After Cuomo removes safeguards from public-transportation funding, nervous advocates plot a response

Long Island Railroad train. (Marc Flores, via flickr)
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This afternoon, a group of about 20 transportation advocates met at the offices of the General Contractors Association in Manhattan to map out its Albany strategy for 2012.

"The meeting was scheduled with a sense of urgency," said attendee Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The urgency was supplied  last week by Governor Andrew Cuomo. First, the governor and legislative leaders announced in a press release that, as part of their “comprehensive plans to create jobs and grow the economy,” they would slash hundreds of millions in dedicated revenue for the M.T.A. in the form of a tax exemption for small businesses and private schools.

The tax exemption was vigorously sought by the Long Island-dominated Senate Republicans, and Cuomo's concession on that score helped get them on board with a revenue plan that technically breaches their promise to not raise taxes.

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Initially, the tax cut was supposed to cost $250 million in M.T.A.-dedicated revenue, to be offset by the state out of general funds, and it was to sunset in three years. Following further negotiations, it was revealed that Albany leaders had decided to give public schools the tax exemption as well, which upped the total revenue cut for the M.T.A. to $390 million at first, and $320 million in later years. And, as it turned out, the tax exemption would not last three years. It would be permanent.

“Do I think it’s good?” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, who also attended. “No. I think it’s better to renegotiate it every three years.”

The governor and legislative leaders promised to make up the difference using other funds. Advocates, familiar with the routine whereby transportation funding is deprioritized and redirected in the budget process, aren't taking their word for it.

"We intend to hold them to that promise," said Slevin, following Monday's meeting.

The cut to the M.T.A. payroll mobility tax was only one of a series of recent developments in Albany that the advocates found disturbing. Last week, Cuomo revealed his plans for the $5.2 billion reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which, to the consternation of mass transit advocates, failed to include a bus rapid transit or commuter-rail option. Rather, the plans call for a space to be set aside for mass transit in the future, in case someone (presumably other than Cuomo) should decide to fund it.

"That was something my organization has worked on for 10 years with civic groups and elected officials in that corridor for a project that made sense," said Slevin. "Without public transportation, that project is flawed."

Also last week, the governor and state legislators essentially neutered the "M.T.A. lock box" bill, which would have required policymakers to issue a public impact statement before taking money intended for the M.T.A. and spending it elsewhere. They did this even though both houses of the legislature passed the bill in June.

All of last week's developments came on the heels of the departures of former M.T.A. chairman Jay Walder and former Port Authority executive director Chris Ward, both of whom were well-regarded by transit types, and both of whom were frozen out by the Cuomo administration.

Mary Ann Crotty, a transportation consultant and a close confidant of the governor, was also in attendance.

According to Russianoff, who spoke to Capital by cell on his way back from the meeting, some of the advocates at the meeting said they took comfort in the governor’s and legislative leaders' promise to compensate the M.T.A. for the revenue cut. Others, including Russianoff, didn't.

“Other groups were concerned, given past history, including Cuomo and Paterson taking $260 million from dedicated tax accounts and using them for other purposes,” said Russianoff, who also cited Albany’s under-funding of student MetroCards. “It’s the same as it ever was."

They will also push for legislative approval of the M.T.A.’s capital plan. The participants in the meeting intend to go to Albany in mid-February to lobby the governor’s office and legislators. The purpose, said Russianoff, “is to remind them we remember the promise they made about the $320 million.”

"I expect that the message will be pretty loud and clear for the next couple of months," added Slevin. "We certainly don’t expect to wait until February to make our voices heard. We’ll know more details in the coming weeks."