M.T.A. appointee David Paterson says the commuter tax is a nonstarter, but congestion pricing may not be

Paterson addresses lawyers. (Dan Rosenblum)
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When I asked soon-to-be M.T.A. board member David Paterson about Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's proposal to revive the commuter tax, the former governor said it was "a perfectly valid concept whose life ended in 1999, and the current thinking does not accommodate it."

Asked if it was just politically unfeasible, Paterson said, "Yeah."

But another of Stringer's proposals did find favor with Paterson: the creation of an X line that could be built along existing rights of way connecting subways in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. 

"His suggestion about the train that connects the outer boroughs, I think, was overlooked," said Paterson, adding, "And I like how he calls it the 'X train.' 'Ex' sort of meaning 'outer'? He should change it to the 'Y train.' It would sound more inclusive."

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Today, the Daily News reported that Governor Andrew Cuomo would appoint his predecessor to the M.T.A. board, filling an opening left by Nancy Shevell, who resigned after marrying Paul McCartney. Paterson's appointment requires State Senate approval.

Paterson, who now teaches college and helms a radio show on WOR-AM, on which the sitting governor is sometimes a guest, has some experience with transportation issues.

When he was governor in 2009, Paterson appointed a widely regarded technocrat named Jay Walder to head the M.T.A.. He also created the Ravitch Commission and tasked it with finding ways to stabilize the finances of the M.T.A., which runs New York City's subway and bus system, as well as some of its bridges and the Metro-North and Long Island Railroad commuter lines.

It was the Ravitch Commission that recommended a form of congestion pricing, which never made it through the legislature, and proposed a payroll mobility tax, which was passed in 2009 and levies $.34 on every $100 of employer payroll in the 12 counties served by the M.T.A. 

The payroll mobility tax proved exceedingly unpopular in the suburbs surrounding New York City, and Governor Cuomo has since rolled it back, which sits poorly with transportation advocates, but which Paterson says was the right thing to do. 

"The reason I accepted the payroll tax is because I had to close $21 billion of deficit," said Paterson. "We talk about $10 billion deficits now like it’s the worst thing that ever happened. I’m the only governor in the state that ever had to close $21 billion in their first year. And so at that point, anything that was on the table that involved revenue generation to pay off these debts, I took."

"But now the governor who has continued to cut spending and has cut two budgets in a row on time, he has rolled back a lot of that tax, and at this point in history, it is precisely the right thing to do," continued Paterson.

Right now, the M.T.A.'s finances are in a precarious state. The state-run authority's debt burden is enormous, and it is lacking in sufficient dedicated revenue streams. 

“That’s a problem that the governor will have to face," said Paterson. "But I think what the governor is saying is that the distribution of the responsibility has to be more fair, and I totally agree.”

Stringer, who is running for mayor, recently proposed reviving the commuter tax, which would require approval from a state legislature that isn't particularly enthusiastic about transit funding, particularly when the burden falls on suburban commuters.

Congestion pricing might be more realistic, since it doesn't affect the suburbs specifically. Former D.O.T. traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz has recently been lobbying New York's establishment to take up the cause, and might find a receptive ear in Paterson, who told me congestion pricing "deserves another hearing."

"I’m sure I’ll hear from him," Paterson said.