Transit Comes up (VERY) Short in Governor’s Budget

 (John Carl D'Annibale, Times Union)

(John Carl D’Annibale, Times Union)

There is a bumper crop of dollars up for grabs this year in Albany thanks to the state’s sizable bank settlement funds, and after many voices chiming in that our crumbling infrastructure is the fiscally responsible investment for that money, Wednesday was Governor Cuomo’s turn to speak his mind. Unfortunately, the Governor plans to invest only a paltry portion of that on transit.

As the state faces a mind-boggling $33 billion needed for statewide transit systems, it is now up to advocates and legislators to make sure our dollars are spent in a fiscally responsible and sustainable manner. Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve gleaned so far from the transit budget he has proposed:

The Nuts and Bolts of Transit

Ahead of the release of the 2015-16 New York State Executive Budget, statewide transit systems identified $33 billion in capital needs over the next five years ($32 billion for the MTA$1 billion for suburban and upstate transit). Roughly half of that would be funded from a combination of fares, debt, and other revenue sources; transit systems are dependent on the state budget to fill the gap.

The Executive Budget proposes using just $750 million from the settlement funds for MTA capital needs ($150 million a year), which leaves a gaping $14.45 billion ($2.89 billion annually) gap for the MTA. Additionally, in an unprecedented and troubling move, the Governor proposes to take $121.5 million of transit revenues from the Metropolitan Mass Transportation Operating Assistance program (MMTOA) that are dedicated to downstate operating needs, and move it to a new capital account, while simultaneously increasing operating funds for the MTA with $37 million from general funds.

The final sleight of hand in this shell game is another diversion of dedicated funds to pay off state debt, this time $20 million from MMTOA, and a promise to repeat the diversions through 2019. The budget does continue to fulfill the Governor’s promise to make the MTA “whole” with a $309.2 million transfer from the General Fund, a promise made after the 2011 budget deal that had slashed MTA revenues derived from the Payroll Mobility Tax.

For non-MTA transit systems, the outlook is equally bleak. The Executive Budget provides $5 million from the NY Works program for capital needs, leaving suburban and upstate systems with a $95 million annual gap in their five-year capital plans. Operating funds for upstate transit are proposed to be flat—not even a bump for inflation—at a time that upstate ridership continues to climb (despite falling gas prices).

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February 3rd in Albany—Join Us

On Tuesday, February 3, New Yorkers for Active Transportation (NY4AT) will be teaming up with New York Public Transit Association (NYPTA) for a lobby day in Albany to discuss pedestrian, bicycling and transit infrastructure. Join us!

In light of yesterday’s State of the State address, now is the time to let your Albany legislators know that sustainable transportation options are […]

New Jersey 2014: Looking Back on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

NJ Year In ReviewTransportation was quite possibly the hottest topic in New Jersey in 2014, seeing major highs, major lows and everything in between. Momentum for improving bicycle and pedestrian safety continued with the passage of new Complete Streets policies, bike accommodations along the rebuild of Route 35 in Ocean County, and new support for the Circuit trail network. Legislative leadership finally started realistic conversations about addressing the transportation funding crisis.

But for just about every step forward, there was another step back. Before the paint was even dry, Newark suspended enforcement of newly-installed protected bike lanes, critical safety legislation appears to be indefinitely stalled in the Senate, and the red light camera pilot program ended. Port Authority reform in particular turned out to be a robust source of lows, including blocked transparency efforts and misguided capital programming priorities.

But by far the biggest fail for New Jersey in 2014 was the fact that the state’s looming transportation financing crisis remains unresolved with less than six months left until the Transportation Trust Fund runs dry.

The Good

“Everything is on the table.” — The grave state of the Transportation Trust Fund generated a deluge of attention towards restoring solvency to the TTF.  A total of five special hearings were held by the Senate and Assembly Transportation Committees on the state of transportation funding, resulting in a number of solutions “on the table.” Transportation leadership in New Jersey— including NJDOT Commissioner FoxSpeaker PrietoAssemblyman Wisniewski and Senator Lesniakwas boldly vocal about the need for an increase in the state gas tax, which has not been increased since 1988 and is the second lowest in the country.

Complete Streets progress continues — The Garden State continues to lead the tri-state region with 14 new Complete Street policies added in 2014 as of October, bringing the total number of policies to seven counties and 111 municipalities.

Bicycle network grows — The Circuit received $8.6 million in funding to support the continuation of the 750-mile regional trail network, 300 miles of which are now open for use with 50 more underway. Once complete, more than half of the Camden-South Jersey-Great Philadelphia region’s population will live within a mile of the Circuit. Also in 2014, Tri-State, along with NJ Bike & Walk Coalition and Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, launched an all-out campaign to ensure that the 12.5-mile,eight-municipality rebuild of Route 35 in Ocean County served as national model for implementation of Complete Streets. On April 1, the New Jersey Department of Transportation revealed revised plans which now include ten miles of bike infrastructure.

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The True Cost of Cutting Overnight PATH Service

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop speaks at Tuesday's press conference. | Photo: nj.com

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop speaks at Tuesday’s press conference. | Photo: nj.com

Earlier this week, more than a dozen federal, state and local elected officials and labor advocates gathered at Grove Street PATH station for a press conference to call on the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to rescind a recent proposal to eliminate overnight PATH service. Rallied together by Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, those joining in the call included U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Albio Sires, North Bergen Mayor and State Senator Nicholas Sacco, Union City Mayor and State Senator Brian Stack, State Senator Sandra Cunningham, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

The Port Authority quietly released a report between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays which included a “last resort” proposal to eliminate overnight service on PATH. The report states:

Eliminating overnight service during weekends (i.e., eliminating service on Friday night/early Saturday and Saturday night/early Sunday) would produce operational and capital expense savings. …PATH could achieve operational and capital savings estimated to be at least $10 million per year from stopping service altogether between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on weeknights.

The impact of a service reduction would be limited. Assuming that some riders slightly alter their travel plans to ride the last train before operations cease or the first train after they recommence, approximately one-half of one percent of PATH riders during the time period (just under 1,500) would be affected.

That’s a pretty big assumption on their part, given that the Port Authority’s definition of “slightly alter” may not match up with that of the wide array of riders who rely on the late-night PATH service, which fills the sizable gap in bus and NJ Transit service for the early morning trips to and from Manhattan. For Hoboken residents, the last train home from Manhattan leaves at midnight on weeknights and the first train to the city on weekday mornings isn’t until 6am, leaving all third shift employees, musicians, performers and early morning Wall Street workers to rely on PATH. According to Mayor Fulop, roughly 390,000 riders would be impacted annually by the loss of service from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on weeknights and possibly hundreds of thousands more if weekend overnight service were also eliminated. For perspective’s sake, in all of Hudson County, more than a third of all households do not own a vehicle.

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ABO Report Validates Transparency Concerns Regarding EFC Loan to Thruway Authority

ABO reportWith the recent release of the New York State Thruway Authority’s proposed budget, which includes a funding deficit of $305 million and $922 million in borrowing for the Tappan Zee replacement project, this is as good a time as any to revisit last month’s report detailing concerns about the approval of the Clean Water Funds loan to the Thruway Authority.

Public authorities like the New York State Thruway Authority or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should be familiar to regular MTR readers, but readers may be surprised to know that there are 45 state public authorities, not to mention the even more numerous local public authorities, industrial development agencies and local development corporations. As Assemblyman Richard Brodsky said in 2009, “The lives of New Yorkers are impacted by the operations of state authorities to an infinitely greater extent than they are by the departments of state government”yet little is known about what they do or how they operate. Brodsky made that statement in support of legislation he sponsored that year that instituted a new fiduciary duty for authority board members and also created the Authorities Budget Office (ABO).

One of the many authorities, is the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) which, with the Department of Environmental Conservation, jointly administers the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a fund that provides low-interest rate financing to municipalities to construct water quality protection projects such as sewers and wastewater treatment facilities. Although those purposes have no relation to bridge construction, on June 16, Governor Cuomo announced the EFC had decided to make $511.45 million in “low-cost” loans to the Thruway Authority for the New NY Bridge project. The problem with this announcement is that the EFC Board had not yet acted on the loans, but rather met ten days later, officially voting on the $511 million loans on June 26. But this official decision was ten days after the Governor’s announcement, creating a timing problem for the Board’s decision.

This problem, as well as other red flags, led several organizations, including Tri-State, to request an ABO investigation of the loan process. The results of the investigation were released last week, in which the ABO found:

  • Instances where the EFC Board’s actions did not meet the standards required by the state’s fiduciary duty law;
  • The EFC Board did not comply with Open Meetings Law requirements; of particular concern was the Board’s unwarranted use of executive sessions under Section 105 of that law; and
  • The EFC Board failed to ensure that the EFC complied with 40 CFR 35.3150 when it did not question why the project was added to the Intended Use Plan (IUP) on June 11, 2014 and why the public was denied a comment period.

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Can the Reinvention Commission Recommendations Unite Our Fractured Regional Transit System?

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 7.48.16 PMJust in time to feast on before the Thanksgiving holiday, the final report of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Transportation Reinvention Commission was released today, identifying seven key strategies to help the agency plan, prepare for and fund the next 100 years of transit investments.

While various outlets will focus on the funding, customer service and project delivery overhauls, there are key recommendations that acknowledge the interconnectedness of the MTA with transit systems and facilities in the tri-state region, a region where transit agencies and authorities operate independently of one another otheroften in a vacuum. Given Tri-State’s regional role and our seat at the Reinvention Commission roundtable, we’ve highlighted the recommendations from the report that have implications for all beneficiaries of the MTA’s bus, subway and rail systems in the agency’s three state service territory:

Prioritize new fare media to facilitate seamless travel across the region. [Strategy Three, p.37]
With commuters from all three states using multiple transportation modes and systems, integrating fare media across various agenciesMTA, NJ Transit, PATH, NICE, Bee-Line, Tappan Zee Express, etc.would provide seamless connectivity and ease of transfer.

