L.A. Beat New York to Congestion Pricing and Andrew Cuomo Could Care Less

Welcome to the Adirondacks Transit Authority.

Welcome to the Adirondacks Transit Authority.

How did L.A. wind up taking our transportation lunch money? New Yorkers were so busy bullying each other, we didn’t even notice when they took it and beat us to the mass transit punch.

The Architect’s Newspaper had an interesting story earlier this week pointing out how back in November, Los Angeles launched its own congestion pricing system to speed traffic on some of its jammed, anything-but-free freeways, and it has been enjoying impressive results. This was, of course, “made possible by political gridlock in the New York State Assembly over congestion pricing,” as the paper points out. All the while, the MTA has been hemorrhaging cash, leading to reduced service (later restored through cuts elsewhere) and all those fare hikes.

After Albany failed to pass the congestion pricing measure, a portion of the hundreds of millions in federal funds that had been set aside to start our program were given over to L.A. Thanks to their new HOT lanes, twice as many drivers than than initially expected, about 1,300 a day, are using new express lanes, zipping along at 60 miles per hour, rather than their usual snails pace of 20 to 25 miles per hour. Those unwilling to pony up between $0.25 and $1.40 an hour still benefit, as better traffic sorting should improve speeds for everyone.

Oh, and the program is expected the raise about $18 million to $20 million a year, funds that would go toward mass transit.

That is nearly as much money as the city loses in economic output each year because of congestion in Manhattan, according to various studies. It is also twice as much money as Congress is giving us to shore up the subways from the damage Sandy wrought on the system, though even that is a fraction of the total costs to rebuild and fortify the mass transit network in the city and the region.

So where does the gridlock in Albany stand today?

About the only mention Governor Andrew Cuomo made of mass transit during his State of the State address was in relation to the damage from Sandy, and even then, it was limited. The Tappan Zee Bridge, still without a strong mass transit component, got about as much billing in the governor’s speech as the subways and trains that stitch the region together.

Meanwhile, Joe Lhota has left the MTA to run for mayor. Before he raised fares, he and the rest of the agency’s board kept talking, over and over again, about the need to find more sustainable funding for the MTA. The person they need to convince, more than any other, is Governor Cuomo. Joe Lhota, who seemed to have a good shot at that, has turned his back on the tough job. Yet another break in continuity at the agency can only act against whatever good will Mr. Lhota built up at the MTA. Whomever the governor picks to succeed him will have a tough road ahead.

Because if there is one thing Governor Cuomo likes, it is a good drive, as he made clear at the close of his state of the state speech.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to not just rebuild, but to build back better,” he said. “We can rebuild a better society than we’ve ever had. We can rebuild thousands of miles of roads, we can rebuild homes and get control of utility companies that have been out of control for too long.”

No mention of the MTA, which the actual State of the State book mentions only once. More time was spent making an elaborate joke about rafting in the Adirondacks. Nor is it even clear that thousands of miles of roads were damaged by the storm, but that is clearly where this governor’s focus remains. The MTA went unmentioned last year, too, and the year before that, and may well continue to be an until Andrew Cuomo pulls up to the White House in one of his muscle cars.

There was some hope after Sandy that, with the governor and Mr. Lhota standing at the mouth of a flooded Hugh Carey Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, with harrowing pictures of a submerged South Ferry station, with lines for days to get on the bus and the ferry to get into the city, that the governor now owned the MTA and would have to do something to fix its finances. Those dreams began to sink this week.

But hey, at least New Yorkers are not alone on this. Yesterday, the Pulaski Skyway closed for two years as it undergoes reconstruction. The funds for that are coming from the ARC Tunnel that Sandy fellow traveler Chris Christie killed.

For a time, it was kind of cool that L.A., under the leadership of Mayor Antonio Villaragosa, had become a hot bed of mass transit investment, with new light rail lines, high speed rail up to San Francisco and now congestion pricing. It was the sort of novel story—mass transit in L.A.? Pshaw!—that sets writers and editors hearts aflutter.

But with each passing day and each passing mile, the story becomes less cute and more depressing. Suddenly we’re the ones with the straphanger blues.