2009-03-26 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Bells Toll For MTA Bailout; No Tolls For E. River Spans
By Neil S. Friedman

This Week's Attitude

With the Metropolitan Transit Authority facing a huge deficit, there was, for a while, renewed talk about introducing tolls on the East River bridges. For the last few years, every time the city's transit system finds itself in a dismal fiscal hole — which is beginning to be routine — the tolls are brought up as a solution. 

Yesterday, just two days after it became clear there was insufficient support in the state legislature for the toll initiative and no proposal for an alternative bailout, the MTA formally approved steep transit fare hikes — as much as 25 percent — that will commence in late spring. The MTA also authorized what one board member called "horrific" service cuts for city subways and buses.

It was, after all, a completely unreasonable idea to pass along the MTA's burden to motorists, who, nonetheless, will have to shell out more (about $1.50 per trip) anyway when tolls at agency-operated spans and tunnels, including the RFK Bridge and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, also rise this summer.

Did anyone ever suggest subway commuters pitch in last summer when most drivers had to fork over more than $60 every time they topped off their tanks? Of course not, that would be ridiculous! Yet, the MTA and some state politicians had no problem suggesting drivers offset the cost of transit fare hikes. Like drivers, bus and subway riders will just have to learn to cope with the higher cost of commuting.

Hey, I've got nothing against public transportation commuters — some of my best friends use it and I'd even let my sister marry one of 'em (if I had an eligible sister) — but just because tens of thousands prefer sitting in the comfort of their motor vehicles, as traffic crawls along, rather than standing on packed city subways and buses, it doesn't mean they should be forced to subsidize their transit counterparts.

City motorists already pay exclusive fees that most commuters are probably not even aware of, including drivers' licenses, vehicle registrations and license plates, annual vehicle inspections, parking meters, parking lots, etc. Of course, some of that money goes towards the repair of state and city roads, as well as regular upkeep of bridges and tunnels, which drivers use and, therefore, should help pay to maintain.

Do transit fares supplement pothole repairs? I don't think so. Besides, as taxpayers, motorists who cross the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges daily, weekly, monthly — or whenever — already pay state and local revenues that go towards, among other things, budget items earmarked for the MTA.

Seven years ago, facing a nine-figure budget gap, Mayor Bloomberg proposed reinstating a commuter tax, which had been repealed in Albany a decade earlier during a robust economic climate, but the idea was vociferously condemned as unfair to suburbanites and swiftly discarded. Yet some politicians obviously felt no qualm about supporting tolls for city drivers. Remember, three of the four East River spans connect Manhattan to Brooklyn, where, no doubt, many drivers reside.

Despite the troubled economy and, until recently, a steady five-year ridership increase, the MTA has been operating at a loss for years, yet its stateappointed board members still earn not-too-shabby six-figure salaries and seldom board public transportation, instead, typically opting for luxurious, chauffeur-driven vehicles when they travel for local business.

There was even a report on Tuesday that one MTA board member, Nancy Shevell, missed Monday's crucial meeting because she apparently preferred to attend a London movie premiere with boyfriend Paul McCartney. And it wasn't the first time the 2001 Gov. Pataki appointee, who has two years left on her 10-year term, abandoned her responsibility to be on the arm of the ex-Beatle. She also missed an important vote for a similar reason last year. That kind of irresponsibility cannot be tolerated in such dire times.

The MTA bureaucracy is as bloated as the city's Board of Education once was. However, the agency is a private organization and, therefore, is not obligated to account to the public. But, now that doomsday is here, and doesn't appear to be dissipating anytime soon, isn't it time for a massive MTA overhaul to end years of inefficiency and begin a careful, candid scrutiny of its revenues?

Years before the recent mortgage finagling and Bernie Madoff's shady financial dealings were publicly bared, the state and city comptrollers conducted separate investigations that discovered the MTA had maintained two sets of books in what was basically a devious maneuver to doctor its finances to hide hundreds of millions of surplus dollars the agency failed to report while seeking a fare hike and station closing in 2003. MTA board members quickly defended the dubious accounting as "restructured debt." By the way, the fare was soon raised to $2.

As the city's economy goes, so goes MTA ridership, which recently reported its first decline since 2003. With a reported loss of 60,000 jobs within the city over the last year, the MTA has experienced a parallel drop in daily commuters that means another blow to its ongoing cash flow dilemma.

While the city's massive transit system generally operates efficiently in transporting millions of commuters every day, its hierarchy needs to be overhauled to meet the demands of a system that continually has found it difficult to sustain itself even as total ridership skyrocketed.

Regrettably, it appears there's little or no light at the end of any tunnel (or system) operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. And that doesn't bode well for motor vehicle or mass transit commuters.

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