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“I keep saying over and over again how precarious our financial situation is, said Lhota. “We’re going to have to find different sources of revenue in order to find the capital necessary to sustain a state of good repair.”
That sounds obvious, and yet there's been no one with any significant political power who's been willing to push for those secure sources of revenue, as illustrated by the outcome of the recent rescue plan devised by Ravitch, which was promptly discarded by Albany.
“If you look at the last fiscal crisis that the M.T.A. went through in 2009 and 2010, then-lieutenant governor Ravitch ... came up with one of the recommendations that was implemented by the legislature, was Payroll Mobility tax,” said Lhota, during the Thursday forum. “Eighteen months later, you see the Payroll Mobility Tax being reduced. So there are mixed signals going on here.”
One idea Lhota floated at the public forum on Thursday was the notion of tax-increment financing for the M.T.A., a mechanism by which the authority would get a piece of whatever real estate tax revenue is sparked by major infrastructure investments. New York City is using a similar sort of funding mechanism to pay for the 7-train extension to the far west side.
“We’re building the Second Avenue Subway today with state dollars, with federal dollars, but there’s no way that any of the economic demand that can come from the Second Avenue Subway will go back to pay off the M.T.A. for its investment,” said Lhota. “Tax-increment financing has been talked about in the state for 30 years,” said Lhota, in a follow-up interview. “It’s a financing and funding arsenal that would be helpful in New York State.”
But allowing the M.T.A. to use that mechanism will probably require Albany approval.
Which gets to Lhota's central challenge.
His ability to succeed in bringing the transit system through its current crisis intact—maintaining current levels of service, continuing with longer-term capital projects necessary to accommodate ridership in the future, and leaving it on a sustainable financial footing—depends on many difficult things. Some of those things are within his power to do something about: enlightened prioritization of the authority's maintenance and capital projects, for example, and negotiations with the transit union on pensions and benefits.
But other, simply, are much bigger than the M.T.A. chair.
“If ridership doesn’t continue as it is, if federal financing doesn’t continue at the same level,” said Andrew Albert, chairman of the New York City Transit Riders Council and an M.T.A. boardmember. “Lots of different things have to come together for everything to be fine, which is very worrisome for riders.”
New York's transit system, and in large part, its economy, will rise and fall depending not only on whether the system is run efficiently, but whether it is given enough resources in the first place to maintain itself and grow, and not perpetually be in a perpetual state of emergency.
“It’s very tenuous and very perilous,” said Charles Moerdler, an M.T.A. board member. “That’s not an exaggeration, I mean seriously. The budget is balanced very delicately, because it is dependent very, very heavily on state and city grants in money."
And that it turn means Lhota will need what his predecessor didn't get, which is backing from the powerful and popular governor.
At the very least, Lhota has access, as illustrated by the time he spent on the second floor of the Capitol during each of his seven trips to Albany as M.T.A. chair.
When I asked Lhota what his tenure would be judged on, he said, "I think it will rest on bolstering and enhancing the image of the M.T.A., both with the riders, our customers, as well as elected officials, union leadership, board members and the media. I think that is instrumental to putting the M.T.A. back on good financial footing. We’ve got to enhance the image of the M.T.A."
In that regard, at least, he seems to be off to a decent start.