Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Ex-Tolling the MTA

It is looking more and more as if the plan to toll the East River bridges will founder on the opposition of key Senate Democrats. As the NY Daily News reported yesterday: "Questions about the MTA'S credibility are hampering a plan designed to rescue 8.5 million subway, bus and commuter train riders from massive fare hikes and service cuts.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) Monday said he has enough votes to pass a package with tolls on East and Harlem river bridges. But some Senate Democrats doubted a majority of senators would go along - and Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority "does not have a history of being forthright in terms of their budget. You know, they kept two books at a time."

Well, this skepticism mirrors our own-and the issue of the need for a forensic accountant is something we had brought up two years ago when the Bloomberg congestion tax was proposed. Here's how the NY Post details the senate opposition: "Smith (D-Queens) demanded a comprehensive audit of the beleaguered MTA before he would agree to any plan to plug its projected $1.2 billion budget gap with new tolls and a regional payroll tax. The ultimatum cast new doubt on a compromise that was emerging last week, when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) threw his support behind a $2 toll on East and Harlem River spans, down from the $5 toll proposed by the MTA."

Put simply, that fact that the MTA, after saying that it needed $5 bridge tolls, could so easily shift and accept the deuce raised the suspicion levels in the Democratic majority. As the News pointed out: "Senate Dems planned a "full vetting of MTA finances" and want to strengthen the state controller's oversight of the authority, Smith said in a statement last night...The "two sets of books" phrase was popularized in a legal challenge of MTA fare hikes in 2003. A suit based on reports by the state and city controllers claimed the MTA misled the public by exaggerating its financial situation."

But aside from the agency's creative bookkeeping, there should be concern about the general ability of the MTA to actually govern the regional transit system-something that the NY Times had raised-only to forget when the mayor's tax was proposed-when the fare increase had been trial ballooned a few years back.. The reality here, as the Post shows, is that Smith simply doesn't have the votes for a toll: "The audit demand was widely seen as a stall tactic by the new Senate leader, who had encountered stiff resistance from outer-borough Democrats after saying he would consider Silver's compromise. All 32 Democrats would have to vote unanimously to overcome unified opposition from Republicans, who say the transit plan neglects upstate road needs and includes unacceptable tax hikes."

We are reaping the whirlwind now for years of fiscal laxity and mismanagement at this sclerotic agency. Why riders and auto commuters should be made to suffer for this is beyond us-no matter what the plutocratic editorial boards say-something that many outer borough pols understand: "The coalition of legislators argues that the toll plan would not evenly spread the cost of meeting the transit shortfall. They argue it is unfair to residents of neighborhoods where mass transit options are limited. "Why should people pay for a system that's not available to them?" said Assembly member Rory Lancman (D-Queens). "I can assure you no one drives into Manhattan for the fun of it."

So it looks as if the governor once again has egg on his face as Liz points out: "Asked whether he has reached out to the senators who are so far steadfast in their opposition to the bailout - a group that includes at least two of the Three Amgios - (Kruger and Diaz Sr.) - Paterson replied:
"Well, I've made myself available to the majority leader if I can help. I served with a lot of Senate Democrats and with the Assembly members and am always happy to talk to them...I'm not just going to call them up. I don't know what their conversations with Sen. Smith are, if there's any way I can be of help to get this process moving, i can be available at a moment's notice." This hands-off approach is a big departure from the method employed by past governors. Eliot Spitzer, and even George Pataki, used to routinely call rank-and-file members - or at least have their staffers do it - for priority policy issues."

All of which underscore, perhaps, why Paterson's poll numbers are tanking; and there historically so low that it's hard to see how he can extricate himself from a situation that will soon lead other Democrats to follow Ruben Diaz's lead in (possibly) calling for him to step down. In the middle of a massive MTA and state budget gap, this is not a pretty picture.