Former P.A. boss says the state must stabilize the M.T.A. to keep the city from failing

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Chris Ward. (ny1.com)
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Former Port Authority executive director Chris Ward called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to focus on the finances of the M.T.A., which is facing a galling $9.9 billion gap in its five-year capital plan.

The authority, which is responsible for New York City’s subways, buses and trains, relies on revenue that fluctuates with the economy. It’s now planning on borrowing an estimated $14.8 billion in debt to pay for the maintenance and modernization of the system, and for the completion of projects like the Second Avenue subway and the East Side Access project, which would in future years result in the debt-service consuming ever greater portions of the M.T.A.'s already limited funding streams. 

“Joe Lhota, the governor must find a way to stabilize the M.T.A.,” said Ward in a speech on Friday.

Lhota is Cuomo’s pick to replace the well-regarded Jay Walder as head of the M.T.A.

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Walder never had much of a relationship with Cuomo, and decided to leave New York to run Hong Kong’s much-better-funded transit system.

Ward made his remarks during a keynote speech at a transportation conference hosted by Manhattan Borough President and 2013 mayoral candidate Scott Stringer.

The theme of Ward’s speech was that we, as a society, suffer from a lack of vision when it comes to a commitment to infrastructure.

“The city is not inevitable,” he said. “The city is what you, what we, what the elected officials like Scott will make it. And I think we have to ask ourselves then, what would be that city?”

Officials, Ward said, have abdicated that responsibility.

“I’d like you to think about why we fail, why have we failed?” he said, addressing the audience of transportation advocates gathered in the fourth-floor gymnasium at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Stringer’s alma mater. “The best intentions, the smartest people, all have worked on many of the issues to be discussed today. Jay Walder, Joe Lhota, myself, Pat Foye. We have failed. We are not building the city that we all know we want to live in in the next decade, or the next 20 or 30 years.”

Foye is the man Cuomo has chosen to replace Ward as executive director of the Port Authority, a sprawling, notoriously hard-to-manage agency that under Ward’s direction restarted the long-languishing construction at Ground Zero.

Ward was a Paterson-administration appointee (as was Walder) who owed nothing to the current governor, and never really stood a chance of lasting long in his post once Cuomo was sworn in. 

In an ensuing panel discussion moderated by N.Y.U. professor Mitchell Moss, and also featuring NYPIRG's Gene Russianoff and the Regional Plan Association’s Robert Yaro among others, Ward had some more specific advice for the officials charged with maintaining and improving New York City’s transportation infrastructure.

“You are not going to be able to solve the M.T.A.’s financial problem with the deterioration of the payroll tax, unless we all acknowledge that we have to toll the East River bridges,” said Ward.

By “deterioration of the payroll tax,” Ward was referring to the limited success of the levy, first collected in 2009 with the intention of shoring up the M.T.A.’s finances. The tax, which takes 34 cents from every $100 of payroll in New York City and surrounding counties, hasn't met revenue expectations.

In an interview following the event, Ward said he would also support a commuter tax, whose election-season demise 12 years ago is still mourned by some city officials, but which is toxic to the Long Island and Westchester legislators who dominate the majority Republican conference in the State Senate.

“I think some form of commuter tax makes sense as well,” said Ward. “If you work in the city and you come in from Westchester, Long Island, and you come into the city, then I can see you paying a commuter tax.”

Ward also called for the creation of an innovative trucking system modeled on the zip codes that divide New York into districts staffed by designated mailmen, as a way to reduce delivery-truck congestion on city streets. Essentially, the concept would work by dividing New York into franchise areas, and then inviting trucking companies to bid for the right to service those areas. In order to win the franchise, the companies would have to promise to use more environmentally friendly vehicles and to abide by community friendly schedules.

To ameliorate the problem created by Governor Chris Christie’s cancellation of the planned ARC Tunnel, which would have eased congestion by increasing rail capacity between New York and New Jersey, Ward called for a new bus terminal to be built near the Port Authority, on the far West Side. That way, commuter buses that now haul in New Jersey residents, and which currently have to go back to Jersey until the evening rush, when they return to the city, would have a place to park during the day. And once again, Ward called for LaGuardia Airport to be torn down and rebuilt.

The keynote speech and panel discussion were part of a Stringer-organized, day-long conference called Transportation 2030: A Five Borough Blueprint.

Iris Weinshall, a former city transportation commissioner who is CUNY’s vice chancellor for facilities, a fierce opponent of the Prospect Park West bike lane and, incidentally, Senator Chuck Schumer’s wife, gave welcoming remarks at the podium where just a few minutes later, her successor at D.O.T., Janette Sadik-Khan, would point to the Prospect Park West bike lane as a symbol of success, describing it as “great” and “very popular.”

Stringer dedicated the conference to Patricia Dolan, the Queens civic activist who was hit by a car and killed last week on her way to a community board meeting.

The focus of the panel was the M.T.A.’s budgetary troubles, which have also been the subject of recent reports by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

In a recent interview with Capital, DiNapoli described the MTA’s revenue structure as “volatile and unpredictable."

“Given how volatile the climate is, given how problematic the recovery has been, there’s certainly every reason to be cautious and conservative,” said DiNapoli of the M.T.A.'s financial prospects.

That the M.T.A., which runs New York City’s subways and buses, as well as Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, has to undertake long-term capital projects funded by an unstable revenue stream is a fundamental structural problem. But it’s certainly not the authority’s only issue, something Stringer noted in his remarks.

“The first phase of the Second Avenue subway is costing $2.7 billion per mile of new tunnel,” said Stringer. The the extension of the 7 line from Times Square to the Javits Center is costing $2.1 billion per mile.

He contrasted that with the construction of the Jubilee line of the London Underground, which cost $700 million per mile.

“We cannot build a 21st-century city and compete globally if we continue to spend five, even seven times as much on construction projects as compared to our competitors,” he said.