ALBANY—It seems that Malcolm Smith and the Senate Democrats have come up with a plan that’s easy to hate.
Transportation advocates, business groups and the governor are all taking shots at the Senate majority leader’s just-announced plan to address the M.T.A.’s budget shortfall.
Near as I can tell, Wiley Norvell of Transportation Alternatives struck first, via e-mail. “The Senate Democrats’ so-called MTA rescue plan is a deferral of responsibility that postpones tough decisions and threatens to make the Authority’s financial situation worse,” he wrote. “What the City, State and millions of straphangers need are the long-term solutions offered by the Ravitch plan.”
A bunch of the reporters who had watched Smith unveil his proposal on the third floor of the Capitol went to catch Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was speaking at an event on the concourse. He called Smith’s plan a “stopgap measure.” His own plan includes a lower payroll tax, an eight percent fare increase, and $2 bridge tolls. He was asked if Smith’s proposal was a step forward.
“I only consider it…I consider it a step forward in that they have come out and basically said, as we’ve said, that the termination of the board to cut services and raise fares by 31 percent is unacceptable. That, I consider a step forward. I think it’s only a partial step forward in that it doesn’t get into place the vision of Dick Ravitch and having a long-term plan in place, one-shot, not having to be revisited six months from now, a year from now, two years from now. We should put this to rest,” Silver said.
As Silver addressed the scrum, State Senator Marty Golden walked past. I waved to him with my notebook. He was conveniently lingering for reporters a minute later, smiling, as Silver slapped him lightly on the face and asked him to be nice in his bashing. Golden kept smiling at the first question.
“You’ve got to be kidding me? Which plan is this now, plan A, B, C, D, E, F, or G?” He began. The smile didn’t fade. He said he was involved in forming no plans (“this is supposed to be the week of open government – I’ve never seen government more closed”) and that the Democrats were “punting.”
“They’re punting for another year,” he said. “That’s irresponsible for the taxpayers of the City of New York it’s irresponsible for the Senate not to be able to come to a conclusion and do their jobs. They are not functioning; they are not doing the jobs the taxpayers sent them here to do.”
Walking toward his office, Golden told an aide to make sure John McArdle – the spokesman for the Republican conference – was going to put out similarly strong rhetoric. Golden turned left, and I walked alongside State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. I asked for this thoughts.
“I’m elated,” he said. “Today’s a great day for Pedro Espada, the M.T.A. ridership and the State Senate.”
I asked if I should read anything into him listing his own name before the M.T.A ridership. He slapped me on the back and replied “only that you’re very imaginative.”
David Paterson gathered with a group of people who have been behind the Ravitch plan, which balanced a payroll tax with a fare increase and bridge tolls, and held a special press conference from his Manhattan office to say he was sticking by it.
“When you have a crisis, you have to address it immediately,” he said.
Richard Ravitch was next. “If we don’t continue the capital investment,” he said, “this system is going to slip back to where it was in the 1970s.”
He described his plan as “a balancing of interests” including riders, the business community and others. One of those at the table was Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City.
“It is extremely disappointing that the Senate Majority is out today with a last-minute, slapdash plan,” she said.
A few others piled on, and then Paterson took questions. He said “we still believe in tolls” and felt the Assembly’s plan was solid.
“The problems don’t go away,” Paterson said. “They have questioned the March 25 deadline for the fare increases, not just for fare increases, but extreme fare increases. Not just service cuts but real things are going to happen.”
M.T.A. Chairman Dale Hemmerdinger said that the Senate Democrats didn’t correctly do the math would leave the authority “about a billion short.”
“They didn’t take the time, as best we can tell, to do the math,” he said.
“The mathematical methods can be corrected,” Paterson jumped in. “They were probably just oversights. We don’t want to make a big deal of it.”
Paterson is on his way to Albany now, and will meet with Smith because, he said, “maybe we’re just misunderstanding each other.”
Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign took the opportunity to seize the microphone and say he was “deeply disappointed” with the Senate plan, saying that capital and operating expenses, fares and tolls are “all different sides of the same Metrocard.”
Not exactly a warm reception, but one that’s not necessarily unpredictable. I asked Smith about the business community’s position on the payroll tax as he unveiled his plan, and he said, “The business community doesn’t vote on this plan. We do.”
“What we do say to them, is being sensitive to their concerns, that we did drop that down,” he added.
I asked State Senator Kevin Parker about the inevitable pressure from Russianoff and other advocates.
“That’s fine, pressure bursts pipes,” he said. “This conference is built for that.”
A few minutes after Paterson’s event had ended, Espada called my desk.
“I think the advocates, the governor and all the critics. I ask one question: where is the capital plan?” He asked. It has not yet been introduced; normally the M.T.A. submits a wish list every five years (this year it happens in October), which must be approved by a board consisting of Smith, Silver, Paterson and Michael Bloomberg. So it’s a moving target.
“When we don’t think and we write these blank checks, we get service that ranks them just above Mr. Madoff in terms of accountability,” he said. “This is a new day, and all kudos to Senator Malcolm Smith. He’s taken on the permanent government.”
— Additional reporting by Eliot Brown.