Facing a projected $900 million budget shortfall next year, the authority has proposed increasing transit fares twice in the coming three years, and has asked the city and state governments to provide hundreds of millions in additional aid.
But city and state officials, struggling with their own multibillion-dollar deficits, have urged the authority to cut its spending and find alternative sources of revenue. They have said they are counting on a commission led by Richard Ravitch, a former transportation authority chairman, to devise a plan to rescue the agency from its deepening financial hole.
Enter congestion pricing. Asked in a recent interview how seriously the commission was considering elements of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s traffic revenue plan to provide money that could bail out the authority, Mr. Ravitch replied, “Very.”
“I’m looking at a whole series of possible sources of revenue,” he said. “It would be inappropriate to comment on that except that I have said before publicly that we would certainly go down and look at congestion pricing, and every member of the commission knows it.”
At the heart of the changing dynamic are the politics of transit fare increases. Assembly Democrats killed a scaled-down version of Mr. Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan in April when they refused to bring it to a floor vote, even though the plan would have made the transportation authority eligible for $360 million in federal assistance.
That plan would have charged drivers $8 to enter a congestion zone in Manhattan south of 60th Street during peak hours. The revenues, projected to be more than $500 million annually, would have gone toward mass transit improvements.
Now, the authority is proposing raising transit fares and bridge and tunnel tolls next year and again in early 2011 to help close huge shortfalls in its operating budget. It has said it may have to raise fares every two years after that to balance its books. In addition, the agency is facing a projected deficit of $15 billion to $20 billion in its forthcoming five-year capital plan. Transit riders are a powerful constituency, and given the strong political pressure to avoid, or at least minimize, fare hikes, proponents of congestion pricing are hopeful that Democrats in the State Assembly will be forced to reconsider it.
Even some of the most ardent foes of congestion pricing acknowledge that the current problems seem to be reinvigorating the debate, though they wonder why that idea — and not other potential revenue sources — gets all the chatter.
“Clearly I think that on many levels of the political class, this has support that other taxes, for example, the millionaires’ tax, doesn’t,” said Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat who was a leader in opposing the plan. He was referring to a Democratic proposal, opposed by Gov. David A. Paterson, to raise taxes on the wealthy.
“It’s an issue of fundamental fairness,” Mr. Brodsky added. “The millionaires’ tax raises more revenue solely from the super rich. Yet the political class in New York City, the mayor’s office being the head of it, comes back with congestion pricing again.”
Mayor Bloomberg has said that he sees no alternative. “Congestion pricing will come, in New York and lots of other cities, because it is the only way where you were going to do the two things that you need to do: reduce people driving and find money for mass transit,” the mayor told reporters at the National Conference of State Legislatures in New Orleans last week.
“Unless the commission, which is actually made up of some very smart people, unless they can discover the fountain of youth, I think that that’s exactly what is going to come out of it,” Mr. Bloomberg added.
The transportation authority’s deepening financial troubles, combined with those of the city and the state, have set up a particularly difficult choice for the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, whose constituents in Lower Manhattan would be hit by the fare increases.
Mr. Silver never publicly came out against congestion pricing, but he yielded to legislators outside Manhattan and in the suburbs by not bringing it to the floor.
Mr. Silver did strongly criticize the proposed transit increases last week, as did the mayor and the governor. But he declined to comment for this article except to say, through a spokesman, that he had “the highest regard for Richard Ravitch, and we await the recommendations.”
Earlier this year, when the Assembly Democrats advanced the so-called millionaires’ tax, which would have added one percentage point to the income tax rate of New Yorkers making more than $1 million a year, they described it as a solution to the authority’s impending fiscal crisis. The Democrats estimated that the plan would provide more than $1.5 billion for mass transit and transportation projects.
The proposal died in the face of opposition from the mayor, the governor and the Republican-controlled State Senate. And apart from a few grumblings from Mr. Silver and state Democrats, it has seldom been mentioned again.
Assemblyman Rory I. Lancman, a Queens Democrat who opposed congestion pricing, said he would be surprised if the Ravitch commission proposed an idea that had been so roundly rejected by the Assembly. “If ever there was a dead horse that was flogged, flogged and flogged again, it was congestion pricing.”
After all, he added, “I don’t think that when we rejected congestion pricing, we were unaware that the M.T.A. had financial problems.”
In his and Mr. Brodsky’s view, congestion pricing would fall well short of rescuing the agency while burdening a narrow slice of mostly middle-class drivers from outside Manhattan.
But stimulating the belief that it could re-emerge is the makeup of the Ravitch commission.
Mr. Ravitch, who is expected to release a final report in December, was a known supporter of congestion pricing before being named to head the panel. The panel also includes Mark Page, the mayor’s budget director; Laura Anglin, the governor’s budget director; Elliot G. Sander, the authority’s executive director and a strong supporter of congestion pricing; Peter Goldmark, director of the Climate and Air program for the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that strongly backed the plan; and Douglas Durst, a major developer whose family foundation provided financial support to the congestion pricing campaign.
Some analysts suggest that the Ravitch report, if it proposes congestion pricing, could provide a level of political cover to Assembly Democrats to support elements of the traffic plan, particularly if they do not have to vote on a plan until after the fall election. Mayor Bloomberg appeared to echo that view last week.
“I think the politics of New York State are such that they will not do anything until after the election,” he said. “In fact, I believe the Ravitch commission was encouraged — I don’t know if they were told — but there’s an understanding they will be coming back, unfortunately, not before the next election.”
Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler said that if a new effort to push the plan was undertaken in the near future, “the mechanism would have to be the Ravitch commission, because the administration isn’t going to mount another campaign for it.”
Even if that happens, Mr. Brodsky, for one, said he didn’t believe it stood a better chance this time. “I think it goes nowhere,” he said.
source : The New York Times