By Mark Hallum
Mayor Bill de Blasio echoed state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) Monday, proposing a levy on the city’s elite that would establish a steady and long-term revenue stream for the MTA through what he is calling a “fair fix” tax. The move would raise about $700 million by 2018, the mayor said.
City Hall would raise income tax rates from 3.876 percent to 4.41 percent on individuals making salaries of $500,000 and married couples earning a combined income of $1 million. The increase is only projected to apply to about 0.8 percent of New Yorkers, or 32,000 total residents. The proposal is similar to legislation from Gianaris, who also called on a tax on the wealthy and a surcharge for tourists.
“Rather than sending the bill to working families and subway and bus riders already feeling the pressure of rising fares and bad service, we are asking the wealthiest in our city to chip in a little extra to help move our transit system into the 21st century,” de Blasio said. “Instead of searching for a quick-fix that doesn’t exist, or simply forking over more and more of our tax dollars every year, we have come up with a fair way to finance immediate and long-term transit improvement and to better hold the state accountable for the system’s performance. Our subways and buses are the veins that make life in the greatest city in the world possible. This fair funding source will provide immediate help to straphangers – and it will help New Yorkers get around our city reliably for the next generation and beyond.”
The proposal would also give 800,000 lower-income New Yorkers access a reduced fare rate.
But the mayor’s proposal is not far off from a piece of legislation introduced by Gianaris in June called “Better Trains, Better Cities.” The bill would create a temporary, three-year surcharge on personal income taxes for those in the MTA region earning more than $1 million annually, as well as on New York City hotel and motel taxes. Gianaris estimated that the two levies combined would raise more than $2 billion annually, which would be dedicated exclusively to maintaining and upgrading the MTA system at the discretion of an emergency manager.
“I’m glad support is growing for this idea and hopefully we’ll get to the point where we can get it in action soon, because everyone agrees the subway just needs an infusion of resources to make the repairs it needs to make. It seems to make sense that the ones who can most afford it are the ones who have to chip in for it,” Gianaris said, adding that although the plan was slightly different from his own proposal, he was happy with the mayor’s announcement. “It now only applies to city residents. It also includes the Fair Fares program, which I think is a good improvement, so I’m comfortable with the way it came out.”
Councilman I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans), a member of the Transportation Committee, said the tax would not only fund the subways, but also improve ridership in his district where public transit options are scant.
“My constituents and many other New Yorkers live in transit deserts and endure longer rides that adequate resources will help address. Through the resources the mayor seeks to commit, many New Yorkers will realize improved bus service that will reduce travel times. And the mayor identified revenue, if this tax is passed by Albany, that my district and others will have better connections to the rail and the subway, and enjoy an overall higher quality of life,” Miller said.
De Blasio’s announcement was preceded in recent weeks by a heated debate between the mayor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and newly re-appointed MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota about how much the city should contribute to the state agency for a short-term stabilization plan of the city’s subway system. Cuomo and Lhota pressed City Hall to pay half of the projected $836 million for the short-term plan while de Blasio took a skeptical stance that the money would be spent wisely by the state.
“The good news is that Mayor de Blasio has acknowledged New York City’s significant ownership of the New York City Transit Authority and the fact that new funding is needed to modernize the subway system,” Lhota said. “The bad news is that the mayor has not acknowledged that the MTA needs funding today. You can’t delay an emergency plan to stop delays. The challenges the subways are facing today need immediate resources and solutions right now, not years from now.”
In late June, following an epidemic of delays, breakdowns and a derailment, Cuomo announced a state of emergency for the subways. The move suspended bureaucratic processes to expedite repairs. Cuomo said the state would allocate an $1 billion to the MTA’s capital funds for upgrades to the infrastructure.
News of de Blasio’s proposal was leaked to the press Sunday and informally revealed during a new conference in Brooklyn. Cuomo responded to the first reports of the proposal by stating the next tax cycle is too far away to consider an adequate response to the struggles of riders.
“The state is currently evaluating a range of dedicated revenue proposals for the future to be discussed and advanced in January when the Legislature returns,” Cuomo said. “There is no doubt that we need a long-term, dedicated funding stream. But there is also no doubt that we cannot wait to address the current crisis. Riders suffer every day, and delaying repairs for at least a year is neither responsible nor responsive to the immediate problem, or riders’ pain.”
Lhota said in press conference late Monday that the transit agency had already started on the aggressive cleanup of tracks to prevent fires and signal repairs were moving forward as part of the short-term plan to stabilize subway service.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall