MANHATTAN (CN) – New York lawmakers put transit authorities in the hot seat Tuesday at the first oversight hearing in five years for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority unrelated to the budget.
Organized by the state Senate Committees on Transportation and on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, the interrogation in lower Manhattan kicked off this morning at a moment when Democrats control both chambers of the New York Legislature for the first time in nearly a decade, in addition to having Governor Andrew Cuomo in office.
The hearing also comes at a particularly low moment for the MTA, whose continued deterioration led Cuomo to declared a state of emergency for New York City’s subways in 2017. Subway headaches were the obvious focus of today’s hearing — all the senators but Transportation Committee Chairman Tim Kennedy, who lives in Buffalo, represent districts in the Big Apple. All the senators who led Tuesday’s hearing are Democrats.
The question of funding and running of the nation’s largest public-transit system is one that has divided constituents and politicians alike for years, however, and testimony before the Senate today spoke to this discord.
“It is the politicization of the MTA through gubernatorial control that has caused the vast majority of its problems,” the watchdog Reinvent Albany said in its testimony.
A popular suggestion for MTA fundraising is congestion pricing — as seen in London and two cities in Sweden — which would require cars entering Manhattan below a certain cutoff point to pay an extra fee. Supporters of this option also tout that it would raise money while reducing traffic and carbon emissions.
But in New York myriad questions remain about congestion-pricing logistics namely, how much people would have to pay, and how to set up an infrastructure for those payments.
Cuomo, who for years has feuded with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over responsibility for the MTA, spoke to this issue on Friday with a series of 2020 budget amendments.
The governor’s plan to increase MTA accountability by forming a panel of experts to set congestion-pricing rates has drawn eye rolls, however, from those who feel the agency is already too weighted down by bureaucracy.
“The establishment of a panel — it just seems a way to push things further down the line,” said Democratic Senator Gustavo Rivera.
“I don’t buy that the expertise doesn’t exist without that panel,” Rivera added.
Though MTA President Patrick Foye said he “fervently” hoped the Legislature would approve the congestion-pricing plan “this session,” the Cuomo appointee provided few details on what exactly that plan would be.
“Many decisions have to be made,” he said.
Foye said London’s congestion-pricing infrastructure took about three years, and that its experience could help New York City to act more quickly.
“The financial situation at the MTA is dire,” Foye told reporters later in the hallway.
He added: “We need billions of dollars — actually, tens of billions of dollars. Congestion pricing is fundamental to that, and that’s why we’re here.”
Foye did not answer questions about when the rates or hours of congestion pricing policy would be made public, though said it would be before November 2020.
“Look, I’d be making it up if I gave you this hour, this date,” he said. “But clearly this ongoing debate is playing out in public, as it should, and I think we’ll all have more information over the days and weeks to come.”
Senator Leroy Comrie, another Democrat, noted meanwhile that bus and train options in the outer boroughs need work before congestion pricing can take effect.
The MTA’s Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran warned that commuters could see fares rise up to 30 percent by 2024 without congestion pricing.
“Your grimace, I think, is well-placed,” Foye as the numbers spurred a visceral reaction from Senator Robert Jackson.
Federal dollars account for a portion of the MTA’s funding: the feds committed a total of $7 billion to the capital program that ends this year and still owe about $4 billion, which Foran said is not unusual as expenditures tend to drag past the end of the plan.
MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim, another Cuomo appointee, said the authority would use congestion pricing funds first for fixing signals and making the system more accessible to riders with disabilities. Currently, only about a quarter of subway stations are ADA-compliant.
Cuomo has proposed a “lockbox” for funds raised by congestion pricing to be used solely for MTA projects, an idea the executives touted.