Competing Plans to Fund the MTA

There’s a debate among New York’s elected officials over how to fix the city’s debilitated, overcrowded transit system. Increasing delays and accidents have caused Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare the public transportation system to be in a state of emergency in desperate need of a solution. Although Governor Cuomo controls the transportation authority, he has called upon Mayor Bill de Blasio to help mend the crisis too, and they both have conflicting ideas on how to do so.

Mayor de Blasio asserts that the best solution is taxing the wealthiest New Yorkers to finance revamping the subway and bus systems and making them more affordable for low-income riders. This plan, which has been dubbed the “millionaires tax,” has been successful in Seattle, and de Blasio is hoping that it will ease commuting issues in New York.

Organizations such as Riders Alliance, which has been advocating for de Blasio’s proposed program to provide low-income workers with half-priced MetroCards, have come out in support of this tax. Director of Riders Alliance John Raskin claims that asking New York’s wealthiest to pay a little more to the benefit of the city is completely valid. However, this plan has garnered a great deal of criticism. Many critics, including Governor Cuomo, think de Blasio will have a difficult time getting this plan through the state Legislature. The Republicans who control the State Senate have already come out against it; increased taxes on the wealthy is against their party platform. Others have denounced the plan as one that will take too long to solve the crisis at hand. Joseph J. Lhota, the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) chairman, has called on de Blasio to match the state’s funding of $400 million to begin repairs on the subway system immediately instead of waiting for legislative session to recommence in January.

On the other hand, Governor Cuomo is planning to resurrect Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan. The original plan was to charge drivers $8 to enter certain specified congestion zones in Manhattan during peak hours. This did not succeed when it was first introduced a decade ago, but Cuomo is confident that now, its “time has come,” with an updated and improved plan in the works.

Alex Matthiessen of Move NY, among others, claims that the shutting down of Bloomberg’s plan was a “missed opportunity” in retrospect because of the current accumulation of traffic and how poorly it has been handled. Move NY has proposed a congestion pricing plan to make the tolling system more reasonable by reducing tolls that are too high and lack public transportation alternatives while adding tolls to areas with the highest concentration of traffic, such as the East River bridges. The organization anticipates that this plan would allow for the allocation of an extra $1.1 billion to public transit and infrastructure, raising twice as much as de Blasio’s plan. This renewed idea is gaining traction in the City Council, with more and more officials coming out in support. Critically, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said his house is exploring the idea as well.

Congestion pricing would have a greater impact on the city and reach far more people than a tax on the wealthy, which would affect a relatively small percentage of the city, while having the net benefit of encouraging behavior that helps to limit congestion on the roads. Additionally, international cities such as London, Stockholm, and Singapore have had their own congestion pricing successes. While some are that this plan would not be fair to those commuters in the outer boroughs, this does not seem to be a major deterrent for most stakeholders.

While neither of these plans can be passed in time to fund the emergency MTA repair of the subways this summer, it appears as congestion pricing has suddenly become a “middle of the road” idea, and while a millionaire’s tax has its detractors, it still has legs too. Regardless of which solution is more popular, commuter unrest in the city has made it clear that the congestion issue must be resolved as soon as possible. One approach or the other, or both, must get done sooner rather than later.