Opinion: Sunday, January 2, 2005

Taxes for transit? (NYC)
Point / Counterpoint


YES

By RICHARD T. ANDERSON

In a rare display of virtual unanimity, straphanger advocates, most public officials and the business community all agree on the basics of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's proposed five-year capital plan. Each recognizes the need to invest billions of dollars in system maintenance and expansion. They also agree that the MTA's financial picture is bleak and that additional funding is needed. Now comes the hard part - identifying new and dedicated revenue sources.

MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow recently floated a number of possibilities, including fare increases (since approved) and increased property transfer, mortgage recording, corporate and petroleum business taxes. We should take Kalikow's lead and begin discussions based on three important principles:

Transportation should pay for itself. It is not practical to fund operational, maintenance and expansion requirements solely from fares and auto-related charges. We must expand our understanding of what it means to be self-sustaining by examining all the beneficiaries of improved transportation.

One is the economy. An efficient transit system increases productivity by reducing traffic congestion and making the entire region more attractive to businesses. That's why transportation-related user fees, which recognize the value of mass transit, make such good sense. An example is a uniform motor-vehicle charge to enter Manhattan's central business district. Improved transit also benefits real estate values, so it makes sense to consider modest real estate and business tax increases.

There must be no sacred cows. All possible revenue sources must be on the table, including tolling East River crossings and reinstating the commuter tax. These measures, together with fare increases and local surcharges, would ensure residents, commuters and businesses alike pay a share roughly equivalent to their overall usage of the transportation system.

All new revenue streams must be dedicated solely and permanently to transportation-related capital projects. This would provide reliability in future revenue streams, thereby allowing for long-term planning, and give businesses further incentive to locate and grow here.

Taxpayers, businesses and commuters need to know they are making an investment that, ultimately, will save them time, ease congestion, improve the environment and create jobs. Under that scenario, we all win.

Anderson is president of the New York Building Congress.


NO

By STATE SEN. DEAN SKELOS

Building upon two decades of reinvestment in the region's mass transportation system, the MTA has proposed a new $27.6 billion five-year capital program. Although the MTA and an assortment of interested proponents assert its necessity to forestall a return to the decrepitude of the '70s fiscal crisis, the plan contains $16 billion in unfunded spending that would require massive new borrowing, fares and/or taxes and jeopardize our economic renaissance.

Since 1982, the MTA has invested more than $48 billion to restore its infrastructure and lay a solid foundation for the region's economy. Through its previous capital programs, the MTA preserved these invaluable assets and achieved an unprecedented level of service.

The importance of comprehensive mass transit is beyond dispute, but the proposal's profligacy eclipses all bounds of fiscal prudence and would impose a huge burden on MTA patrons. For example, the MTA's recent fare increase will diminish Long Island Rail Road ridership by 2.1 million trips a year.

MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow suggests raising taxes on motorists and the region's businesses by 50%. But he seems to forget that onerous taxes and indiscriminate borrowing in the '70s evaporated 570,000 private-sector jobs from New York City (nearly six times those lost after 9/11), inducing the fiscal crisis.

The state must address not only the metro area's transportation needs, but also the bridge-and-highway infrastructure of upstate New York and Long Island. With the MTA proposing 54% more spending than its last capital program, traditional parity requirements would necessitate exponential growth in available revenues.

The MTA Capital Program Review Board was created to interject accountability into a largely autonomous authority that has repeatedly demonstrated a disregard for the public it serves. Unfortunately, the MTA failed to constructively partner with the board to ascertain the system's critical needs and priorities. Given the board duty to demand a balanced capital program, the MTA's recalcitrance and indifference to the state's non-MTA transportation concerns necessitated our veto of this plan.

By crafting a responsible and affordable plan that both enhances the progress already made and rejects a return to the fiscal malfeasance of the past, the MTA will successfully confront its most significant challenge of this generation. Let's hope it rises to the occasion.

Skelos (R-Nassau County) is the state Senate representative on the MTA's Capital Program Review Board.


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