Monthly Archives: November 2008

Tolling the East River bridges: more MTA woes perhaps leading to a backend congestion charge?

First, to come clean: I supported the congestion charging plan. I thought it was a great alternative to the present system of inconsistent tolling of various routes into the midtown and downtown. For instance, if you come from wealthy Westchester, you can get to Midtown and Lower Manhattan without paying any tolls. If you come from poorer Staten Island (within the city!) or Rockland County, there’s no way to avoid a toll. The best routes of travel from Queens often are avoided, irrationally, by motorists trying to avoid the TBTA tolls (Triborough Bridge of Queens-Midtown Tunnel) by taking a “free” bridge. I bet such motorists waste more fuel in traffic than they would have spent just taking the closest bridge—and they don’t exist in a vacuum either. They’re probably causing unnecessary congestion too.

While the congestion charge had popular support, at least when people understood that its revenues were going to go to improving transit, it also had some powerful enemies. The most powerful enemy it had was, arguably, the New York State Assembly, which refused to even consider the proposal and killed it after the City Council voted in support of it. So desperate were the Assembly Democrats to pander to suburbanites that they were willing to violate the city’s sovereignty, and blew hundreds of millions of dollars in federal financing to get the program started.

Now, with the MTA’s budget even more in the pits, a commission appointed by Governor David Paterson to recommend new financing sources for the MTA came up with a plan that will have almost the same effect: tolling the East River and Harlem River bridges (“M.T.A. Needs Champion, but Who?” by William Neuman at The New York Times, 2008-11-29).

He is due to deliver a final report to the governor by Friday that is expected to include proposals for a tax on corporate payrolls in the region, tolls on the bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers and an increase in fares on the subway, bus and commuter railroads. Those measures would provide enough money for the authority to overcome a $1.2 billion budget gap next year and allow it to finance a long-term capital program that could cost as much as $30 billion through 2014.

The response to Mr. Ravitch at the partnership underscores the difficulty of his task. Kathryn S. Wylde, the president and chief executive of the group, said “the overwhelming reception” to Mr. Ravitch’s appeal — which did not include details of the payroll tax or tolls — was “positive.” But she also said that while business leaders might be open to a new tax to support the transportation authority, they were concerned about the possibility of multiple tax increases as the state and city sought to balance their budgets as well.

I’m not sure I would consider a new tax a good idea, although additional tolls are certainly fiscally sound.

Here’s what I’d like to see immediately before any new taxes are implemented in our overtaxed state: first, keep labor costs down. Don’t toll the East River bridges except electronically. Next, eliminate toll booths on the MTA bridges and tunnels and replace these tolls with electronic collection. For those who don’t have E-ZPass, send them a bill in the mail along with an E-ZPass (and charge them for the E-ZPass, plus labor)—that way there will be no excuse for not having a pass. Over the long term, this should cut the operating costs of the MTA bridges and tunnels drastically. Finally, permit and external, independent audit of all MTA operations to eliminate as many inefficiencies as possible, managerial and union alike.

See also:

The Gang of…?

On November 4, the Democrats won pretty handily nationally: Barack Obama won the presidency, they swept an as-yet unknown number of Republicans out of the federal Senate, and expanded an already impressive majority in the federal House of Representatives. They also did well at the state level; apparently they won enough state Senate seats to attain a majority. If they hold the Senate, the Democratic realignment of New York State politics will be complete. However, a small group of dissident Democratic senators doesn’t seem to want that to happen. These Democrats have a rather confusing agenda

Enter first, Ruben Diaz Sr.. Diaz is perhaps the strangest of the group, a long-time player in Bronx local politics popular with the ethnic Puerto Ricans in the south and central Bronx neighborhoods of Castle Hill, Clason Point, Parkchester, Morrisania, Hunts Point, Melrose, Pelham Parkway, Union Port, Longwood, and Soundview. He arguably even began a small dynasty, as his son Ruben Diaz Jr. represents much of the same area in the New York State Assembly as a Democrat. Diaz is an unusual animal in orthodox New York State politics: he roughly tows a pre-Clinton Democratic line on matters of health policy. At the same time, he’s an authoritarian on social issues, especially gay marriage. He has said he will not support a candidate for Senate Majority Leader who will allow a vote for gay marriage to even be considered.

