10:54 am Aug. 23, 20121
Since the passage of the 2009 payroll mobility tax, which channels more than $1 billion a year into the financially beleaguered M.T.A.'s coffers, one thing has become unavoidably clear: the suburbs revile the levy, their legislators will do whatever it takes to demolish it, and the M.T.A. is going to, sooner rather than later, have to find itself a new dedicated-revenue stream to replace the one that nobody likes.
Yesterday, a Long Island judge struck down the tax, ruling that that the legislature violated the self-governance of the plaintiff counties by failing to get their go-ahead, or a two-thirds vote in the state legislature, before instituting the levy. The judge also agreed with the plaintiffs that the tax "does not serve a substantial state interest."
Since the 2009 passage of the tax, which levies 34 cents on every $100 of employer payroll in the counties served by the M.T.A.'s subways, buses and commuter rails, multiple suits have been filed seeking to roll it back. Thus far, four have been dismissed. And the M.T.A. is confident that upon appeal, yesterday's ruling will meet a similar fate. In the meantime, tax collections will continue.
The M.T.A.'s prognostications may well prove true, but what the ruling does demonstrate, yet again, is that the tax is immensely unpopular in the suburbs.
Despite M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota's substantial charm offensive and the work of transportation advocates like the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, that's not likely to change.
"They're ecstatic about the striking down of the M.T.A.'s payroll mobility tax, they're thrilled," said Ryan Lynch, associate director of Tri-State and the organization's Long Island coordinator, referring to legislators from the island. "I'm looking at my Facebook page and the scroll of all the elected officials who have campaigned on payroll tax repeal—they're very excited about it."
This is not the first time the tax's opponents have won a substantial (if perhaps ultimately symbolic) victory against the hated levy.
With the help of Governor Andrew Cuomo, last year they succeeded in substantially reducing the tax's impact, and elected officials from upstate and down continue to introduce measures that would chip away at it further.
A substitute of some sort is clearly needed, something that Lhota himself seemed to acknowledge earlier this month, when he ventured into the "lion's den"—a breakfast for the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce in Poughkeepsie—and sought to underscore the importance of the M.T.A. to the region's economy.
"I need to find a way ... whatever happens with the payroll mobility tax, to find a substitute for it that's more equitable and more fair," he said.
"Regardless of how it's done, we need to find a new way to fund the system," agreed Lynch. "That means perhaps revisiting congestion pricing, which is pretty good politically and policy-wise in the suburbs."
Transportation guru Sam Schwartz, also known as Gridlock Sam, has been shopping around a new iteration of that very thing.
Unlike the payroll mobility tax, its impact would largely be felt in New York City, which means it should be more palatable to suburban legislators (and less palatable to urban ones).
Whether any of the politicians vying to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who made a valiant, if failed attempt at congestion pricing tax earlier in his tenure, are willing to take up the battle in Albany on the M.T.A.'s behalf, remains to be seen.
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