Increase connectivity between MTA and other regional transportation providers. [Strategy Four, p. 42]
The MTA network operates in a region with other transit agencies and facilities, yet transit planning is often siloed within state and agency jurisdictions. This often leads to fractured approaches to transit needs that impact more than one agency (e.g. capacity/infrastructure constraints at Penn Station; outdated Trans-Hudson tunnels, terminals and tracks)

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$1 Billion and Counting: New York’s Non-MTA Transit Capital Needs

NYPTA's New Report Identifies $1 billion in capital needs for non-MTA transit

NYPTA’s New Report Identifies $1 billion in capital needs for non-MTA transit

Yesterday, the New York Public Transit Association (NYPTA) released their report “Five Year Capital Program for Upstate and Downstate Transit” which outlines the critical capital investment needs for non-MTA urban transit systems across the state. While the MTA first issued a multi-year capital program more than 30 years ago, NYPTA’s report represents the first ever comprehensive attempt to develop a five-year capital plan for New York’s non-MTA systems.

And the need is substantial. There are more than 100 systems covering nearly every county in the state, and carrying over 550,000 passengers each and every day. Yet, the projected capital deficit is $577 million. Making matters worse, these system are using capital funds for operations, accelerating the wear and tear on facilities and equipment. The lack of capital investment and dedicated capital and operating funding streams over the years has led to outdated systems that break down, disrupt service and incur higher costs when transit providers attempt to regain a state of good repair. Unfortunately, existing revenues are projected to cover just 43 percent of these identified capital needs.

The report details $1 billion in upcoming infrastructure needs between 2015-2019, with over 80 percent of the identified need going solely to repair and replace existing core system assets. The remaining 20 percent is slated for expansions and upgrades, such as bus rapid transit, to accommodate record transit ridership—for example, the report notes that ridership is up seven percent in the Capital District.

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New Jersey Groups Call for Permanent Fix to State Transportation Problems

The Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee will hold its fourth and final special hearing regarding the state’s Transportation Trust Fund on Thursday morning as part of the 99th Annual New Jersey State League of Municipalities Conference, now underway in Atlantic City.

Navigating the transportation funding debate is complicated. While the public debate has focused primarily on increasing taxes and creating additional revenue streams, this is only part of the discussion. Clear and concise answers to some of the most complex questions regarding bonding, debt, current and future transportation projects are essential to an informed conversation by all stakeholders from the bus rider to the state’s transportation commissioner.

With skepticism and frustration regarding the condition of the state’s transportation assets and systems, a clear explanation of the accounting behind the soon-to-be bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund is required.

For these reasons, Tri-State, along with New Jersey FutureRegional Plan Association (RPA), New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) New Jersey State Joint Council today released a list of questions to guide a transparent and informed discussion about transportation funding between state lawmakers and the public:

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Can We Try to Solve New Jersey’s Transportation Funding Crisis Now?

Assemblyman John Wisniewski proposed

Assemblyman John Wisniewski proposed a bill which would increase New Jersey’s gas tax by at least 25 cents. | Photo: Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger

The election is over, so the time to buckle down and focus on solving New Jersey’s transportation funding crisis has arrived.

The problem is abundantly clear: Governor Christie’s five-year transportation capital plan failed, and will run dry a year early, which will leave a huge void if a solution is not in place by July 1, 2015, the beginning of fiscal year 2016.

Earlier this fall, to get a dialog going between advocates, legislators and interest groups on how to resolve the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) crisis, the Assembly Transportation Committee held three special hearings in Montclair, Piscataway and Camden. A fourth and final hearing will be held next week in Atlantic City during the annual NJ League of Municipalities Convention.

There are a number of items “on the table” aimed at restoring the solvency of the TTF. The most recent addition to the menu of items is bill A3886, proposed for introduction by Assemblyman John Wisniewski. A3886 would increase the gas tax by at least 25 cents, adding $1.25 billion to the $535 million generated annually by the current 14.5 cents per gallon gas tax. This is a step in the right direction and will at least help cover the roughly $1.1 billion in annual debt payments projected out to 2041.

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Election 2014: It’s Not All Bad News

Governor Dan Malloy of Connecticut won a close race for reelection. | Image: ctnews.com

Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, a proponent of transit-oriented development and improved rail service, won a close race for reelection. | blog.ctnews.com

Now that the votes have been counted, it’s safe to say there’s plenty of bad news for sustainable transportation policy across the nation: Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a known climate change denier, is poised to lead the Environment and Public Works Committee, Wisconsin Governor (and avid highway expander) Scott Walker won reelection, and Massachusetts failed to defeat a ballot measure which ends gas tax indexing.

But if you look hard enough, you’ll find there’s some good news too.

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