Transportation shares in the sacrifice demanded by Gov. Cuomo’s executive budget, released yesterday in the first step of what is sure to be a long and contentious journey as the governor and State Legislature work out the budget. But it doesn’t seem as though the proposed cuts will seriously impact the state’s ability to move people or invest in infrastructure — because things are bad enough already.
Cuomo’s budget would sweep $100 million in operating revenue from taxes supposedly dedicated to the MTA, which flies in the face of good governance principles. However, the agency says it can handle it without affecting riders. In a release, the agency said that “As we continue cost-cutting, further reductions become harder and harder to achieve. But we must fill this gap, and we will fill it without resorting to fare and toll increases or service cuts.”
(The actual math is more complicated. The budget would sweep $200 million in dedicated revenue and increase the MTA’s capital budget by $100 million. The MTA would then cancel a plan to use $100 million in operating funds for capital projects, according to the Straphangers Campaign’s Gene Russianoff. Total net impact? $100 million taken from the operating budget, no change in the capital budget.)
The hit comes after a $17 million raid by the Paterson administration last winter, and is almost as large as the $143 million the state took from dedicated transit funds in early 2010, which contributed to huge service cuts. But the timing may be less bad. The theft of funds last year came on top of huge shortfalls in dedicated taxes, because the state overestimated how much money would be brought in by the then-brand-new payroll tax. Now that the tax has been in place for a few years, the state should have a better handle on future forecasts. A repeat of 2010 is thus unlikely — as long as transit funds aren’t cut further, and as long as New York doesn’t fall back into an economic downturn that causes further shortfalls in dedicated tax revenue. The budget predicts that dedicated taxes will bring in an additional $43 million for the MTA over last year.
State elected officials still need to address the $10 billion gap in the MTA’s current 5-year capital program, which is largely unmentioned in the budget.
Upstate and Suburban Transit
For non-MTA transit operators in suburban counties and upstate, the budget predicts that dedicated taxes will bring a modest $2 million increase for operations, and keep capital funding steady.
It’s a relief that the budget will maintain the status quo — unfortunately, the status quo for upstate transit agencies is not good. As NYSDOT explained in 2009, the dedicated taxes which go toward operating non-MTA transit agencies now pay for only half of what the state deems necessary for those agencies. To plug the gap, the state has been using general taxes and transfers from capital accounts, putting repair and maintenance of upstate fleets at risk. That trend will continue this year, according to Rick Swist of the New York Public Transit Association.
It’s a similar story when it comes to NYSDOT’s capital program: The budget doesn’t worsen an already bad situation. It maintains funding for state and local capital projects at prior year levels, continuing the two-year, $7 billion state DOT capital program adopted last year. But this is the same capital program which NYSDOT says is “not sufficient to maintain existing levels of statewide bridge and pavement conditions.”
The Cuomo budget also proposes a 10% cut in operating expenses at State DOT and the DMV. This would help curb the practice of using the Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund for day-to-day operations instead of construction, as was intended. But expect this to become a front in the coming battle between the governor and state workers. According to the briefing book, “Gov. Cuomo intends to partner with State employee labor unions to achieve the workforce savings; if negotiations are not successful, significant layoffs are likely.” Such layoffs could seriously affect the state’s ability to deliver projects.