Gene Russianoff on What’s Next for MTA Rescue

generussianoff.jpgThe headlines this morning were sobering for everyone who depends on New York City’s transit system. Half-baked alternatives to the Ravitch plan are popping up left and right as bridge toll opponents dig in their heels, despite the whopping service cuts and fare hikes that loom for their constituents. With Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith bringing talks to a standstill, Streetsblog asked Gene Russianoff, senior lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign and veteran of many a fight over MTA financing, about what comes next.

Smith’s latest gambit — calling the MTA’s March 25 deadline into question — carries a lot of risk. "The deadline seems real to us," said Russianoff, noting that there may be some wiggle room, but not much. "The concern would be if the legislators say, ‘We can wait a while.’ That’s a recipe for inaction."

There’s been some speculation that the Ravitch proposals might get folded into the state budget, but that would face similar political hurdles to a stand-alone rescue package. All 30 Republican state senators are expected to vote against the budget, said Russianoff, meaning Democrats will have to vote as a single, 32-member bloc to gain passage.

If the Gang of Three and other Democratic obstructionists fail to realize that their constituents need a well-funded transit system much more than free bridges, there is a potential solution that might garner support from elements of both parties. "One thing with promise is to do the highway and bridge program at the same time as MTA financing," said Russianoff. "That gives Republican senators a reason to vote positively on the bill." The state’s highway and bridge program faces its own funding shortfall, and like the MTA, it needs new revenue streams. Some of the bridge toll alternatives that pols are floating — such as higher gas taxes and vehicle registration fees — make more political sense as revenue for a road program, because, Russianoff says, "the highway people think it’s theirs."