Dear Andy, the M.T.A. Is Not Your Piggy Bank

andrew cuomo1 Dear Andy, the M.T.A. Is Not Your Piggy BankA group of 30 transit advocates, environmentalists, planners and labor leaders sent Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo a letter [PDF] this morning with a simple request: Don’t allow, or, god forbid, encourage, the Legislature to continue raiding dedicated transit funds for the purpose of covering budget shortfalls.

The Paterson administration did exactly that not once but twice, swiping $143 million in 2009 and another $16 million earlier this year. The M.T.A. boosters contend that it was that first raid that led to the ghastly service cuts and fare hikes that still have straphangers grumbling. To do so again would be to create yet another disaster. M.T.A. chair Jay Walder has achieved the Herculean task of balancing the M.T.A. operating budget for the year, though he has a miniscule amount of money on hand to address any unforseen shortfalls. Another seven- or eight-figure grab could cause immense problems for him, as well as for everyone who uses the M.T.A. every day, as the letter makes clear:

These taxes were enacted for a specific reason: to help pay for subway, bus and commuter operations and transit capital projects.  As a matter of principle and practice, the dedicated funds should continue to serve those purposes. This is especially true: we want a vibrant transit system; one that is reliable, safe, fast, clean and can serve as a foundation for strengthening the State’s economy. This same logic would apply to not diverting funds for New York’s road, bridge and tunnel program.

You campaigned on a pledge of restoring honest and ethical government. What could be more basic to good governance than keeping the promise to taxpayers and transit riders that dedicated transit funds be spent for the sole purpose for which they were enacted? One quarter of the state’s workforce relies on mass transit to get to work.

The letter goes on to ask for the restoration of the $160 million, which seems all but impossible at this point.

Yet, reading between the lines, the real purpose of the letter seems to be to encourage the Cuomo administration to consider broader transit reform. After all, much of the letter is spent outlining how the dedicated M.T.A. taxes, both new taxes and old, have failed to provide the M.T.A. sufficient funding for some time. Perhaps something new is in order, or even something old, like congestion pricing?

Gene Russianoff, head of the Straphangers Campaign and one of the lead signatories, told The Observer that was not what this letter was after. “The starting point for me is, ‘Do no harm,'” Russianoff said.

After all, the M.T.A. is also facing a $10 billion gap in its five-year capital plan that must be addressed next year. Asking for new revenue streams or a complete overhaul of mass transit could be a considerable challenge, especially at a time of economic and political unrest.

Then, again, is there a better time to tear up the rulebook and take a fresh look? If only anyone knew what Andrew Cuomo actually thought about all this.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @mc_nyo