Janet Babin, Economic Development Reporter, WNYC News
Janet Babin is a reporter at WNYC covering economic development.
UPDATED WITH HOUSE REPUBLICAN RESPONSE: There's more alarm about last week's House vote to change the way public transportation is funded. A group of New York area lawmakers and transportation officials is worried that the Republican sponsored bill would slash $1.7 billion dollars from New York State coffers.
The group painted a doomsday scenario, in which major projects, including the Second Avenue Subway, could be halted in their tracks, where service could deteriorate and fares would head skyward.
“Over time if you don't repair the system, if we don't get the money necessary to do the repairs and renovations of the system, it will raise fares,” said Joe Lhota, Chair of the NY MTA.
Lhota is the brand-new chief of the NY MTA, but it's relatively rare for an MTA chief to speak out on politics. Lhota is a Republican, who was a Deputy Mayor to Rudy Giuliani.
He was joined by Deocratic Reps. Joe Crowley (NY-7), Charlie Rangel (NY-15), Jerrold Nadler (NY-8), Carolyn Maloney (NY-14), at a press conference Monday morning at New York City's Grand Central Terminal.
The group said the proposed legislation would adversely affect urban and suburban commuters across the country.
The proposed Republican bill would eliminate the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, signed into law by President Ronald Regan in 1983. That legislation created a dedicated funding source for public transportation through a Federal tax on gasoline. The proposed bill would change that structure.
A spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Justin Harclerode, responded: "Republicans are not anti-transit, but we do recognize that the Highway Trust Fund is paid for by highways users, and cities and local governments must look at developing a similar user fee system for transit users." (full statement at end of post)
“This [new] bill would keep the gasoline tax revenues for highways, but eliminate it for mass transit,” said New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. “So we would no longer have a reliable source of funding, you’d have to go and beg Congress every year for appropriations and who knows how that would turn out,” Nadler added.
MTA Chairman Lhota also warned that the proposed bill could halt construction at some of New York City’s biggest transit upgrade projects, called mega-projects. They include expansion of the Second Avenue subway line, and the East Side Access project that would connect Long Island Rail Road’s Main and Port Washington lines in Queens to a new LIRR terminal beneath the existing Grand Central Terminal.
Also at risk, said Lhota, is the Fulton Transit Center project. That upgrade is working to build a new station at the corner of Fulton Street and Broadway, and improve connections to six existing Lower Manhattan subway stations, one of them at the World Trade Center site.
“If this bill goes forward, we’ll have to make some serious decisions because of the lack of funding, what will continue, what will move forward and at what pace,” said Chairman Lhota. “It will also affect track work and renovations,” he added.
House Republicans are expected to bring the legislation to the floor some time next week. A separate Senate version of the bill is expected to be introduced later this week.
Statement from Justin Harclerode, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee:
The Republican five-year transportation bill provides guaranteed funding for transit.
In terms of the bigger picture, the Highway Trust Fund is funded by a user fee of 18.4 cents per gallon of gas that all highway users pay at the pump. Republicans are not anti-transit, but we do recognize that the Highway Trust Fund is paid for by highways users, and cities and local governments must look at developing a similar user fee system for transit users.
This bill gives more flexibility to states to fund their most critical transportation needs, and under this bill states can also use the funds authorized under the highway program for transit systems if they so choose.
Because of the struggling economy, changing driving patterns and more fuel efficient vehicles, the Highway Trust Fund is in repeated danger of running dry. The Republican bill stabilizes the Trust Fund for the next five years, ensures states have the ability to fund their most critical transportation needs, and also guarantees transit funding. Democrats have yet to propose a long-term funding solution for transportation, and the Senate’s proposal bankrupts the Trust Fund in less than two years. This bill stabilizes transportation funding for five years and allows Congress the time to determine how best to address our transportation needs for the future.