Testimony of Kate Slevin, Tri-State Transportation Campaign
Senate Transportation Committee Hearing on Ravitch Plan, February 18, 2009
Good afternoon. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional policy watchdog organization working for a more balanced transportation network in downstate New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
When it comes to raising the revenue to fund our transit network, there are no easy answers. No one wants to raise fares, tolls, or taxes, but at this point we have no choice. Inaction is not an option. For this reason, we strongly support the recommendations in the Ravitch plan to pay for both the near term operating needs of the MTA and the next multiyear capital expansion program.
Why we need to fund transit
Funding our transit network is paramount to the success of our region. Our transit network is the backbone of our economy; its revitalization from the 1970s is one of the great urban revitalization stories of our time. Without its recovery, the economic and population growth NYC has seen over the past few decades would not be possible. More recently, our transit network has helped us weather the impacts of fluctuating gas prices and a struggling housing market and economy. Last year, National Public Radio, along with organizations like CEOS for Cities, found that houses near transit were retaining their values far better than their distant counterparts far from transit and downtowns.
The needs are real
There is no question that the MTA is facing a dire financial situation. Debt payments are consuming more and more of the agency’s operating budget, while day to day costs for capital projects and ridership numbers increase and the revenues that support the system plummet.
Don’t let New York City fall behind
If we don’t fund our transit system, we threaten the future of our city and region to remain competitive for business and livable for residents. New Yorkers have a tendency to think we are better than everyone else, but when it comes to public transportation, we are starting to fall behind.
It is worth noting that while we are having these conversations, pushing back transit project timelines and struggling with how to fund our system, other world class cities like Paris and London are building rapid bus lines, and, in London’s case, implementing innovative ideas like congestion pricing to pay for them.
Even in less world-renowned cities like Denver, Colorado, residents recently voted to tax themselves to build new rail lines.
In order for New York to maintain its place as a world leader, we have to make the tough choices necessary to maintain and expand our transportation network.
Support for the Ravitch recommendations
The Ravitch Commission’s winning characteristic is that it spreads the burden among all that benefit from our region’s transit network. It asks businesses to pay with a 1/3 of one percent payroll tax. It asks drivers to pay with new tolls on the East River and Harlem River Bridges, and it asks riders to pay with higher fares. Any final legislative action must follow the Ravitch model of balancing the burden of paying for the system among all who benefit.
Payroll tax painful, but necessary
Tri-State supports the payroll tax because we know the importance of funding our transportation network. But, as the executive director and chief fiscal officer for my organization, I sit here and ask you (and I’m sure you don’t hear this everyday) to please tax my organization. This is why.
Tri-State is a non-profit and like all other businesses in the downstate region, we would pay the new payroll tax.
Last week I calculated how much the plan would cost my organization a year, and the number is equivalent to the amount the staff would pay in higher fares with a 23% hike. Only, absent of new revenue for the MTA, that 23% hike comes with terrible service cuts throughout the system. My staff is already late to work because of transit delays.
I would rather find the additional money necessary for my organization to cover the payroll tax, than have the staff pay the same amount in higher fares and face increased transit delays, impacting their ability to do their jobs effectively.
East River, Harlem River bridge tolls are equitable
Looking through a lens of equity, East River and Harlem River Bridge tolls are good policy. Consider the following statistics which are included as attachments to my testimony. They are based on 2000 Census numbers and analyzed by Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Pratt Center for Community Development.
Citywide, the average income of households with a car is about twice that of households without a car. In Brooklyn, 57% of households, 62% of Bronx households and nearly 40% of Queens households don’t even own a car.
Looking at commute to work data, it’s abundantly clear that most people use transit to get to work in Manhattan. For every one Brooklynite that drives alone to work in Manhattan, ten are on public transit. For Bronxites, the ratio is one to five. For Queens residents, it’s one to six. Even in Staten Island, it’s 1 to 2.5 And please note that transit ridership has increased nearly 15% since 2000, meaning these numbers are likely to underestimate current transit use.
Beyond bridge tolls, our findings prove that the lower and middle classes will be hurt the most by transit fare increases and a decline in service because they overwhelmingly rely on transit system to get around.
And they also show that it’s likely that more of your constituents are worried about transit fare hikes and service cuts than about the creation of new tolls.
The tolling structure we have now, with some East River crossings free, and others tolled makes no sense. Drivers often shop for the best price, increasing congestion and pollution in communities near the bridges. One study found that 40% of traffic in downtown Brooklyn was heading to the free Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridges.
Along with reducing congestion, East River and Harlem River bridge tolls would rationalize this system, allowing our tolling facilities to be upgraded in a coordinated manner, speeding commute times.
We clearly support East River and Harlem River tolls, but if this proposal is not politically palatable, we ask that you still require drivers to pay their fair share since they benefit from the reduced congestion transit brings. Other ideas include higher weight based vehicle registration fees, as proposed by NYC Comptroller Thompson, an increase in the gas tax, or higher driver’s license fees.
The benefit for drivers: 21st century tolling
Tolling technology has come a long way in the past few decades though you wouldn’t know it as you drive through MTA facilities, paying the same rate whether it is 8am or 2am and waiting for old fashioned barriers arms to move out of your car’s way.
