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Timing of a Proposed M.T.A. Fare Increase Should Come as No Surprise


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Timing of a Proposed M.T.A. Fare Increase Should Come as No Surprise


NY Times

Published: November 5, 2007



The politics of raising subway fares

Click to enlarge image[/float]Officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have tried to frame their proposal for higher subway, bus and commuter rail fares as a departure from past increases. They say it should be seen as part of a long-term financial plan, with a fare increase next year to be followed by an increase in state and city subsidies down the road.


But if the fare does go up next year, it will share at least one trait with most other fare increases of the last four decades: It will fall into a well-worn spot in the political calendar by coming near the beginning of a governor’s term.


The transportation authority was created in 1968 as a semi-independent body tied most closely to the governor’s office. Since then, subway and bus fares have gone up 12 times, and half of those increases occurred during the first 13 months of a governor’s four-year term.


Each time a new governor was elected, a fare increase was approved within a year of his taking office.


Next month, less than a year after Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s inauguration, the authority’s board is expected to vote on a proposal that would increase the base subway and bus fare to $2.25, from $2.


“It’s pretty Basic Politics 101,” said Michael McKeon, a political consultant and a former communications director for Gov. George E. Pataki. “It’s better to get the tough stuff out of the way as early as you can.”


Former Mayor Edward I. Koch, a veteran of several fare battles, said it was not surprising that politicians would want to raise fares early in their term, long before an election year.


“You don’t want to have an angry public with an increased fare going to the polls with that as the No. 1 issue,” he said.


The authority is holding a series of public hearings on the fares proposal, including two at 6 tonight — one at the Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn, and one at the Palisades Center in West Nyack.


It has often been said that the authority was created to shield governors and mayors from direct responsibility for poor train service and rising fares. But the fig leaf only covers so much.


As Mr. Koch put it, “No matter that the M.T.A. is an independent agency, everybody believes that both the governor and the mayor have enormous input into what the nominees appointed by them will ultimately do.”


The governor appoints the authority’s chairman and five others to the 17-member board. Four members are appointed by the governor on the recommendation of the mayor of New York City and one member each on the recommendations of the Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester county executives.


In addition, four board members, who collectively cast a single vote, are picked by the chief executives of Rockland, Orange, Dutchess and Putnam Counties.


Mr. Pataki, who arguably exerted more direct control over the authority than any of his predecessors, was governor during three fare increases. The first one, with the subway and bus fare rising to $1.50 from $1.25, occurred in November 1995, during his first year in office.


A former Pataki aide who was involved in discussions over that fare increase explained the thinking of the governor’s staff.


“If you raise the fare early, then you have time for people to see what the benefits are of raising the fare,” said the former aide, who asked not to be named because the aide still works with state government. “Where if you raise it late, all people do is get the shock of raising the fare.”


But some officials said politics was not part of the calculation when they pushed for fare hikes. E. Virgil Conway, whom Mr. Pataki appointed as chairman of the authority in 1995, said the fare hike that year was needed to stabilize the authority’s finances.


Richard Ravitch, who was considered one of the most independent of the authority’s chairmen, pointed out that the first time he raised the fare, in June 1980, it broke a promise by Gov. Hugh L. Carey that the fare would not go up. "I didn’t make decisions on the basis of who was running for what, when," Mr. Ravitch said in an interview last week.


Mr. Pataki was re-elected twice, in 1998 and 2002. He spent part of the campaign in 2002 side-stepping charges from his opponent, H. Carl McCall, that another increase was looming.


Mr. Pataki won re-election on Nov. 5. Two weeks later, the authority’s chairman, Peter S. Kalikow, proposed an increase in the fare. The following May, the fare rose to $2. In 2005, the cost of unlimited-ride MetroCards rose but the base fare remained unchanged.


The authority, under Mr. Kalikow, ultimately proposed a system of regular, modest fare increases every two years. But a proposed increase slated for 2007 — an election year — was canceled, partly because the authority was running a large surplus. The move had the added effect of putting off a decision on the fare until a new governor was sitting in Albany.


Elliot G. Sander, the chief executive of the authority, who was appointed by Mr. Spitzer, said that the political calendar did not affect his proposal for a fare increase.


“That has not been a factor for the M.T.A. in preparing its financial plan,” Mr. Sander said.


His proposal also calls for a series of regular, inflation-indexed fare increases every two years, with the first of those proposed for 2010, when Gov. Spitzer would be up for re-election.


“We are proposing to do it twice in the governor’s term, and so that does not follow what has occurred historically,” Mr. Sander said.


The authority says it needs more money because its expenditures, including debt payments and employee health care costs, are rising faster than its income. Mr. Sander has described his proposal as a balanced approach because it also calls on the state and city to increase their annual subsidies to the authority’s operating budget by a total of about $600 million, beginning in 2010.


But a group of State Assembly members have questioned how balanced that approach really is, saying the authority should at the very least ask for additional state funding to begin next year.


Richard L. Brodsky, a Democratic assemblyman from Westchester County, said that the current fare debate has deviated from the ritualized script of previous years. In the past, the authority would often threaten to raise the fare as a way to force the state to come up with more funding. While an increase was rarely avoided altogether, the result was often a smaller increase coupled with additional state funding.


“What’s missing this time isn’t the pressure to raise the fare,” Mr. Brodsky said. “What’s missing is the M.T.A.’s genteel blackmail, saying to the political structures that in the end an affordable fare is a political decision.”


Mr. Brodsky said that politicians and officials at the authority had lost sight of their duty to keep the fare affordable.


He added, “Isn’t the fare a last resort? Or is the fare a first resort when a new governor is elected?”

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