During the depths of the economic recession, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature took over a quarter billion dollars from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to fill gaps in the state budget. Since then, not only have our elected leaders not restored all the missing funds, they have also continued to steal millions of dollars from dedicated funds that were supposed to go to the MTA. That lack of political support for transit has taken a toll on riders: For the five years following the financial crisis, the cost of riding the subway or bus went up at double the rate of inflation.
Commuter woes haven’t ended there. A few years ago, the MTA drastically reduced service, eliminating the V and W trains and 32 bus routes serving every corner of the city. For wealthier New Yorkers, these service reductions were just one more inconvenience in a city often filled with them. However, for residents in low-income, transit-starved neighborhoods, cutting a bus or subway also means cutting a lifeline to jobs, education and economic opportunity.
Now the MTA has announced its five-year Capital Program, $32 billion in transit projects that the entire region needs to keep our system running. Unfortunately, the plan faces a $15 billion shortfall that needs to be resolved. If our elected leaders don’t fund the full Capital Program, the New York City metropolitan area will be faced with even higher fares and worse service.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of a fully funded Capital Program. As New York City grows, we need our transit system to grow along with it. But we also need to make sure that growth serves more people than just the residents moving into shiny new developments in Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn. Everyone from the Bronx to Staten Island relies on successful public transit, and we should guarantee that the system works for everyone who needs it. That’s why the Riders Alliance is organizing transit riders across the city to push our elected officials to fund and build better transit for every borough. Our members are fighting not just for a transit system that works, but one that is also fair and sustainable. It’s not good enough just to fund the Capital Program; it also matters where the money comes from.
If the MTA can’t fund its capital plan, we’re staring at dramatic fare hikes — the kind that would make recent painful increases seem insignificant. But fare hikes, which are essentially a tax that takes the deepest bite out of the wallets of low-income families, are an unacceptably regressive way to fund a public service that the entire region relies on.
So what’s an equitable solution to ensure that the burden doesn’t fall unfairly on the riders who need mass transit the most?
Go Where the Money Is
On February 19, a coalition of transit advocacy groups, including the Riders Alliance, proposed Move NY, a plan that would fund the MTA by reducing tolls on outlying bridges in the outer boroughs and placing tolls on the four bridges leading into Manhattan’s Central Business District (CBD) below 60th Street, as well as a toll to drive into the district from the north. Those funds would be reinvested in our subways, buses, bridges and streets, making every form of transit, including car travel, better for everyone. Meanwhile, tolls on bridges that do not lead into the CBD would decrease by as much as 48 percent, and commuters who take mass transit would be exempt from any tolls to enter the CBD.
No one wants to pay tolls — or fares — to get around the city. But the status quo is not a progressive option. Choosing not to fully fund the capital plan, or to fund it through more unsupported MTA borrowing, will result in reduced service and higher fares for millions of working people throughout New York.
Charging drivers to enter the CBD and reducing tolls on other bridges would save money for some drivers, would cost more for drivers who have the most alternative options, and, most important, would create a new revenue stream to power the next generation of public transportation. If we don’t make these hard choices, the alternative will be higher fares, worse service and a disproportionate burden for New Yorkers who earn the least.
In our democracy, the only constituencies that get their needs met are those who are educated, organized and vocal. There are more than 8 million people on the subway, bus and commuter rail every day in New York. It could be the most powerful constituency in New York, and that’s why we’re organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, subway stop by subway stop, to guarantee that transit riders have a strong voice on the issues that affect them most.
Nick Sifuentes is the deputy director of the Riders Alliance. For more, see ridersny.org.
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