Does Cuomo Plan to Leave Straphangers Holding the Bag?

There’s been a lot of noise so far this week about toll reform and the MTA funding gap, but the people who can actually do something about it remain conspicuously silent. Chief among them: Governor Andrew Cuomo.

It's amazing what this man refuses to deal with. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr
The longer he stays silent, the harder straphangers will fall. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr

Things kicked off on Monday with a dire warning from Robert Foran, the MTA’s chief financial officer. He told board members that if Albany leaves the MTA holding the bag on transit investment, riders should prepare for a 15 percent fare hike.

MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast, Foran’s boss and a recently-renewed Cuomo appointee, issued a statement the next day in an attempt to tamp down concerns splashed across tabloid covers. “Yesterday’s mention of a potential 15 percent fare and toll increase was a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question,” he said. “No one has proposed we pay for our capital needs on the backs of our riders, and no one is considering it.”

Here’s the problem: As both the Times and the Daily News observed, the $14 billion gap in the MTA’s capital plan isn’t going anywhere. Without a funding solution from Albany, straphangers will be stuck with the bill.

Both papers, along with the Regional Plan Association, this week urged Cuomo to look at the Move NY toll reform plan. Signs that the governor is interested are close to nonexistent. He dismissed the idea as it was being developed in 2012 and again in 2013. In February, he said “the concept has merit” but played political pundit, claiming it would fall victim to the same opposition that killed congestion pricing before he took office.

What the governor is ignoring, of course, is the fact that Move NY is designed to address the very problems that led to congestion pricing’s downfall in Albany. Not only does it cut tolls on outer-borough crossings with few transit options, it would have Manhattanites contribute more, through taxi fees and closing a special Manhattan-only parking tax exemption, than they would have under congestion pricing.

Move NY has already gained support from congestion pricing skeptics like State Senator Jose Peralta and Council Member Mark Weprin. Council Member Jimmy Vacca, who has expressed reservations about his vote for congestion pricing, now backs Move NY. So do Assembly members Walter T. Mosley and Jo Anne Simon, as well as State Senator Daniel Squadron — all of whom replaced elected officials that either opposed congestion pricing or withheld their support until the plan was already dead. Two more Brooklyn council members, Stephen Levin and Antonio Reynoso, endorsed the plan yesterday.

So what’s keeping Cuomo from coming out for toll reform?

For one, there are still elected officials stubbornly against any proposal that includes tolls for driving into Manhattan. A group of 17 Queens state and city legislators, led by Borough President Melinda Katz, issued a statement against Move NY on Monday. But they refused to come forward with their own funding plan, and dismissed any benefit Move NY proposes for their own constituents, like lower tolls on the Throgs Neck, Whitestone, RFK Triboro, Cross Bay, and Marine Parkway bridges.

Those benefits help explain why Move NY is polling better than congestion pricing ever did — both in the city and the suburbs. The fight for toll reform is one that Andrew Cuomo can win — but with each passing day, it becomes clearer that it’s not something that interests him.

In fact, the MTA isn’t on the agenda much at all in Albany. With just seven weeks left in the legislative session, the only MTA funding proposal on the table in the legislature is a non-starter from Assembly Member Jim Brennan that would increase the gas tax, hike income taxes for high earners, and force a contribution from the city.

Without any direction from the legislature and Cuomo, who actually controls the MTA, the de Blasio administration is trying its hardest not to say anything one way or the other about toll reform.

In the meantime, MTA board members are growing increasingly frustrated that Cuomo and the rest of the state’s leadership has refused to fund the capital plan. “You’re hopeful that Albany is going to act in the next two months. I’m probably not as hopeful as you,” board member Jeffrey Kay told Foran at Monday’s finance committee meeting. “We’re gonna have no choice other than to make massive, massive cuts to our transportation system… or we’re going to have to increase fares by that 15 percent in order to pay for it.”

Cuomo’s office did not reply to a request for comment for this story.