Will Council Members Who Want Transit Improvements Back Toll Reform?

At yesterday’s City Council transportation committee hearing, chair Ydanis Rodriguez hoped to engage the MTA and DOT concerning areas of the city that need more transit options. But despite being invited, according to Rodriguez, the MTA refused to send anyone.

Instead, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg promised to pressure the MTA to invest in transportation projects to improve commuter times between Manhattan and the edges of the city.

A bill introduced by Rodriguez and Daneek Miller would require DOT and the MTA to assess transportation availability in neighborhoods identified as “transit deserts.” Another bill would mandate that the two agencies study the feasibility of a new light rail system. Trottenberg requested that those proposals be folded into a study already underway, commissioned by the council earlier this year, on options for improved bus rapid transit.

Since Mayor de Blasio has upped the city’s MTA contribution, the administration is in a position to “exert pressure” on the MTA “to see that they are equitably serving the parts of the city that have traditionally been so under-served,” Trottenberg said. “That is very high on our agenda.”

Council members expressed skepticism that the MTA would pull through on outer-borough transit projects. Miller said that new Hudson Yards subway service, a capital project funded by the city, serves far fewer passengers per day than proposed projects in eastern Queens. “We want to make sure the services are being provided equitably, and I think right now they are not,” he said.

Bronx rep Jimmy Vacca urged Trottenberg to act urgently on improving express buses. “People in my district, and people in the Bronx, are asking for relief,” he told Trottenberg. “Now that we’re having this discussion, we can’t wait for long-term plans. We have to do what we can do now.”

Among the specific projects discussed was expansion of the MTA CityTicket program, which makes commuter rail tickets cheaper for city residents. The council is currently considering a resolution calling on the MTA to equalize the cost of commuter train travel within city limits with the cost of a subway ride.

Trottenberg endorsed the proposal, and said she would push MTA to implement it. After the city increased its MTA funding commitment, Trottenberg said, “One of the first things they’ve agreed to do is sit down and really talk to us about CityTicket, and work with it.”

Even as she agreed with the need for a transit desert study, Trottenberg said the city and the MTA would be hard-pressed to pay for improvements. She pointed to the lack of federal investment in particular, a point re-emphasized by the testimony of Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who attended to support the reopening of the Long Island Railroad’s old Rockaway Branch Line. Speaking about the transportation bill currently being considered by the House of Representatives, Nadler said the bill’s funding levels are “completely inadequate.”

The only plan on the table that would provide the MTA with a stable revenue infusion is the Move NY toll reform proposal. The plan is backed by de Blasio and other city and state electeds, and recently picked up a key endorsement from Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. Unified council support could send a message to Governor Cuomo, the one official who could make it happen.