Does Anyone Have a Backup Plan to Fund the MTA?

We asked 26 lawmakers who support the congestion pricing pause how they propose to fund transit upgrades. Most shrugged.

Sam Mellins   ·   June 21, 2024
MTA workers in a tunnel
Some of New York’s elected officials loudly opposed congestion pricing, but none of them admit they want the MTA upgrades killed. | MTA Capital Construction / Rehema Trimiew

With New York’s congestion pricing program indefinitely paused, lawmakers face an urgent question: how to fill the $15 billion hole that Governor Kathy Hochul’s decision opened up in the budget of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates buses, subways, and commuter trains serving millions of New Yorkers daily.

So far, they don’t have many ideas.

The program’s revenue, generated by charging drivers $15 to enter downtown Manhattan during peak hours, would have provided the MTA $1 billion a year. That would have funded upgrades to Great Depression-era signals in subway tunnels and new elevators and escalators at Long Island Rail Road stations, among other projects.

Many of those projects are now at risk. Already, the authority has stopped work on the long-planned Second Avenue subway project to bring the Q train to Harlem, Streetsblog reported Tuesday. At a press conference last week, MTA CEO Janno Lieber signaled that other projects are likely to be axed as well. The authority would “reprioritize and shrink” its plans, he said, and focus on “basic stuff to make sure that the system doesn’t fall apart.”

Some of New York’s elected officials loudly opposed congestion pricing, but none of them admit they want the MTA upgrades killed. Almost all of them represent more people who commute to downtown Manhattan by public transit than by car. But for the projects to move forward without congestion pricing, lawmakers need to find another way to give the authority $1 billion a year.

New York Focus reached out to 26 state lawmakers who have spoken in favor of Hochul’s congestion pricing pause to ask about their ideas for how to do that. Six responded, and just one provided a specific proposal.

“That’s something I’m going to leave to the conference,” said Senator Monica Martinez, who represents part of Suffolk County on Long Island. “I understand that Manhattan has its issues with traffic, but it shouldn’t be placed on the back of those of us out here on Long Island.”

In Martinez’s district, 6,800 constituents use public transit to commute to Manhattan’s central business district, where congestion pricing was supposed to take effect, while just under 2,000 of them drive, according to an analysis of census data by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

She said she wants to ensure that there’s funding for planned Long Island Rail Road upgrades and, to do so, suggested “looking at the budget of the MTA” and its employees’ salaries.

Earlier this month, in the final days of the 2024 legislative session, the legislature rejected two of Hochul’s proposals for filling the budget gap: raising taxes on employers in New York City and pledging $1 billion from unspecified sources in the state budget. Hochul has said she is still committed to finding “alternative funding” for the MTA, but she hasn’t specified what that could be. Her office did not respond to questions for this article.

Any funding stream that the MTA borrows from has to to be stable over many years, and independent state budget experts have said there are few or no sustainable options that fit the bill.

“I don’t think there’s a sense of urgency at this point in time.”

—Assemblymember Christopher Eachus

Assemblymember Yudelka Tapia, who represents part of the Bronx and supported the congestion pricing pause, said she and other legislators “might do brainstorming, to try to start thinking about what ideas that we have” to replace the lost revenue.

“But that hasn’t happened yet. I cannot tell you that that’s going to happen,” she added.

Nearly 18,000 of Tapia’s constituents commute to the central business district by public transportation, while fewer than 1,000 drive.

Assemblymember Clyde Vanel, who represents southeast Queens and also supported Hochul’s pause, didn’t offer any ideas for funding the MTA. He thinks that the state should look at ways to subsidize public transit, like offering discounts for group train tickets or parking at train stations.

“There’s still a lot of people that don’t ride public transportation. How do we change that in the culture? That’s something that we have to do,” he said.

Over 9,600 of his constituents take public transit to the central business district, while about 2,300 drive. But Vanel said he hasn’t heard from any Long Island Rail Road riders worried about a loss of funding.

“I would listen, but I don’t hear that,” he said.

Assemblymembers Simcha Eichenstein and Christopher Eachus both suggested that the MTA should fill the hole by cracking down on fare evasion and taking steps to cut the sky-high cost of construction projects.

“It takes the MTA four years to install an elevator, and it ends up costing $7 to $8 million. That is outrageous,” Eichenstein said. “I have contractors in my district installing elevators for $70,000, and it is done in a couple of months.”

Over 8,700 commuters in Eichenstein’s Brooklyn district take public transit to the central business district, while under 1,500 drive.

Eachus’s Hudson Valley district is one of the only places in the state where those numbers are flipped: Nearly 2,200 drive to the central business district and under 700 take transit, because the district doesn’t have many options for public transit to New York City.

“We need the MTA here in this area,” Eachus said. “None of the congestion pricing money was going to go to projects in my district.”

In general, legislators don’t seem terribly concerned with how to patch the MTA’s budget.

“I don’t think there’s a sense of urgency at this point in time,” Eachus said. “I can’t say I’ve had discussions with anybody else about this.”

One legislator who spoke with New York Focus did have an idea for funding the MTA: expanding gambling.

That’s what Senator Joseph Addabbo, who represents southeast Queens and supported Hochul’s pause, is pushing for. He chairs the Senate committee tasked with regulating gambling. Nearly 45,000 of his constituents take public transit into the central business district, while just over 6,400 drive.

Speeding up plans to open three casinos in New York and legalizing online gambling, Addabbo said, could bring in at least $2 billion in taxes annually.

“To me, that sounds like real significant revenue for the MTA,” he said. “That sounds like an alternative to congestion pricing.”

There is a certain irony in this plan: Expanding gambling could cost working- and middle-class New Yorkers — the same ones Hochul said she paused congestion pricing to benefit. Gambling and lotteries tend to transfer wealth out of low-income communities.

This year, lawmakers declined to take up an Addabbo-sponsored bill to legalize online gambling. He hopes the congestion pricing pause will cause them to reconsider.

“You may not want to expand gaming in New York, but now you may need to,” Addabbo said.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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