Doomsday for MTA

News

New Yorkers looking for a legislative express to rescue the flailing Metropolitan Transportation Authority got the bureaucratic equivalent of a garbage train this morning, as the MTA made good on threats to pass a budget and four-year capital plan marked by daunting service reductions and fare hikes.

In a series of 12-1 votes, the agency’s board approved the so-called “doomsday plan” that would slash service on train and bus lines and raise the monthly unlimited MetroCard’s cost to $103 from the current $81, among other desperate measures taken amid continued gridlock in Albany, where state legislators were still toiling to reach an agreement that would bolster the MTA’s budget.

On that front, the most powerful person in state government, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, kept pushing for a compromise among the state’s lawmaking bodies in the last hours before the vote. In February, the assembly appeared set to pass a plan to add tolls to East River bridges, along with a payroll tax to keep MTA capital projects alive. But the state senate, under fledgling majority leader Malcolm Smith, let that plan stall, and Silver has struggled to emerge as the straphanger’s hero.

“We’re trying very hard to reach a negotiated settlement,” Dan Weiller, a spokesperson for Silver, told AN yesterday. “Both the speaker and Malcolm Smith have said they may not make tomorrow’s deadline, but the MTA has said there’s a little wiggle room.”

In voting to turn a contingency budget into an operating plan, the MTA has strongly signaled that time’s up. The plan axes two subway lines—the Z, serving much of northeast Brooklyn from Bushwick to the Queens border, and the W to Astoria. Throughout the boroughs, 35 bus lines would also disappear, in addition to punishing weekend service cuts across the system. As New York’s transit-riding population keeps growing, and job centers disperse from midtown Manhattan, the cutbacks could well harm productivity and hamper access to jobs.

Yet Senate Democrats, new to the majority this year, did not organize to support either a previous plan spearheaded by former MTA chief Richard Ravitch or Silver’s compromise proposal, which lowered bridge tolls from their recommended level to around the cost of a subway ride. Said one transit advocate, insisting on anonymity due to ongoing discussions with the legislature: “Smith, who’s trying to say it’s all about MTA accountability, really can’t get the votes.”

Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the advocacy group Straphangers Campaign, argued that Silver could bring lawmakers around to his way of thinking, even after the MTA’s vote. And how might he do that? “The way he can direct any major expenditure,” Russianoff told AN. “The power of the purse. He says to them, ‘You want your annual appropriations?’”

At this stage, Silver’s political gamesmanship is the last recourse for New Yorkers who’ll otherwise have to dig deeper into their pockets for $2.50 for a single ride beginning May 31.

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