History might remember this as a revolutionary time for the region’s transit and transportation system.
After months of uncertainty, the agreement pushed for in the new state budget by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to bring congestion pricing to New York City’s busiest streets could revamp public transit and vehicular travel. If all goes well, the concept of tolling drivers who travel south of 61st Street in Manhattan could provide a stable source of revenue to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and reduce traffic in the central business district, while also reducing air pollution. Improvements to the commuter rails and the subway system would boost the city’s economy, which, in turn, would be a boon for the region.
With other new revenue sources — like a real estate transfer tax on multimillion-dollar home purchases in New York City, a portion of internet sales tax, and added money from the state and city — the MTA’s next five-year capital plan could be flush with as much as $40 billion. And 10 percent of that could go to the Long Island Rail Road. On the wish list of what those funds — as much as $4 billion — might bring: more than 200 new train cars, remodeled stations, added elevators, signal upgrades, and the holy grail, the full electrification of the Oyster Bay and Port Jefferson lines.
But this is still the MTA, and the first concern is that the bureaucratic behemoth will gobble up the money with little improvement. The MTA must shed its dysfunctional ways and become a streamlined, well-run agency.
Step one toward real change happened Friday: Cuomo announced that MTA President Pat Foye will become the authority’s chairman. Foye is an innovator and a big proponent of reform at the authority. But beyond the new face at the top, the new state budget contains big operational changes. By June, a reorganization plan must be in place that should bring fresh faces to the organization and remove unnecessary layers of middle management. The ability to bar contractors who are over budget or delayed in their work from doing business with the state again is quite an incentive to keep things moving. So is the design-build requirement, a more streamlined contracting process. A review unit to take a harder look at big projects could help Cuomo and Foye in one of their most important tasks: pushing East Side Access, the LIRR’s path to Grand Central Terminal, to completion as quickly as possible.
Step two, of course, is making sure the tolling will work. Some details, such as how much the tolls will be and whether there will be exemptions or changes to the pricing on weekends and overnight, are being left to a new board to figure out. That’s so no one politician can get stuck with the blame, but it also makes no one accountable. The point of a restricted transit zone is to change behavior; it has worked in major cities around the world. The board must analyze the demand for exemptions but keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to reduce traffic and raise revenue.
This is a big moment. Make it a game-changer.
— The editorial board