Will M.T.A. Derail?

“We were let down by everybody,” recalled lobbyist A.J. Castelbuono. “Everybody seemed to be heading toward the witness-protection program and the Assembly was nowhere to be found. The Senate was nowhere to be found. The administration was nowhere to be found. The transit interests were nowhere to be found and a lot of the major unions were not all that supportive. At the end of the day, you were out on a limb and were trying to make lemonade out of lemons.”

Mr. Castelbuono, head of a New York road and bridge contractors group, was lamenting the infamy of November 2000, when a referendum to bond a few billion dollars for transportation projects—subways as well as highways—failed narrowly in the face of stiff upstate opposition. Mr. Castelbuono has reason to be bitter: His group, the New York State chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, financed much of the $3 million campaign.

As voters face another transportation referendum, this time for $2.9 billion, Mr. Castelbuono is optimistic. The tent is bigger this time around, the unions are playing along, and the Governor has even done a little stumping for it. The scruffy transportation campaign has even piggybacked on Mayor Bloomberg’s $63 million re-election effort. Thousands of Bloomberg workers are handing out palm cards that, while loudly promoting the Mayor, include a line that reads “Vote Yes Proposition 2 for Better Subways, Buses and Roads.” But while the Mayor’s millions will help spread the gospel, bond-act proponents fear Mr. Bloomberg’s strength could also be their downfall.

“We’re concerned about the fact that if the Mayor is so far ahead, maybe people won’t come out to vote, period,” Mr. Castelbuono explained.

And the fewer city residents who turn out, the harder it will be to combat the stinginess of upstaters. In fact, the Vote Yes for Transportation campaign calculates that it needs at least 30 percent of the state’s total turnout to come from New York City in order for the proposal to stand a chance of passing, according to Ed Draves, the campaign manager. In previous elections when only municipal offices have been at stake, city voters have constituted between 28 percent and 33 percent of the turnout, he said.

It was supposed to be a happy coincidence that the bond act is appearing on the ballot in an odd-numbered year. In 2000, the referendum was overshadowed by the vicious Presidential and Senatorial races to such an extent that only 40 percent of New York City residents who showed up bothered to pull the lever, up or down, for more transit funding. Those who voted yes failed to overcome the naysayers upstate.

This year’s bond act is again polling stronger in the Bronx than Buffalo, but the question will appear more prominently on upstate ballots than downstate, where it will be down and off to the side. What’s more, establishment voices, including the Governor and the Business Council of New York State, are calling on voters to reject Proposal 1, which alters the budget process, and approve Proposal 2, the bond act. “That’s ‘No’ on 1, ‘Yes’ on 2,” the Governor instructed a luncheon crowd last month.

Or was that “Yes” on 2 and “No” on 1?

And what about Proposals 3 and 4?

Aaaaarrrrrrgh!

“The supporters were counting on the Mayoral election in the city,” said John Corlett, the lobbyist for the New York State chapter of the American Automobile Association, which is opposing the bond act on grounds that it does nothing to stop the legislature from robbing the highway trust fund. “But the polls make it look like Bloomberg is going to walk away with it.”

Low turnout may well be a threat, but otherwise, the Vote Yes campaign is far more organized and spirited than five years ago. The bond act dates back to last December when a state advisory committee released an alarming—critics say alarmist—report about the sorry state of roads and bridges entitled “Transportation—Trouble Ahead,” which served as justification for a $35.8 billion five-year capital plan that legislators would put together in the subsequent months. Half of that was to go to the M.T.A., half for roads and bridges around the state. When it came time to pay for it, though, the legislators in charge of transportation spending—Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat from Westchester, and state Senator Tom Libous, a Republican from the Southern Tier—were faced with about a $3 billion revenue gap.

Around the same time, M.T.A. chairman Peter Kalikow was meeting with board members of the Partnership for New York City, a group of business leaders, and floated several new revenue sources, including a higher surcharge on companies in the metropolitan region and a new real-estate-transfer tax.

“He laid out what the issues were, and gave a very good briefing and talked about the different revenue sources, and argued that the M.T.A. had started with raising fares and that they had taken that hit first,” recalled Kathryn Wylde, president and C.E.O. of the Partnership. “Then he made a case for equity—that the fare box is one means of support but that the city taxpayers and business community is another.”

The business leaders didn’t like the new taxes.

“The bond issue was really a compromise so that the burden would not disproportionately fall on the city and city businesses,” Ms. Wylde said.

The idea of subjecting $2.9 billion of the capital plan to the public’s vote was not an easy sell elsewhere. “It was not ideally what we wanted, but given the alternatives, we were for it,” said Elliot (Lee) Sander, a former city transportation commissioner under Mayor Giuliani and co-chairman of the Empire State Transportation Alliance, a network of civic organizations and environmental-watchdog and transportation-advocacy groups.

The alliance sat out the 2000 fight—largely because the larger capital plan put too great a burden on the M.T.A. This time around, the state will contribute about $6.7 billion of the $35.8 billion plan.

In early July, over lunch at Rini’s Ristorante in the Westchester town of Elmsford, it looked as if labor would bail because Governor Pataki had not committed to paying union wages for the projects. “I picked up the phone and called a public hearing on the prevailing-wage issue,” said Assemblyman Brodsky, a candidate for State Attorney General. “I think that if you ask the other people who were at that meeting you will find that that phone call was enormously therapeutic.”

Mr. Brodsky never got to hold his hearing. The next week, the Governor agreed to paying prevailing wages and, along with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, announced an agreement on how to spend the $2.9 billion raised if the bond act passed, making sure to scatter the projects around the state, balance upstate interests with downstate interests, and include some hot-button projects, such as $450 million for the Second Avenue subway.

It is exactly the politic distribution of resources that so annoys the campaign’s critics. The bond act will only cover portions of these projects: The first stretch of the Second Avenue subway, from 62nd Street to 105th Street, will cost $3.8 billion altogether, for example; the entire length, from lower Manhattan, $16.8 billion. One opposition group, the Citizens Budget Commission, estimates that the state will still have to issue an additional $13.2 billion in “hidden” bonds that are not subjected to voter approval to complete its projects.

“There are enough projects all over the state to energize the supporters to get the proposition passed,” said Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party. “Our problem is that it is starting over 100 projects without finishing them. They are going to have to go back to voters to complete the program.”

Perhaps. It turns out that $2.9 billion can’t get you very far these days.

Will M.T.A. Derail?