Of the small group of Senate Democrats who don’t want the Democrats to control the chamber—unless, that is, the Democrats pander sufficiently to them—Diaz might have the clearest agenda. Besides Diaz, the other three were Pedro Espada Jr., Carl Kruger, and Hiram Monserrate. According to The New York Times (“Democrats Likely to Keep Control of State Senate,” by Jeremy W. Peters, 2008-11-06):

None of the four dissidents have said that they will support Malcolm A. Smith, who is poised to become the majority leader. Instead, the self-named Gang of Four has refused to back a candidate for leader, saying they want their concerns addressed first. Chief among those concerns, the senators have said, is having more Latino senators placed in leadership roles.

As a matter of fact, the Gang of Four is now the Gang of Three. Monserrate made a deal with Smith on November 8th, a few days after the election, apparently expecting a committee post, according to the Associated Press (“New York Sen.-elect Monserrate breaks from dissidents,” Newsday, 2008-11-09). There was some contradictory information out there about what exactly Monserrate got out of endorsing Smith. According to The New York Daily News, “Monserrate insists he was not promised a committee chairmanship or a leadership post, though sources said he will chair the Consumer Affairs Committee and a new Democratic Latino caucus” (“Queens Sen.-elect Hiram Monserrate quits ‘Gang of 4,’ deals eyed with other rebel Democrats,” by Ken Lovett, 2008-11-09).

The Daily News credits Kruger, perhaps memorable as an opponent of New York City’s home rule during the congestion charging (he did propose an alternative) fiasco, as the “mastermind” of the now Gang of Three (“Dean Skelos ups ante with Gang of 3 Woos Dems to keep Senate in GOP rule,” by Juan Gonzales, 2008-11-28):

The mastermind of the rebellion has been Kruger, a conservative Democrat whose campaign coffers are flush with cash – much of it from the real estate industry.

Kruger is supposedly independent of most other members of the state Senate, referring to himself as a “caucus of one.” According to Daily News blogger Elizabeth Benjamin, Kruger apparently doesn’t think too highly of his fellow Democrats:

“I might have popped in one or two times over the course of a couple of years,” he continued. “If anybody had ever sat in on the Democratic caucuses, they would probably understand why not…But I have never, ever, ever attended a Republican conference.”

(NOTE: To clarify, as per a request from the senator, Kruger was speaking “sardonically” when he refered to himself a “better class of people” than the Senate Democrats).

Nonetheless, other sources say Kruger considers himself a Democrat and went to great lengths during the election to show off his Democratic credentials. Kruger has had a share of conflicts with Republicans too, including with Dean Skelkos, the majority leader of the Republican Caucus. Most notably, suburbanite Skelkos opposes the city re-implementing the commuter tax overturned in 1999 at the behest of an odd coalition consisting of Democrats and Republicans trying to pander to suburbanites teamed with then-U.S. Senate candidate Rudy Giuliani, who perhaps also wanted to pander to suburbanites. Kruger supports the commuter tax (“Commuter tax plan illustrates Albany’s new tensions” by Dan Janison, Newsday, 2008-11-21):

Urging support for the tax, Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) said, “While the [1999] repeal may have wooed suburban voters, it was a shortsighted and fiscally unsound move.”

Ironically, Kruger belongs to the supposedly renegade “gang of three” Democrats who, Senate Republicans claim, could help re-elect Skelos as majority leader when a new Legislature convenes in January – despite a new 32-30 Democratic edge.

Even if you find the Skelos power scenario plausible, it is clear that Kruger might offer little in the way of substantive help to the GOP leader – at least on this hot issue. And fellow Senate “gang” members Pedro Espada Jr. and Pedro Diaz Sr., both represent parts of the Bronx – whose voters, of course, won’t mind taxing suburbanites.

