No Blank Check for MTA

Pedro Espada, Jr.

March 31, 2009

When it comes to the MTA, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

A lawsuit filed in May 2003 by the Straphanger's Campaign and other plaintiffs resulted in separate Supreme Court rulings, both concluding that the MTA provided "misleading financial information" and had "intentionally deceived the public."  The Appellate Court later ruled that it would be desirable, from the public's perspective, for the MTA to make its budget processes transparent and open for detailed inspection.
Six years later, there is still no transparency. Yet, proponents of the Ravitch bailout plan – including the Daily News Editorial Board – expect unimpeded support by the State Legislature for a toll on the East and Harlem River crossings, a special payroll tax on employers and other artificial fees and taxes on the backs of the poor, working class and small businesses just so the MTA can close is budget deficit.
Instead of threatening fare hikes and service cuts in an attempt to get its way, the MTA should be looking no further than its own real estate empire, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to make up for its budget shortfalls.
The outright sale and/or lease of just a portion of its more than 10,000 real estate holdings would not only provide the revenue needed by the MTA to cover its budget deficit, it would create new uses of these properties that would fill other important needs of New York City and would compound the positive impact of the Obama stimulus funds.
For example, through the sale or lease of MTA properties, we could see new construction of affordable housing on this land, which would create thousands of units of housing for poor, middle class and working families. New construction would generate thousands of jobs and new tax revenue streams for the City and State. We could also build new schools on these properties to ease overcrowding and provide modern learning environments for our children.
Difficult times do not give the MTA the right to an open checkbook. A budget deficit does not give the MTA the right to saddle straphangers, motorists and small businesses with inflated fares and artificial fees and taxes – which would be just that since the agency is sitting on excess real estate assets that can be converted to cash.
The Ravitch Commission's next move should be obtaining independent appraisals of MTA properties so the agency can raise the revenue from within to pay for its deficit. Anything short of this is tantamount to the Federal bailout of the financial institutions, whose executives paid themselves obscene bonuses and kept their corporate jets and other perks on the taxpayer's dollar.