ALBANY—Unable thus far to agree on what steps to take in order to avert an impending public-transportation catastrophe, Albany’s leaders emerged from a closed-door meeting in the Capitol shortly before noon on March 31 confident, at least, of what wasn’t going to happen.
“The framework I see is that the Senate has really eliminated what my choice would be, which would be to have the tolls,” said Governor David Paterson, referring to a plan to raise money by tolling East River crossings in Manhattan. “If that’s the case, then we’re going to have to try to find alternative ways to come up with several hundred million dollars that would replace what would have been the revenues generated by the tolls.”
“I don’t think I have a choice,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “This is not a unicameral legislature. We put out a plan, it’s apparent to me that it will not pass muster in the Senate.”
The ostensible third member of Albany’s ruling triumvirate, the Senate majority leader, Malcolm Smith—whose inability to move recalcitrant members of his own conference led to the current paralysis—said his staffers were considering a “menu” of things to replace the revenue from the tolls that are no longer a possibility.
I asked Mr. Paterson how long it might take to reach an agreement.
“Until you have an agreement, you really don’t know how long it’s going to take,” he said.
Theoretically, a deal to rescue the Metropolitan Transportation Association may be announced at any moment, although at press time, the members of the Senate Democratic conference hadn’t been briefed on the specifics of any agreement.
Meanwhile, though, it’s been a week and counting since the March 25 deadline came and went and the M.T.A. approved its raft of “doomsday” measures—dramatic service cutbacks and fare hikes scheduled to take effect a little over a month from now—to cover its debt.
One might reasonably think that the pressure on Albany, and on the Democratic-controlled Senate in particular, would be tremendous. Editorial boards have chastised the Senate for its inaction—Mr. Smith presented a plan a week before the M.T.A. deadline, but it was roundly panned as insufficient—and the mayor of New York has incited constituents, more or less, to riot against the legislators holding things up.
But if the criticism is having any effect, it’s hard to tell.
“We’re getting there, I can’t measure how close,” State Senator Bill Perkins, whose district contains thousands of transit users and who is chairman of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, told The Observer on March 30.
Mr. Perkins, as it happens, was working on a proposal to avoid the politically controversial tolls, replacing them with some combination of a gas tax, increased vehicle registration fees and fees for parking.
It’s meant as an alternative plan that falls within the framework for proposals drawn up by the respected former M.T.A. chairman Richard Ravitch. The Ravitch revenue package, developed at the behest of the governor, was derived from a combination of bridge tolls for East and Harlem River spans, a regional payroll tax, a regional bus authority and a smaller fare increase. It was backed by unions and business groups, transit advocates and the authority itself. Public support was mobilized. Mr. Perkins—and many of his colleagues—lined up behind it. The Assembly, remarkably, agreed to a version of it that both Mr. Paterson and Mr. Ravitch approved of.
Then the Senate murdered it.
“The political circumstances are very simple: We have 32 members,” Mr. Perkins said, referring to the Democratic majority in the 62-member Senate. “O.K.? You know better than us what that means in terms of how to move forward. So, clearly, we have to be creative in terms of building the kind of consensus that can best represent a solution.”
What Mr. Perkins meant was that on any issue before state government—from the loftily progressive to, in this case, the last resort—can be held up by just one defector. State Senator Malcolm Smith has served as the chamber’s majority leader for nearly three months now, but he ascended to the top spot there only after a prolonged leadership struggle in which four, then three, holdout senators kept him pinned firmly over a barrel. He emerged only after giving them broad concessions. For the M.T.A., they showed him the barrel again.
State Senator Carl Kruger, the chairman of the Finance Committee—and something of a ringleader of a nominally Democratic dissident group within the Senate that calls itself the “gang of three”—declared the bridge tolls a “tax on the outer boroughs” and a “backdoor to congestion pricing.” Soon, other senators decided they agreed. State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. joined in, then State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. and State Senator Hiram Monserrate.
Two other senators—Kevin Parker and Ruth Hassell-Thompson—declared their hatred for tolls. Mr. Kruger’s staffers were closely involved in the formation of an alternative proposal. The governor attacked it. Assemblymen shook their heads.
“You’ve got a very fragile majority in the Senate, where every decision is a critical one. If two people have a difference of opinion, you have a crisis,” Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat said, with obvious restraint.
“At the end of the day, I think that my opposition to the tolls opened up a floodgate of issues and question marks surrounding the entire practices and operation of the M.T.A.,” Mr. Kruger said Monday. “When we ultimately come to a compromise, more of the attributes of that compromise will incorporate all of the issues that we’ve raised.”
Mr. Kruger was smiling on March 17 when the Senate came up with its original proposal. Unlike the plans of the governor or the Assembly, it contained no bridge tolls. It also didn’t provide funding for the M.T.A.’s capital plan, which details schedules and funding for maintenance and projects every five years.
“At this point, we think our plan is sound,” Mr. Smith said at the time.
Mr. Smith was immediately attacked by transit advocates and M.T.A. officials—all of whom were hoping for a more complete plan.
The people most eager to stick up for the plan were the perennial thorns in Mr. Smith’s side—the gang. (Mr. Espada said it was “a great day for Pedro Espada, the M.T.A. ridership and the State Senate.”)
When asked if he had in fact been rolled by his members, Mr. Smith said: “Quite frankly, I would hope my members are strong enough and will try to drive agendas. This is a Democratic conference; this is not a Malcolm conference.”
The abuse continued for several days, and Mr. Smith’s public appearances became less frequent.
So now, instead of tolls, there will be some other form of pain.
“We’re still open to ideas, do you have any?” Mr. Perkins said on March 30.
But Mr. Perkins didn’t believe anything would be enacted this week. Maybe next week. If not, then definitely after the week-long break on April 20. Or so.
Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the M.T.A., said that the first service cuts will take effect on April 30. Monthly commuter rail passes for June, which will reflect higher rates, will go on sale May 1.
I asked Mr. Kruger, who still has a strong hand in the negotiations, if a deal was close.
“Close only counts in horseshoes,” he said.