Perhaps the biggest motivation of the dissidents is a virulent strain of Hispanic cultural jingoism. A columnist at The Daily Freeman goes so far as to call this racism (“Will Democrats get their act together?” by Alan Chartock, 2008-11-16):

There have also been overtones from the “Gang of Four” that are decidedly racist. That’s because the leader of the Senate Democrats is Malcolm Smith, an African American.

Said Diaz, a member of the gang, “There is concern that we have a black president, a black governor and we have a concern that we have to be sharing power.”

THIS TIME, however, that black governor, the highly popular David Paterson, is apparently putting his foot squarely on the throats of the “Gang of Four.” He is letting them know that he won’t tolerate their undermining of the Democratic ascendancy that he, Paterson, helped to get going when he was the leader of the Senate Democrats.

Chartock goes on to mention what an embarrassment the Gang of Three are:

In a huge Democratic year, these characters are doing themselves no good with their cheap, underhanded politics. What’s more, they show once again that Will Rogers was right when he said that he didn’t belong to any organized political party because he was a Democrat.

If the Democrats don’t get it right this time, they will properly be the laughingstock of New York. They will not deserve to held power. Democracy will be thwarted because the Republicans will go back to pigging it up — giving their members everything while throwing scraps to the Democrats and redistricting themselves so that only they can win.

In this regard, I’m inclined to say he’s right. If the Democrats are supposed to represent the future, part of that future needs to be post-racial politics. Achievement for blacks need not come at the expense of Hispanics.

Besides having an obviously self-serving agenda, the Gang of Three all have some interesting skeletons in their closets. Espada had some financial disclosure issues (“Rogue Bronx pol never registered campaign committee,” by Kenneth Lovett of The New York Daily News, 2008-11-20):

The News recently reported that Senator-elect Pedro Espada Jr. had missed all five required financial disclosures for his campaign this year.

Yesterday, state Board of Elections spokesman Robert Brehm said Espada hasn’t even bothered to register his campaign committee.

By not registering and making the proper filings, it’s impossible to tell who financed his campaign and how the money was spent.

Kentucky: God before safety

Kentucky is officially stupid (“Anti-terror law requires God be acknowledged” by John Cheves, Lexington Herald-Ledger, 2008-11-28):

Under state law, God is Kentucky’s first line of defense against terrorism.

The 2006 law organizing the state Office of Homeland Security lists its initial duty as “stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth.”

Specifically, Homeland Security is ordered to publicize God’s benevolent protection in its reports, and it must post a plaque at the entrance to the state Emergency Operations Center with an 88-word statement that begins, “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.”

State Rep. Tom Riner, a Southern Baptist minister, tucked the God provision into Homeland Security legislation as a floor amendment that lawmakers overwhelmingly approved two years ago.

As amended, Homeland Security’s religious duties now come before all else, including its distribution of millions of dollars in federal grants and its analysis of possible threats.

The time and energy spent crediting God are appropriate, said Riner, D-Louisville, in an interview this week.

I’m sure al-queda would agree. 9/11 was, afterall, a faith-based initiative.

Gillibrand offers ambitious agenda

Conservative Democratic Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand‘s agenda (“Gillibrand offers ambitious agenda,” 2008-11-26, by Diane Valden at The Independent Online) is laid out.

Taxes:

The congresswoman said she plans will be a “strong voice” for investment in middle class tax cuts, noting that property taxes are too high mostly due to unfunded mandates at the federal level. She said she will promote targeted tax credits for college tuition and early childhood education.

Transport and infrastructure:

Included in the government’s attention to infrastructure will be roads, bridges, sewer and water systems, high speed Internet access in rural areas and health care IT (information technology). Ms. Gillibrand said she has gotten healthcare IT money for Columbia Memorial Hospital, noting “mistakes are the biggest costs in health care.”

She said she would also like to see high-speed rail or light rail in this region to build public transportation, because “seniors need it” and there is limited bus service.

Energy: wind! solar! hydro!

Wind, solar and hydropower all offer opportunities for the creation of manufacturing jobs, she said, as does the exploration of alternative building materials. She referred to a young inventor who figured out how to make insulation out of a fungus, which turned out to be more efficient than petroleum-based products.