Testimony of Veronica Vanterpool, Tri-State Transportation Campaign
Joint Senate Hearing on MTA’s 2010-2014 Capital Plan:

Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions and Investigations and Government Operations

December 3, 2009

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments today. My name is Veronica Vanterpool, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a non-profit, policy watchdog group working for a more balanced transportation network in downstate New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Overall the MTA’s 2010-2014 Capital Plan looks good. It addresses many of the inadequacies of the existing system: outdated machinery, unsightly subway stations, inefficient bus service, and overcrowding. Those of us who use the system daily know the needs of our system are great. What is difficult to convince people of is the price tag associated with these changes. Taxpayers of NYS deserve to know why the capital program costs $28 billion and why it is critical to fully fund it. And, this capital plan aims to make this very clear.

The largest share of the capital program (64%) is targeted for repair and replacement of the system’s assets. This means more modern signals in the subways (30% of signal system dates back to original construction of subway), installation of real-time clocks (this is a standard for bus/rail systems around the world), and features that make bus travel faster and more reliable, and improved access for the elderly and handicapped (great news for the growing elderly population). These are the changes everyday transit riders want and need and which should consume the largest share of the program.

We are happy to see some projects receive more priority, like:

Bus Rapid Transit: Bus ridership citywide is growing rapidly. NYC Transit buses carry twice as many daily riders as the bus system of Los Angeles, the second largest bus fleet in the U.S. In this capital plan, the MTA has finally given greater priority to improving bus service by allocating $135 million for BRT citywide ($10 million more than the request of transit advocates) for the purchase of new buses, new sidewalk fare collection machines, new signals, and new bus lanes and shelters for three new bus corridors. These are new amenities that will speed up and regulate service for millions of daily bus riders citywide.

Unlike the previous capital plan, this capital plan highlights BRT with its own section--a big improvement from the last where a search of this phrase produced zero results.

Regional bus analysis: This capital plan sets aside money for a regional bus analysis (though the amount is not specified). This is good news for the millions of suburban bus riders who want greater connectivity and expanded service between and within the suburbs of Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties, which have seen tremendous growth in the past few years.

Long Island Bus, the nation’s largest suburban bus system, reached an all time high in 2008 of 33.1 million passengers. More than 2.5 million riders are using LI Bus today than in 2004.

A regional bus system could save the suburban bus rider time and money with greater bus coordination which is why Tri-State has advocated for this for many years. However, a regional bus analysis must be done in coordination with bus unions through arbitration or negotiation, not just legislation. Regional bus was originally proposed in the Ravitch plan but the proposal was legislative, pre-empting this collaborative process.

Transit Oriented Development for Long Island: One recent revision made to the capital program Q&A document was the use of some LIRR capital funds to support competitive planning grants for municipalities exploring ways to connect land use with additional LIRR parking and transit. This is a great way to encourage more TOD initiatives that will ultimately make it easier for LI residents to use transit. The demand for these grants is high. Tri-State, with our funding partners, gave away TOD planning grants this year to 8 municipalities in the region. The response was overwhelming, with over 40 applicants.

Additionally, an MTA supported Safe Routes to Transit program would enhance walking and biking around TOD sites.

Transparency and accounting: We were glad to see the MTA capital program on the main page of the MTA site. The plan is also more narrative and layperson friendly with the inclusion of a Q&A document. Yet, some budget figures lack specificity. Overall, agency budget documents still lack clarity and are difficult to decipher. A Q&A budget document would make this information more useful.

 

We are disappointed by the following:

Lack of funding for Third Track Main Line: There is no funding in this capital plan for the Third Track, a project that will add another track to the Long Island Rail Road Main Line corridor between New Hyde Park and Hicksville. The Third Track project is largely supported by business, labor, environment and civic groups along with several elected officials because it will improve commutes, get cars off of the roads, and provide long needed redundancy in Long Island’s transit network. For example, upon completion of the third track, 41% of all customers who currently travel on the corridor would see benefits from greater interconnectedness throughout the system as a whole. This is good news for the nearly 75% of Nassau and Suffolk residents who commute to Manhattan for work on the Long Island Rail Road.

