What’s the real harm in an unpassable Republican proposal to gut New York transit?

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Subway, 1973. (U.S. National Archives, via flickr)
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Yesterday, in the cathedral to mass transit known as Grand Central Terminal, four members of New York’s congressional delegation joined labor leaders and M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota to rail against a House transportation bill that would theoretically deprive the transit agency that runs city subways and buses of more than $1 billion a year in federal funding.

It is a terrible, damaging bill from their perspective, and from New York's. The question is whether this explicitly anti-urban idea could ever become reality.

The so-called American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, which the House is expected to vote on next week, would deprive mass transit of its current 20 percent share of the gasoline-tax-fueled Highway Trust Fund (the other 80 percent is dedicated to highways, roads and bridges). The House Republican bill would instead create a four-year appropriation for mass transit, after which point transit agencies and their surrogates would have to lobby for federal appropriations on an annual basis. That would, according to Rep. Jerry Nadler, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, render mass transit a “stepchild.”

It would also prove devastating for the M.T.A. capital budget, about one quarter of which is derived from those federal funds. The agency relies upon the steady revenue stream to finance, and to underwite debt that finances, projects like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, as well as more mundane activities like repairing subway stations and buying new buses.

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So the apocalyptic scenario would slash the M.T.A.’s capital budget by 25 percent and force massive fare hikes. But the worst-case hypothetical scenario is just that: Nobody expects that the Democrat-controlled Senate would let the House proposal go through.

Rather, said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, the bill is “a step towards a slippery slope.” It sets a bad precedent. And it reflects a philosophy toward mass transit that advocates find frightening.

"We’re going back to 50 years ago and it’s just unacceptable," said Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The potential harm is that if the House Republicans succeed in making mass-transit funding a resonant political issue—by say, arguing that big-government Democrats are forcing the average, car-driving American taxpayer, already struggling under the burden of a sour economy, to subsidize the socialist public-transportation habits of urban America, and that, therefore, President Obama should be voted out of office—then that might force some level of Senate capitulation.

“Then you might see the Senate feel pressured and compromise and figure out some sort of solution,” said Joshua Schank, who was former senator Hillary Clinton's transportation policy adviser and is now president of the Eno Center for Transportation. “And it’s possible transit could get hacked as a part of that.”

Any sort of compromise would appall transit advocates, who these days find themselves defending mass-transit systems teetering on the brink of economic collapse. Forced into a corner, the Senate could, say, cut gasoline-tax funding for mass transit, but not eliminate it entirely, thereby allowing Democratic senators to claim they rescued mass transit from the ravages of the House Republicans, and allowing Republicans to get at least some of what they want. Governor Andrew Cuomo and his approach to the M.T.A. payroll mobility tax could, in that regard, prove a useful guide.

But more likely, what will happen is precisely nothing. Which, given the fact that the Highway Trust Fund is expected to run out of money in the coming months, would also pose a problem.

“It’s very unlikely that there will be a surface transportation bill enacted before the next election,” said Schank. “The Senate will pass something that’s bipartisan and reasonable and doable and everyone will embrace. The House looks on the road to embracing something that’s highly partisan.”

And in such situations, said Schank, “it’s very hard to conference bills.”