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Congestion pricing ‘pause’ could cost workers

Union trades could lose $3.2 billion in projects

Posted

Labor leaders were nearly unanimous in lauding Governor Kathy Hochul’s directive to “indefinitely pause” the MTA’s congestion pricing plan. 

Designed to alleviate traffic bottlenecks south of 60th Street in Manhattan, the plan, set to go into effect later this month, was criticized by unions as raising revenue off the backs of the working class. 

“Working people were saved today by Governor Hochul’s decision to indefinitely postpone congestion pricing. We would have paid the price which many of our members could not afford,” said Gregory Floyd, the president of Local 237, which represents some 20,000 workers across city agencies. 

“Forcing cops to dig deeper into their pockets just to report for duty will send even more of them running for the exits,” the head of the city’s largest police union, Patrick Hendry, said. 

And in a statement posted on the union’s website, TWU Local 100’s president, Richard Davis, doubled down on his steadfast opposition to the plan. “Our members refuse to be taxed for simply coming to work, and they've made this abundantly clear at shopgates across the system,” he said. 

But the postponement — which the MTA in effect complied with — could cost the very workers Davis and the local represent. 

According to an analysis last October by the open-government group Reinvent Albany, MTA tradespeople were to get $3.2 billion of the $15 billion the agency was required to raise for the agency’s 2020-2024 capital plan.

It’s unclear how much of that work could now be jeopardized by the postponement. But according to a letter to contractors and consultants earlier this year, the president of the MTA’s Construction & Development division, Jamie Torres-Springer, said the $15 billion represented more than 50 percent of the funding for the 2020-2024 capital program. Among the projects included in that five-year plan were accessibility upgrades at stations in all five boroughs, signal modernization on subway and commuter rail lines, bus electrification and work on the second phase of the Second Avenue subway.

Other capital projects now compromised by the postponement are power substations with advanced technology, enhanced passenger information systems, bus electrification, cameras with direct feeds to transit bureaus, track intrusion technology and elevator and escalator upgrades.

In a joint statement, MTA Chief Financial Officer Kevin Willens and authority General Counsel Paige Graves said the governor’s directive “has serious implications” for the capital program “and likely other aspects of the agency’s financial condition.”

“The MTA cannot award contracts that do not have a committed, identified funding source,” their statement continued. “Until there is a commitment for funding the balance of the 2020-2024 Capital Program, the MTA will need to reorganize the Program to prioritize the most basic and urgent needs.”

Layoffs possible?

Reinvent Albany’s senior policy advisor, Rachael Fauss, suggested the pause to the program would further compromise the MTA’s precarious financial position and possibly even lead to layoffs. 

“The more that the state uses financially sound sources of revenue for the capital plan, the better it is for the agency and the better it is run financially, the more that the workers can feel secure and not worry about hiring freezes and layoffs,” Fauss said in a phone interview. 

Noting that the MTA is already in debt, she said the tolling plan’s postponement and the resulting loss of significant revenue at the MTA would put further pressure on the authority. 

“This is a destructive move for the finances of the agency. And workers should be concerned because it will have a ripple effect on the ability of the MTA to keep the workforce funded,” Fauss said. 

A significant portion of the MTA’s agency’s capital work is done by members of Transport Workers Union Local 100, who maintain subway trains and tracks and service and repair the transit system’s mechanical equipment.

The local did not respond to a request for comment on the possible loss of work. 

But John Samuelsen, the international president of the Transport Workers Union of America and former head of Local 100, said the notion that layoffs could be in the cards was “simply not true.” 

“We are 1,000 bodies understaffed in maintenance of way,” he said, referring to the MTA division that maintains rail and subway tracks, stations and facilities, which Samuelsen called “the capital construction epicenter.” 

“Our track construction people and our maintenance of way construction forces are almost all working forced overtime right now. That's how short staffed we are,” he said.

“The reality on the ground is that we have, we have much more work than we have the bodies capable of doing. So even in the event of an economic catastrophe, the amount that we're already short on headcount would just be absorbed.”

Maintenance of way counts about 8,000 workers. 

But Samuelsen said Hochul’s sudden about-face on the congestion pricing plan exposed her as an even “bigger amateur” than he’d thought given that she failed to secure an alternative funding source before issuing her directive to suspend the plan. 

Samuelsen, an MTA board member, was on the panel tasked with issuing congestion-pricing proposals but resigned in protest in December hours before it issued its final recommendations.  He had long argued that the toll plan was more about revenue-raising rather than as a conduit for improved and better public transportation, particularly to and from areas of the city not well-served by buses or trains.

In her announcement directing the MTA to pause the program, Hochul suggested the state “had set aside funding to backstop the MTA capital plan” and that state officials were looking into other funding sources. 

The city’s Independent Budget Office said the governor’s funding plan was “not a long-term solution, and very much subject to the financial health and other spending priorities of Albany.”

Eliminating the revenue from congestion pricing “creates a major financial risk to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)’s ability to modernize and upgrade the largest transit system in North America,” according to the budget watchdog. 

Hochul’s plan also drew skepticism from Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger, the Senate Finance Committee’s chair, who said, “I am not aware of what she is referring to or where she believes that money will come from.”

Lawmakers had not identified but less voted on an alternative funding source by the time the legislative session concluded days later.

richardk@thechiefleader.com

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