By Konrad Putzier
New York may be playing in a top league with global cities like Hong Kong and London, but in terms of infrastructure funding, it is second division at best.
Two months after the MTA released its 20-year development plan, its financing is still uncertain.
To address this gap, and pay for other infrastructure projects, the New York Building Congress this week called for a range of fees on everything from car use to garbage disposal.
Building Congress president Richard T. Anderson said, “Without new, dedicated revenue sources, government will not be able to maintain its current level of support for critical capital projects, much less make the additional investments necessary to harden New York City’s transportation network and infrastructure in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and climate change.”
In its report, How to Save New York City’s Infrastructure: Dedicate Revenues, the Building Congress argues for a uniform toll. In 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed, and the City Council approved, a plan to charge drivers for access to Manhattan’s core business districts. The proposal dedicated new revenues to regional mass transit infrastructure. The Mayor’s plan, however, was shelved by the State Legislature.
The Building Congress report endorses a refined plan that would charge vehicles a more uniform fee for crossing bridges and tunnels within the five boroughs, or for entering Manhattan below 59th Street.
The plan could initially lower the cost of some crossings, while generating more than a billion dollars of new revenue annually, according to the report.
The Building Congress also advocates a Residential Parking Permit program which would charge car owners a fee in return for easier and preferred access to a parking spot.
The report notes that New York City possesses up to 4.4 million unmetered on-street parking spaces from which it derives zero revenue. Of America’s 10 most populous cities, New York is the only one without a residential parking permit program.
Further NYBC proposals include a Vehicle Miles Traveled fee for New York State, similar to one recently adopted in Oregon, and a Pay-As-You Throw system, which requires residents to pay based on how much household waste they generate.
The report claims this waste tax has proven effective in other cities, and could reduce sanitation costs by creating incentives for residents to recycle more and waste less.
Taken together, these measures could go a long way to financing the MTA’s capital improvement programs and paying for improved roads or bridges.
They could also reduce the City’s and the MTA’s debt burden.
According to the NYBC report, the MTA devoted approximately 16 percent of all 2011 revenues to meet its debt service obligations. By 2018, the Building Congress expects debt service to consume 22 percent of annual revenues.
“Debt financing is vital and entirely appropriate, as it seeks to spread large upfront costs over the generations of New Yorkers who will benefit from the investments,” said Building Congress chairman John M. Dionisio.
“And the public sector deserves a great deal of credit in recent years for making their capital programs more efficient and reducing costs, while also taking advantage of a low interest rate environment to lower the cost of its debt. These measures have allowed a number of City, State and regional agencies to maintain their capital programs in a period of fiscal uncertainty.”
Added Building Congress Infrastructure Campaign co-chairman Milo E. Riverso, “We are rapidly reaching a tipping point in terms of how much new debt we can absorb. All levels of government face a future of having to devote increasing portions of their revenues just to meet debt service obligations – leaving less available to maintain this infrastructure over the long run and build new projects to meet the needs of a growing region.”
Rising debt — and creative proposals to curb it — are also the result of a lack of federal funding.
At a recent presentation hosted by the AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, MTA executive William Wheeler vented his frustration with Washington.
“When has government ever been this bad?” the MTA’s director of special development and project planning said. “Isn’t it ironic? This is the best time many of us have ever seen for public transportation, but one of the worst times for funding.”
“In the U.S. federal transportation policy is still very much focused on cars,” Wheeler said. “In London, Hong Kong or Moscow, public transportation is a national priority, like defense. That’s why the playing field isn’t level.” He added that only a third of the MTA’s capital program is generally paid for by the federal government.
The MTA’s Capital Needs Assessment, published in early October, calls for $106 billion of investment between the years 2014 and 2035. The plan includes the installation of new signal switches to increase train frequency, additional tracks for Metro North and LIRR, as well as the 2nd Avenue Subway line.
Wheeler acknowledged that some “adjustment” of fares in the future is likely in the absence of adequate federal funding.
But funding isn’t the only hurdle the MTA faces. Wheeler said the new Select Bus Service, which uses express lanes and requires travelers to buy tickets before entering the bus, has met strong opposition from residents. “In the U.S., there are two immutable rights: Guns and parking spots,” Wheeler said. Trying to create bus lanes at the expense of parking spots “is like gun control.”