Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers' Campaign suggests taking $141 million from the MTA's capital budget and transferring it to the operating budget. His proposal has been echoed all over the media, including on Thursday by Congressman McMahon.
The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has rightly said that using stimulus funds intended for capital projects should be "a last resort." Most of those "capital expenditures" are on things like signal replacement that are just as essential to the operation of the system as the train operators' salaries. "Deferred maintenance" is what made the subways such an unpleasant, scary place in the 1970s and '80s.
I think that Russianoff is about half right: we should flex stimulus dollars to fund operating expenses for the subways and buses. But not the stimulus dollars that were dedicated to things like the Second Avenue Subway and signal replacement. There's half a billion dollars that the City DOT plans to spend on the Brooklyn Bridge, including fifty million in stimulus funds. Just take that and use it to pay the train and bus operators (and of course, the debt service on the capital plans that Russianoff encouraged us to support in past years).
Let me see if I can take on the top objections. First of all, it's illegal, the money has been allocated to the bridge already. Well, since most of our leaders are also lawmakers, I've noticed that most legality objections go away when there's enough political will.
Second, that money is for safety! The bridge is structurally deficient! If we don't fix it now it will fall into the river like that bridge in Minneapolis! It's true that there are corroded anchorages and supports, but we could extend the life on them quite a bit by simply not driving as many cars over them. If we were to close one lane of the bridge in each direction, I bet we could go for another twenty years without replacing those parts.
Third, the money is for reducing congestion and improving safety! Most of the money will be spent to widen the approaches from one lane to two. Do you want to pollute even more by filling the approaches with idling cars? Don't you care about safety? The main problem of the bridge is trying to fit too many cars into a limited space. Widening the approaches will not solve that problem, it will just move the idling cars from the approaches to the bridge itself. The high capacity of the bridge creates a danger zone all around it, and widening the approaches will just encourage drivers to speed. Removing a lane in each direction from the bridge will discourage motorists from taking it, thus reducing congestion and improving safety.
Fourth, it's an iconic symbol of New York! Do you want it to look like crap? The subway is also an iconic symbol of New York. Which do tourists see more of? Plus, removing cars from two of the lanes would free up space for bicycles, removing them from the walkway and making it much nicer for tourists on foot.
Just a few weeks ago, activists united to defeat a similarly misguided proposal to widen the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx, saving over $100 million dollars. If we can get $500 million from the Brooklyn Bridge, plus $400 million from the Kosciuszko Bridge widening $250 million from the BQE widening and $1 billion from the Goethals Bridge widening, I think that'll take care of the MTA's needs for a while.
Whatever happened to that $100 million from the Deegan widening, anyway?