Friday, March 13, 2009

An Un-Timely Opinion

We just knew that they couldn't resist-and the editorialists at the NY Times couldn't; weighing in today in order to give fiscal counsel to those state senators who are resisting tolling the East and Harlem River bridges: "Sometime this month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is preparing to severely cut service and raise fares by a painful 23 percent. Here’s the reason: A few New York state senators have decided to let commuters suffer, even their own constituents, rather than approve a tax on payrolls and modest new tolls on bridges over the Harlem and East Rivers."

Now, let's put aside for a moment the almost total suspension of disbelief involved in the Times' accepting the MTA's budget numbers and its deadline for the imposition of a fare hike and service cuts. Just how does the paper get off rendering financial evaluations on anything; after all, this is the business that has put its corporate jet up for sale and is borrowing money at the usurious rate of 14%!

Then again, maybe the Times has an intimate knowledge of just what kind of financial hole the MTA has driven itself into. Perhaps, the two entities are sharing bread and water together in the proverbial hole-and commiserating about the predicament they both find themselves in. But the fact that the Times and the MTA are like-minded profligates, doesn't mean that we need to accept what either says as gospel; and for both, it can hardly be said that any of their utterances can be taken to the bank!

Here's how the Times sees the situation: "Even with Albany’s help, the M.T.A. would have to raise fares by 8 percent and cut some services. But without those new taxes and tolls, the M.T.A. can only deal with its $1.2 billion deficit by making it a lot worse for 8.5 million riders a day." How does it know? Why, because the MTA says it's so.

But that's not good enough for some legislative skeptics-and recent convert State Senator Hiram Monseratte has joined the dissenting chorus: "Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens), one of the first outer-borough lawmakers to back tolls on the now-free East River bridges, announced yesterday he's pulling his support. Monserrate said he wouldn't agree to the measure until other options, such as raising income taxes on the wealthy or selling off excess MTA land, are exhausted."

But the MTA is moving ahead with its doomsday threats, and troubleshooter Richard Ravitch is claiming that temporary measures will just make things worse: "In an interview, he said that if the Legislature ultimately offered the authority a one-time cash infusion, the authority should go ahead with the fare increase and use the state funds to pay for long-term maintenance, or perhaps hold onto it to help close the budget gap next year. The authority’s board will meet on Friday in a special session to review its finances with and without a rescue plan. The board will meet again on March 25 to vote on the size of a fare increase, which would take effect in June. It will also vote then on whether to move ahead with planning for a series of deep service cuts, most of which would take place later this year."

In our view, the governor should make this a make my day moment-and publicly tell the authority to hold off in order to give the state time to fully review the authority's books; and give all of the new board members (yes, throw each and every one under the bus) time to develop a long term restructuring plan. For the Times, however, the agency's crackpot realism is accepted as an article of faith-prompting the paper to end its editorial with this lame observation on the complaints of legislative dissenters: "Their latest complaints are focusing more on the way the M.T.A. operates. Yes, the M.T.A. could always be more efficient, more transparent, but that is no excuse to punish the millions of New Yorkers who rely on public transit."

This tepid acknowledgement of MTA governing practices reminds us of the kind of defense Barney Frank mustered for Freddie Mac last July-yes there are some problems, but nothing to stop us from doing business as usual. So the Times-and the Daily News-should stop excoriating legislative opponents of bridge tolls, and demand that the governor and the state legislature devise a temporary plan to forestall fare increases. After that is done, than the newly restructured MTA-aided by the public accounting from its newly appointed trustees-could begin the hard work of making the authority function with transparent efficiency.