The Ravitch report recommends cashless and variable tolling for all East River and Harlem River crossings, including the ones that are currently owned by the MTA. We strongly support this recommendation and urge you to ensure that the MTA works swiftly towards such innovations regardless of whether new bridge tolls are approved.
Variable tolling sets rates that are higher during more congested times of day and lower or free during less congested times of day. This flexibility may be a way to make new bridge tolls more palatable to outer borough elected officials.
Cashless tolling is tolling that does not require cash, and relies on small cameras and modern technology like EZ Pass to pay fees.
Tolling can be very flexible. Exemptions for drivers with disabilities or others are possible. Transportation agencies across the region already offer EZPass discounts for people who drive hybrids, senior citizens and those who drive off peak.
Outside of NYC, one area where these concepts can be incorporated on roads that are not currently tolled is by converting HOV lanes on the Long Island Expressway into High Occupancy Tolling (HOT) lanes. HOT lanes are HOV lanes that allow cars with fewer passengers to use the lane if they pay a toll. They provide a choice to drivers, raise revenue, and keep a lane of traffic moving.
The benefits of bus rapid transit and regional bus
Tri-State was pleased to see the Ravitch’s plan support for bus improvements throughout the region. Infrastructure and financial constraints make rail expansion difficult in many neighborhoods. This means buses are our key to a more transit friendly future, and our quickest and most affordable way to improve service across the region.
First, the report recommends bus rapid transit expansion, especially in outer borough areas far from transit. Second, it recommends the creation of a regional bus authority. We support both recommendations, and note that without East River and Harlem River bridge tolls, these bus improvements have no funding source.
Bus rapid transit uses a combination of designated lanes, real time travel information, faster boarding, and marketing to provide bus service that mimics subway service. Elements of BRT are already being used in the new Bronx Select Bus Service along Fordham Rd. That service has improved travel times by 24% and 98% of riders are satisfied with the faster service. Other communities and riders deserve similar improvements.
Regional bus is also a good idea. For years, riders in suburban counties such as Nassau and Westchester, have suffered as second-class transit riders. Many have no service on nights or weekends, making access to certain jobs difficult. They have faced more severe fare increases and service cuts than their NYC or commuter rail counterparts. (Even this time around, Long Island Bus is singled out with a proposed 62.5% increase). This is because there is no sustainable funding agreement for Long Island Bus between Nassau County, the MTA, and the state, and no one wants to pay for improvements to keep pace with rising demand. In Westchester County, funding the bus system relies on year to year appropriations. This situation has made planning for the future, buying new buses, and expanding service when necessary difficult for transit operators.
The Ravitch report addresses this problem and recommends creation of an MTA Regional Bus Authority that includes NYC Transit and suburban bus systems. We interpret this to mean one new authority to run NYC, Long Island Bus, and Westchester’s Bee Line Bus. There are management and labor issues to overcome with this idea, but the change could put suburban carriers on a more stable financial footing and allow them to keep pace with rising demand and provide more intercounty service.
Help wanted: MTA’s credibility
I would be remiss to not mention the MTA’s credibility. Though things have certainly improved under Lee Sander’s leadership, the MTA is still facing a tremendous credibility problem with the public.
Therefore, we hope that our elected officials take the advice of the Ravitch report and move to make the MTA more transparent and require qualifications of MTA board members. We would even suggest you take the recommendations a few steps further, and for example, require the MTA to
We also worry that the idea of automatic fare increases, as proposed in the Ravitch plan, will hurt the MTA’s credibility. This is the only recommendation in the plan that we don’t support, but we are willing to concede this if it means the package is approved as a whole.
Both operating support and multi-year capital programs are necessary
The MTA’s operating and capital budgets can’t be viewed in vacuums, independent of one another. When you board the subway, you pay a fare that helps fund the day to day costs of the running the system. The capital program keeps the system in a state of good repair by paying for track upgrades and station maintenance, and expansion projects like the 2nd Ave subway, ensuring you have a safe and reliable and not too overcrowded trip. Right now, both budgets are in facing large deficits. The operating budget has a $1.2 billion dollar deficit this year and the proposed five year $30 billion dollar capital program has a tiny fraction of what it needs. We therefore ask you to address both the capital and operating needs of the system.
The cost of postponement is high
We cannot afford to postpone transit investment. One leading national transportation association has said: “If investment fails to keep pace with the preservation needed, the costs will spiral upward to even greater levels.” In other words, the longer we wait the more money we spend.
The July 2008 2005-2009 MTA Capital Plan Amendment says the following: “A leading national construction cost index indicates that construction costs nationally have escalated over 26.8 percent in the past three years. The Federal Transit Administration recently reported an average increase in cost since 2003 of 38 percent. Costs have increased at an even greater rate in New York's overheated market, with the MTA hit especially hard by increases in commodity costs: the price of steel increased 91 percent since 2003, cement is up 25 percent and asphalt has grown by 85 percent. Construction costs during the first quarter 2008 increased 1.5 percent, despite the current consensus that the nation-wide construction market has softened, according to one construction index.”
Going forward, as the environmental consequences of our car dependent lifestyles become increasingly clear and our region’s population and transit ridership continue to boom, our transit network will become even more important than it is today. We ask that you take bold action to support our transit network by implementing the recommendations in the Ravitch plan.
Thank you for your time.