Former MTA Chairman Ravitch is Candid on Capital Plan, Calls for City and State to Work Together

Former New York Lieutenant Governor and MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch appeared on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Errol Louis last week to talk about the MTA capital plan. The full video is available here, but there were a few snippets in particular that were worth sharing:

(1:28)  “Historically, the State of New York has been responsible for designing the financing methods to assure that the MTA’s basic capital needs are met, and it has failed to do so.”

This seems obvious, but Ravitch likely made this point because Governor Andrew Cuomo has been saying recently that the MTA is not a state agency. Even though it is.

(4:01) “All we’ve heard so far is that the state may put up $8 billion — although we have no idea where it’s coming from — and that the city should put up five times as much as they’ve ever put up before. And it’s not traditionally been the responsibility of the city government to finance the capital needs of the MTA.”

MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast is keen to remind us that the majority of the MTA’s ridership and infrastructure is located within New York City — which has strengthened the argument for more and more city funding. But New York City is part of New York State, and city residents pay New York State taxes. Again, this seems obvious, but the recent discourse around MTA capital plan funding warrants the reminder.

While there is not a tradition, as Ravitch says, of the city financing the bulk of MTA’s capital needs, there has been a tradition of the city’s MTA contribution not growing with inflation (it has averaged $100 million each year since 2000). The Independent Budget Office has noted that, if the city’s MTA contribution, like MTA fares, were to keep up with inflation, it would be $363 million this year.

(4:38) “It was the business leadership of New York who recognized that their own self interests, the ability of the city to be the center of commerce, the center of finance, the center of communications… depended on having a safe and functioning mass transit system. David Rockefeller, chairman of the Chase Bank, Dick Shinn, chairman of MetLife, and Bill Ellinghaus, chairman of AT&T, went to Albany… and they said, ‘the business community of New York needs that revenue.'”

Wouldn’t it be nice if the heads of Related Compaines, BlackRock and Google were to pay a visit to the state capitol and remind lawmakers that the company building the largest development since Rockefeller Center, the world’s largest asset manager and the world’s leading search engine can’t thrive without a reliable transit network? Instead, we have Partnership for New York City CEO Kathy Wylde encouraging the MTA to raise revenue through advertising on MetroCards and leasing more of its real estate to retailers. These are good ideas; it’s just that their potential revenue-producing power is orders of magnitude smaller than the $11.5 billion the MTA needs.

(7:27) “There are two ways of governing the MTA: one is to view your job as a board member as an advocate for the system, and to be pleading with the public, going to Albany, going to Washington, asking, demanding… The other way of doing it is to say, you’re an agency of the state and you do what the second floor [of the state capitol, where the Governor’s office is located] wants. That’s the choice that Mr. Prendergast has opted for, so there isn’t the passion and the strident advocacy coming from the board.”

Ravitch is right. There is a lack of advocacy coming from the board. And Chairman Prendergast, a renowned transportation professional who was welcomed by the advocacy community, has been in lock-step with Governor Cuomo as of late, engaging in political blame games and browbeating New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase the city’s contribution to the MTA:

  • On July 28, Prendergast penned a letter to de Blasio asking for $3.2 billion for the MTA capital plan and, “echoing Cuomo, says not to waste time on ideas that are “not likely politically feasible” — such as congestion pricing — to generate that additional funding.
  • On September 10, he issued a statement which insinuated that New York City officials were responsible for a G train derailment.
  • Then, on September 13, Prendergast “derailed” the opening ceremony for the (city-funded) 7 train extension by challenging Mayor de Blasio to increase the city’s MTA contribution.
  • And this past Sunday, Chairman Prendergast published an op-ed in the Daily News which praises Governor Cuomo for increasing the state’s operating support for the MTA, and calls on de Blasio “to step up and do the right thing for his constituents.”
  • And finally, at Monday’s meeting of the MTA Finance Committee, Prendergast “stepped up the feud by suggesting the MTA would reduce capital improvements located within the city limits,” an idea NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg called “punitive and divisive.”

(9:57) “I have a high degree of tolerance for people in politics, so I don’t blame the governor or the mayor for being mindful of the political impact of what they’re suggesting. I think it’s a shame that so much energy — and so much news coverage — has been devoted to the battles between the two of them instead of why in hell they’re not sitting together and talking to [Assembly Speaker] Carl Heastie and [Senate Leader] John Flanagan and getting a law passed and a revenue source created that will fund the necessary capital expenditures. That’s the tragedy.”

Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

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