Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Transit financing kludges

It's really amazing what you can do for transit when you have consensus. Today, Yonah compares the difficulty that the Obama administration has had in funding transit to the new French national transportation plan, which spends just 5% of its money on roads. This plan comes from the right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy, which is genuinely conservative and anti-immigrant on many issues. Unlike the Democrats in the New York State legislature, the French left is very progressive on transportation, and would likely enact an even more ambitious program of transit funding if they win power.

At least twice, Yonah points out that "the state lacks a long-term funding source for the commitment" in this plan. But he goes on to say, "the plan suggests that whatever money that is available will go almost entirely to non-automotive modes of transport." This is the key: if you have a pro-transit consensus, the money will be spent on transit. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. As long as that consensus is intact, France will move steadily away from the car-dominated visions of Le Corbusier and Georges Pompidou towards a car-free future.

What does Yonah mean by "a long-term funding source"? Presumably he means some combination of dedicated taxes and fees, like the versement transport payroll tax that funds 40% of transit in the Paris region, as he described in a previous post. As he discusses, the New York MTA is also funded by a combination of dedicated taxes and tolls, but they are mostly sales taxes of one kind or another, and bring in less money when the economy is down.

The example of France shows that here in New York these dedicated taxes and fees are a kludge. There is no consensus in favor of transit. Local politicians pay lip service to transit, but they show a lot more concern about parking meters and tollbooths than about turnstiles and fareboxes. They constantly piss and moan about how much money the MTA spends on capital projects, but if there is any opposition to large highway widenings it starts at the grassroots, and politicians only jump on the bandwagon when they start to worry they'll be left behind.

Since at least 1968, the elite politicians, planners and bureaucrats of New York have acknowledged the value of transit, but they've been unable or unwilling to forge a true consensus in favor of funding transit, like the one that exists in France. Instead they've relied on kludges like bridge and tunnel tolls, the Mortgage Recording Tax and now the payroll tax that are ostensibly "dedicated" to transit. In that way they were able to provide funding while maintaining the fiction that transit funding was a relatively small part of the state budget.

Kludges never last forever, though, and this one has now broken down. Pataki and Giuliani realized that they could cut the transit budget and borrow money to make up the difference, and they would be long out of office by the time the bills came due. This year, senators like John Sampson and Assemblymembers like Rory Lancman realized that they could actually take money from the "dedicated" transit taxes, and the collective immunity provided by mass voting would protect them - if not, enough people would be clueless or easily distracted by stories of "the unaccountable MTA," and "Walder's $350,000 salary," and lies like "two sets of books," that they would face no consequences for their actions.

Kludges are supposed to be short-term, unsustainable fixes, and not only should they have sunsents, but while they're in place people should be working to build consensus in order to provide long-term support. This was not done under John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller, it was not done under Dick Ravitch, Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, and it hasn't been done under Bloomberg and Paterson. The French aren't relying on kludges, and we shouldn't either. We need to get some trustworthy, cooperative people who support in Albany, and then we won't have to worry about funding transit. It will happen because it's what should happen.


Alon Levy said...

The people in New York are right to whine about how much the MTA spends on capital projects. The MTA's total capital spending is several times higher than STIF's, but does not bring as many route-km because of waste. The MTA capital projects currently under construction - SAS Phase 1, the 7 extension, ESA - total $15 billion; the same amount of tunneling in Paris would cost less than $2 billion.

EngineerScotty said...

Speaking of kludges-- how about TIFs for general infrastructure?

neroden@gmail said...

Despite what Alon points out, the problems with MTA capital funding were analyzed... and they're mainly due to two things:

- an antiquated and non-responsive set of state contracting laws, which put more emphasis on paperwork than on competence. Which leads to problems getting decent contractors.
- a lack of *steady* capital construction has meant that the MTA has had no incentive to build a strong in-house construction division, such as the French railways have.