NY Transit shies away from “revolution”

April 30, 2012

New York does not need to go the way of other countries and create multi-state bureaucracies to finance and build mass transit systems, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chairman. Joseph Lhota, who runs New York City’s buses, subways, commuter rail roads and major bridges and tunnels, dismissed that recommendation:

We’re talking revolution – that is a complete waste of time. It just requires people to come together with a common purpose.

Ironically, the MTA chairman made the comments late last week at a conference organized by a multi-state group, the Regional Plan Association. It was created in 1922 to improve the quality of life in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Economists agree that New York’s mass transit system must be expanded to the city’s outer boroughs, Long Island and Connecticut, to keep its economy growing. New connections with New Jersey, which has its own transit system, are still in the early stages.

Noting the MTA systems serve 8.4 million people a day, Lhota said: “It’s the lifeblood of the metropolitan area; they serve 90 percent of the central business district” in Manhattan. But the MTA is chronically underfunded. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, had to get the city to pay for the billion-dollar extension of the No. 7 subway from Times Square west to 11th Avenue and south to 34th Street. “I could actually see the extension of the No. 7 train to other parts of the West Side,” Lhota said.

Yet that new link, which Lhota said might run south to West 23rd Street along the West Side Highway, likely will be too costly to be included in the authority’s next five-year capital plan. In six years or so, the new Second Avenue subway line will link East 96th Street to East 63rd Street. But it could take generations to lengthen the line so that it runs from 125th Street to Lower Manhattan.

Asked how to keep New Yorkers moving despite the cash crunch, Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation, said she was focused on expanding express buses and the summer launch of a privately-funded bike-sharing program with 10,000 bikes for 270 miles of bike lanes.

James Simpson, the commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Transportation, said one past way of funding transportation – raising taxes on gasoline – was politically impossible.

You cannot raise the gas tax; it is the third rail.

One of the panelists who recommended a multi-state approach sprang from a bi-state agency: Anthony Shorris, a previous executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who now serves as the senior vice president of the NYU Langone Medical Center. He argued that New York cannot expand its mass transit system by itself because so many commuters come from outside the city’s boroughs.

The issues we’re talking about require regional, maybe even super-regional authorities.

Anthony Coscia, a member of the Amtrak Board of Directors and a Port Authority chairman, stressed the capital shortfall and need for more cross-border approaches:

No one really thinks they can fund their way to better opportunity through austerity. We have to come up with our own way of generating funds across jurisdictional lines.

Yet New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, seen as a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, is highly unlikely to wish to cede any authority to a new multi-state bureaucracy, analysts said. The same likely is true of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a possible GOP 2016 presidential contender. The two governors already share control of the Port Authority, which runs Hudson River crossings, the PATH commuter train and is rebuilding the World Trade Center complex.

That joint control is not easy; in the late 1990s, New York Governor George Pataki and New Jersey Governor Christy Whitman, both Republicans, warred over the authority’s budget for months. Both Cuomo and Christie have sought to strengthen their executive branches, though not always successfully. A court killed the New Jersey governor’s plan to eliminate a housing agency. New York’s legislature beat back a bid by Cuomo to gain the ability to freely transfer funds among agencies.

Lhota, who serves at Cuomo’s pleasure, is under considerable pressure when it comes to advancing the MTA’s agenda, said a source familiar with the Cuomo administration. That “is a tough group; they don’t want to explain anything and they don’t see why they have to,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Panelists noted that getting more transportation funds requires regaining the public’s trust that the money will be well-spent. Lhota noted his authority’s difficult public relations. The authority won a court ruling that found it did not keep two sets of books – one private and one for the public – but that confidence-damaging perception lingers on. Lhota blamed the allegations on former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat who in 2010 pleaded guilty to a felony, receiving a reward for official misconduct:

It’s the result of a former elected official who now is incarcerated and he made it up out of whole cloth. […] Not a day goes by, not a minute goes by, when I don’t think about how to improve the image of the MTA.


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