No formal funding scheme for Long Island Bus: Though the MTA plans to study regional bus, Long Island Bus continues to struggle. The MTA contribution to Nassau County remains at $13 million. And, Nassau County slashed its contribution by $1.4 million. Both parties need to begin negotiations to deal with the funding disparities for existing service.

Dead-end study of cashless and variable tolling: Though the MTA is studying electronic, cashless tolling, the agency is not committed to bringing its toll plazas into the 21 st Century. In fact, depending on the results of the study, which are due out in 2010, the MTA might continue to construct toll plazas with ”traditional” arm barriers. There is no explicit, designated funding for the implementation of the study results so it is difficult to determine whether MTA Bridges and Tunnels will ever see this new technology. This is extremely disappointing.

Despite modern camera and video technology, MTA toll machines still use old-fashioned “arms” that are lowered as a barrier to toll evasion. The slow moving arms lead to toll congestion, poor air quality in and around toll plazas, and increase the incidence of highway accidents. In fact, a recent study (“Traffic Congestion and Infant Health by the National Bureau of Economic Research”) pointed out the high infant mortality rate for those living near toll plazas and highlighted the role of highway technology, like E-Z Pass, in delivering public benefits like reduced air pollution to the most vulnerable of populations.

Also missing is a variable tolling system where drivers are charged different rates based on time-of-day travel. The Port Authority and NJ Turnpike Authority implement variable tolling on their crossings. Variable tolls ease toll plaza traffic, reduce pollution, and increase safety. A 2007 analysis by Charlie Komanoff showed that a variable tolling program on MTA crossings has the potential to generate enough revenue to ease pressure on planned fare increases and to reduce congestion by shifting trips.

However, there is no money set aside in this capital plan for the implementation of electronic or cashless tolling. We hope this isn’t just another study that sits on the shelf.

Lack of TOD program allocations: For example, the MTA Transit Oriented Development Initiative appears to lack its own budget, instead being incorporated into the development and expansion of commuter parking for which $65 million is budgeted. It is difficult to determine how much money is allocated towards increasing TOD around MTA rail stations. Jay Walder recently indicated that TOD is an important opportunity that shouldn’t be passed on, yet the agency’s specific plans remain unclear.

Funding: We understand the underlying financial challenges of this capital plan. Only two of the five years are funded. There is a $10 billion hole. And, there is resentment about the payroll tax. But, the state legislature must tackle these challenges, not push them off another few years. Remember the majority of this capital plan is targeted towards repair and maintenance. Delaying this further jeopardizes the safety of transit users, the economy, and the environment.

 

Here are some suggestions:

Explore innovative toll revenue strategies:to relieve some MTA financial burden, such as with the Tappan Zee Bridge Rail Study. The MTA set aside $30 million in this plan to study a transit alternative in the Tappan Zee Corridor. A more innovative way to pay for this study without tapping capital dollars would be to direct a portion of toll revenue from the New York State Thruway Authority to funding this study—especially when it has not yet been decided that the MTA will provide the transit service.

In the past, the NY State Thruway Authority has claimed that neither toll money nor bonds backed by toll revenue can be used to run transit over the bridge.  While true, the statement overstates the Authority’s prohibition.  Though operating a transit line is not within the statutory powers given to the Authority, the power to construct and maintain transit facilities is.

Turn HOV lanes on SIE into HOT lanes: One potential funding strategy that is not discussed enough is turning the HOV lanes on the Long Island Expressway into High Occupancy Toll lanes. HOT lanes allow cars with one person to enter HOV lanes for a modest toll, generating revenue for our transportation network.

Revisit previous ideas: Tri-State Transportation Campaign supports a variety of methods for paying for our transportation infrastructure, including higher gas taxes, higher auto-related fees, congestion pricing, and higher tolls.

Bottom line: The MTA cannot take out any more debt. According to state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, if the MTA used bonds to fill the capital program gap, annual debt service would increase from $1.5 billion in 2009 to $3.5 billion by 2020. That could potentially lead to a repeat of this year’s “doomsday budget” crisis, when transit riders were threatened with massive fare hikes and service cuts after the MTA projected an operating deficit of $1.2 billion.