State budget has city focus

The state budget will include a new surcharge on for-hire vehicles in Manhattan below 96th Street, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced at a press conference in Albany last week. Photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Albany’s spending plan notable for what it includes — and leaves out — in addressing Manhattan-centric transportation issues


City-centric transportation issues figured heavily in the state budget deal reached in the early morning hours of March 31, as the process once again became a venue for last-minute dealing on contentious policy issues.

Though the spending plan included a number of other high-profile policy measures — including a new tax on opioid manufacturers, a state workaround of new federal tax laws that would have negatively impacted many New Yorkers and a new state sexual harassment policy — transportation was among the most persistent themes underlying the negotiations. A flurry of transportation-related proposals in the chaotic days leading up to the April 1 budget deadline put a spotlight on the city’s struggling transit system and continuing tensions in the long-running feud between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Subway Action Plan

The $168 billion state budget effectively compels the city to provide half of the $836 million needed to fund the MTA’s action plan to stabilize and modernize service on the city’s beleaguered subway system, with the state funding the other half. Money for the subway action plan, which includes new funding for signal repairs and track maintenance and was announced by Cuomo-appointed MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, became a persistent sticking point between the governor, who demanded that the city contribute half of its cost, and de Blasio, who argued that the city already contributes an outsized share of funding to the state-controlled MTA.

Cuomo touted the $418 million in city funding for the action plan at a press conference announcing the new budget. “At half funding, it’s like doing the work with one hand tied behind your back and it’s caused significant delays,” Cuomo said. “This is very liberating for the MTA, and now you’re going to see the emergency action plan actually get up and running.”

The mayor’s camp used the announcement as an opportunity to pin responsibility for the subways squarely on Cuomo — which have become a campaign liability for the governor as Democratic primary challenger (and longtime de Blasio ally) Cynthia Nixon has made lackluster MTA service a point of emphasis in the early stages of her campaign.

“When it comes to the subways, Mayor de Blasio has always demanded two things: significant movement by the state toward a real plan, and a dedicated lockbox so city riders’ money goes toward fixing city subways,” de Blasio spokesman Eric Phillips wrote in an emailed statement. “This budget appears to respond to the Mayor’s demands on behalf of the city’s straphangers. There are no excuses left for the Governor to hide behind. He must do his job and fix the subways.”

Congestion Pricing

Included in the state budget, which climbs just over 3 percent from last year’s spending plan, are new surcharges on for-hire vehicle trips in Manhattan south of 96th Street, of $2.50 for trips in yellow cabs and $2.75 for Ubers, black cars and other for-hire vehicles. (“The medallion has now dropped in value, so there’s a somewhat reduced price for yellow cabs,” Cuomo said.) Pooled trips will be subject to a charge of 75 cents.

The governor said that the fees will generate $415 million in annual funding dedicated to the MTA. Cuomo referred to the charges as “phase one of the congestion pricing plan,” but has yet to detail the contours of any larger proposal.

The state budget also funds at least 50 new traffic monitoring cameras to enforce bus lane violations in Manhattan.

Many expected Cuomo to do more to advance a comprehensive congestion pricing plan in budget negotiations after he declared the concept “an idea whose time has come” last year and convened a task force to study the issue. For-hire vehicle surcharges were one recommendation included in the report, but the panel’s most controversial and consequential proposals — including the creation of a congestion pricing zone encompassing all of Manhattan below 60th Street, which passenger vehicles would be charged $11.52 to enter — were notably absent from the governor’s public statements during budget negotiations.

“If it’s a first step, it’s a baby step,” said state Senator Brad Hoylman, whose midtown Manhattan district includes much of the proposed congestion zone outlined by the governor’s panel, adding that the new charges are a “good thing” but that it is unclear if they will have a real effect on congestion or the number of for-hire vehicles on city streets. “Meanwhile, we’re losing billions of dollars over the decades due to congestion, we don’t have a new revenue stream for the MTA and our streets are as dangerous and crowded as ever,” Hoylman said.

In a joint statement, the transportation advocacy groups StreetsPAC, Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance wrote that the state budget “does not offer a credible plan to modernize the MTA, nor provide a sufficient revenue stream to make it possible.”

The groups said that the new surcharges and bus lane enforcement measures should be initial steps on the path to more significant reforms. “First, Governor Cuomo must use a portion of the new revenue to help implement comprehensive congestion pricing, by constructing cordon infrastructure and addressing needs in transit deserts around the city,” the statement said. “Then, the governor must establish, and commit to, a timeline to make congestion pricing a reality in New York.”

Penn Station

Long-delayed redevelopment of the overcrowded and outdated Pennsylvania Station became an unexpected and contentious last-minute entry in budget talks, as draft bills circulated in the final days of negotiations included a provision that would dramatically expand the governor’s authority to shape redevelopment plans in the neighborhood and exempt his actions from environmental review processes.

The initial proposal was watered down in the face of outcry from Manhattan representatives in Albany and city officials, who claimed that the bill would effectively exclude the city from having any input in redevelopment plans.

“It is wrong for the Governor to try to take over urban planning, traffic management and real estate development in New York City,” Assembly Member Dick Gottfried, whose district includes Penn Station, said in a statement. “That’s what this bill is aimed at. A project in the middle of midtown that is this large, complex, and important must be a collaborative effort and vision, including the Governor as well as the Mayor, along with area residents and businesses, the community board, and the area’s elected officials.

The language included in the final bill declares Penn Station a “clear public safety hazard,” and states that the MTA and the state’s urban development corporation “should coordinate and consult with community leaders, business groups and federal and city government to design a solution.”

Hoylman, who represents much of the area surrounding Penn Station in the state Senate, said the measure’s intent is unclear. “The language is so vague and restates powers that the state already has, so a lot of us are still scratching our heads wondering what the whole point of the exercise was,” he said.

“We’re voting on legislation that would have an enormous consequence on the busiest transportation hub in the Western Hemisphere — 600,000 commuters and Amtrak riders a day — and we don’t know what the intention of the bill was or what the consequences of it are,” Hoylman said. “On its face it’s objectionable from that standpoint, so I voted against it.”

“One theory is that it’s laying the groundwork for the use, or the threatened use, of eminent domain,” Hoylman said, adding that it is unclear whether the bill effectively forecloses an earlier plan to move Madison Square Garden from current location and build a new Penn Station at the site.

Cuomo said the state has notified property owners at Penn station that the state could use eminent domain to condemn the properties as a public safety issue. “The owners of Madison Square Garden and 2 Penn [Plaza] have been very cooperative and we’re negotiating with them and we’re going to come up with a plan on an expedited basis to both improve Penn [Station] but also make it safer,” Cuomo said.

The mayor downplayed the issue in an appearance on NY1’s “Inside City Hall,” saying that while the original proposal was “outrageous,” the language ultimately included in the final bill “was so greatly reduced that it has relatively little impact.”

Michael Garofalo: