Over the past two weeks, at least three separate plans to bailout the MTA have surfaced including tolling the city’s East River Bridges and other plans to impose hundreds of dollars in new auto registration surcharges. Proponents argue that it is time for drivers to “pony up” and pay their “fair share” to help rescue the MTA. However, as this debate gets underway all those concerned should know the facts about what drivers pay to support the MTA.
Supporters of new tolls and car taxes argue drivers don’t pay enough. But how much is “enough”? Right now tolls are 300 percent of what it costs to operate existing MTA bridges and tunnels. On the other hand, bus and subway fares currently cover only about 50% of the system’s operating costs.
In fact, about $600 million per year in MTA toll revenue goes directly to support bus, subway and rail operations and those toll subsidies help make New York subways and buses a bargain. Thanks to the introduction of MetroCard and associated discounts including free transfers, only a fraction of transit riders pays a full $2.00 fare. According to a recent New York Times analysis, New York transit riders pay an average of only 86 cents per trip while those in Washington pay $1.25 and those in Philly pay $1.08. A separate assessment found that, as a percentage of income, MTA users pay 2.1 percent of the fare while transit users in London pay 3.3 percent.
Further, drivers from all corners of New York State, many far from MTA’s reach, chip in to support MTA by paying hundreds of millions of dollars annually in state gasoline taxes, license fees and auto registration fees to support MTA operations.
In addition to new tolls and fees, the state commission recommending new tolls wants to go one step further by putting future increases on autopilot. Under the plan, the MTA would have the unbridled freedom to tap your wallet. Tolls and transit fares would rise automatically with inflation, and without the opportunity for public input. Shouldn’t the MTA have some obligation to the public to demonstrate its need to increase tolls and fares, particularly after its previous fiscal management led to the need for a bailout? How about a little accountability?
Supporters of MTA bailout plans express concern about the impact of fare increases on the public, but say that drivers do not pay enough. Yet we know that drivers pay about $1 billion dollars in tolls and gas taxes to MTA transit already and will now be asked to pay an additional $600 million. Will enough ever be enough?
John Corlett is assistant director, Government Affairs, AAA New York