The subway has been in the news a lot recently: disastrous rush-hour commutes, 104-degree temperatures on the platform, even a mysterious blue wall that appeared across the tracks at 59th St. in Brooklyn.
But the most ominous news in transit this summer wasn’t out of 59th St.; it was out of Wall Street, where the bond-rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the MTA’s credit for the second time this year. That’s bad news for transit riders, and it’s a sad indictment of a political leadership that has underfunded our transit system for years, choosing to pile billions of dollars of debt onto the MTA instead of finding solutions to our challenges.
The MTA’s credit downgrade will make it harder and more expensive for the agency to borrow money. For riders, that raises the fear of additional fare hikes and ever-worsening service. And for our elected leaders in Albany, the slipping credit rating should lead to an unmistakable conclusion: Whether they like it or not, it’s no longer an option to avoid action on our transit crisis by piling more debt on the MTA’s books.
The subway must be fixed, and this time, the state will have to create a sustainable new source of revenue to make it happen.
For a generation, governors and state legislators have avoided making the hard decisions to raise funds for our transit system, instead forcing the MTA to borrow stratospheric amounts. Today, nearly 20 cents out of every dollar the MTA spends goes to paying debt service on its bonds.
While operations can of course be made more efficient, this summer’s miserable commutes demonstrate that we cannot afford to wait to restore reliability by modernizing transit infrastructure.
The new MTA leadership has put forward a credible plan to fix the subway system over the course of the coming decade. Called Fast Forward, it most crucially calls for installing modern signals. It will cost tens of billions of dollars to implement.
Until now, the governor and our state legislators may have been tempted to reach for that credit card again: Authorize the MTA to take on even more debt, and make a vague commitment to supply state funds if ever they are needed. But the bond market does not exist in an alternative world where ever-mounting debt is sustainable.
Luckily, there are far more responsible options. Congestion pricing, which would charge cars a fee to drive into the busiest part of Manhattan, would raise tens of billions of dollars over time and could form the cornerstone of a new funding strategy. Even aside from transit funding, congestion pricing makes sense: It incentivizes less driving, which makes for cleaner air, and eases the flow of traffic for those drivers who decide to remain on the road.
Any lasting solution must come from the state Legislature in Albany. The city is not legally authorized to raise taxes or fees without state approval.
Gov. Cuomo, arguing that the city owns the subway system, wants Mayor de Blasio to commit more local revenue. But the state has run the subway for 50 years and only the state can raise the money to fix it. Pinning the responsibility on the mayor is a non-starter.
Raskin and Silva-Farrell are, respectively, the executive directors of the Riders Alliance and ALIGN, an alliance of labor and community organizations.
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