M.T.A. chief wishes 2013 contenders would talk about mass transit

Lhota. (Dana Rubinstein)
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M.T.A. chief Joe Lhota said today that he wishes the candidates vying to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2014 would talk about mass transit, and how to pay for it.

"I wish the mayoral candidates would get engaged on this," he said today, during a panel hosted by Crain's New York Business in an ornate ballroom at the Plaza Hotel.  

The Albany-controlled authority, which runs New York City's buses and subways, as well as the Metro-North and Long Island railroads, has some financial troubles, including a debt load of $32 billion, and a legislature (and sometimes also a governor) that is generally unsympathetic to its plight.

Meanwhile, in August, a Long Island judge struck down a key M.T.A. funding source, known as the payroll mobility tax, that is intensely unpopular in the suburbs.

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The judgment may not stand, but it has underscored the need for a replacement source of revenue, a topic on which Lhota was questioned at some length this morning.

The panel of reporters interviewing Lhota asked him what he thought about a potential alternative source of revenue, congestion pricing, one iteration of which involved tolls on the East River bridges and was championed by Bloomberg earlier in his tenure, only to die in Albany.

Transportation engineer Sam Schwartz, better known as Gridlock Sam, has in recent months been shopping around a new version of the old plan, one that he argues will be more palatable to people in the outer boroughs.

Lhota demurred.

"We need to have a strong public debate about congestion pricing," he said. "I can’t call for the tolling of the East River bridges. The East River bridges are owned by the city of New York, they’re run by the City Department of Transportation."

But Lhota did say he wishes the mayoral candidates vying to succeed Bloomberg would at least address the issue of transportation, and transportation funding, in a substantive way.

"The folks who are running for mayor right now should really want to talk about what’s the right thing to do for the region and how it should be run," he said. "And we need to have the public debate. That public debate should also not only include mass transit, but it should also include bike lanes, it should also include all things transportation oriented, so that it’s done on a coordinated basis."

Thus far, both Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and former comptroller Bill Thompson have called for the reinstatement of the commuter tax, which was abolished in 1999 following a particularly cynical act of horsetrading by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Stringer even made a commuter tax the focus of a policy speech before the city's permanent establishment in April.

And Thompson previously called for a weight-based registration fee for commercial vehicles.

But it's hard to imagine a future in which suburban legislators, who are doing everything in their power to chip away at an existing tax on their constituents, endorsing a new one.

"But at least the candidate was engaging in a question," said Lhota, of Stringer.

Thus far, the other candidates have been avoiding the issue.

Asked what kind of tax he thinks might be politically viable, Lhota avoided answering the question directly, though he did endorse looking at how other cities have handled this problem.

"You know, Los Angeles is building a complete subway system now," he said. "They’re doing it pretty much through sales tax. I’m not supporting that. But I think what we ought to do is call upon the community, our investment banking community, and look at what people are doing in other ... cities in the country and other parts of the world on how they're funding it."