This morning, Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president and a 2013 mayoral candidate, proposed a two-part solution to New York City's transit-funding problem: the reinstatement of a commuter tax, and the creation of something called the New York City Transit Trust, which would use public money to leverage private investment in the city and state's financially shaky mass-transit system.
Stringer proposed diverting the hundreds of millions of dollars derived from a real estate-transaction levy called the mortgage recording tax into a trust fund. That tax money would essentially be used by private firms to underwrite investment in long-term capital projects.
To make up for the operating budget's loss of that revenue, Stringer proposed resurrecting the commuter tax, which was once levied on commuters who made their livings in the city, but lived outside of it.
Unlike the commuter tax repealed by the state legislature in 1999, victim of a particulary cynical act of horsetrading on the part of Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, this money would not go into the general fund but rather directly to the M.T.A. Stringer estimated it would send an additional $725 million a year the M.T.A.'s way.
"Without action, we risk becoming a first-class city with a second-rate transportation network," said Stringer, speaking at an Association for a Better New York breakfast in a five-chandelier banquet hall at the 53rd Street Hilton on 53rd Street.
The M.T.A., the state agency which runs New York City's buses and subways, is indeeed in financial straits. It runs on ever greater amounts of debt, underwritten by escalating fare hikes. The state government continues to deny the authority the money it needs to operate effectively. And the city hasn't increased its contributions to the authority in years.
Even so, the borough president praised the governor and state legislature.
"Governor Cuomo should be applauded for recently dedicating $770 million to the Authority's capital program," he said. "Thanks to decisive action by the governor and legislature, we now have a window of opportunity to create a truly longterm plan for stabilizing the M.T.A.—not just for us, but for generations to come."
His kind words for the state legislature are, from a political standpoint, a necessary prerequisite to the possibility, however remote, of convincing Albany to raise taxes on suburban voters, who don't much like funding the M.T.A.
Albany has in fact been moving in precisely the opposite direction. Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the Senate Republicans a payroll mobility tax cut, which is used to fund the M.T.A., in exchange for passing his legislative agenda last year. And the Senate Republicans, are intent on rolling it back further.
Congestion pricing, which Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver declined to let come up for a vote in 2008, is arguably much more palatable to Albany politicians than a commuter tax, which would largely impact the suburban voters Senate Republicans rely on to maintain their slim majority. Congestion pricing, on the other hand, would impact many outer-borough voters, whose support will be necessary for victory in 2013.
Following his remarks, Bill Rudin, ABNY's chairman, asked Stringer how he handicapped the probability of this commuter tax getting passed.
"We can make a very strong case to Albany if we go back to how we did it in the '70s, in an era when New York City was on the edge and everybody had to come together," said Stringer. "But even more importantly, the way to make the argument, is every mayor when they get elected gets one big ticket from Albany. Mayor Bloomberg got mayoral control of the school system."
"I believe the next mayor can go to Albany, rearrange the commuter tax, build a partnership with suburban elected officials, and finally, finally, finally get this transit system on sound footing, because this is not just a New York City issue," Stringer continued. "It's a regional issue. And if we flounder, we could take our economy with us. And that's the argument we have to make."In a question-and-answer session with reporters following his speech, a reporter asked Stringer about the difficulties that his proposal would face in Albany.
"Why are we so cynical?" said Stringer, a former assemblyman. "I was in Albany when Mayor Bloomberg said let's change school governance and create mayoral control. A year before he issued that clarion call, everyone said that would never change. And look what happened."