leader Malcolm Smith-will have to step up and devise solutions that are not only fair, but workable and effective as well. This is just one of the many messes that will have to be tackled in the new year. Who said the mantle of leadership was an easy burden?