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Giuliani's in the Driver's Seat

by Ellis Henican
New York Newsday
29 March 1994

That whacking sound you've been hearing is the Giuliani administration having its way with the bus-and-subway budget.

Whack! There goes $250 million worth of rebuilding money.

Whack! Say goodbye to $26 million in operating subsidies.

Whack! Forget the $500 million in Dinkins cuts that were supposed to be restored. That money will never be back.

"We're continuing to talk to them, although obviously that hasn't produced any results, John Cunningham said yesterday. Cunningham is the MTA's press secretary, and he was sounding especially dejected yesterday. "At this point, we have the possibility of appealing to the City Council. We're hoping they'll be willing to restore some of this money. But we haven't' really gotten any encouraging signals up until now."

Not even close.

And now that the new mayor has decided to send subway riders through the wood- chipper, it's fascinating to see how the city's driving subsidies are holding up.

Quite well, actually.

It turns out that cops and firemen aren't the only people in New York being shielded from the budgetary whacks at City Hall. The region's automobile drivers are also cruising quite happily through the hard times.

Transportation consultant Daniel Convissor, who is better with a calculator than I am, has taken a careful look at the current slash-and-burn. He sends along this eye-opening comparison:

"The Giuliani Administration says budgetary constraints require a 44-percent cut in MTA capital assistance," the subway rebuilding money. "This cut takes place while they propose increasing the entire city capital program by 30 percent and the DOT program by 67 percent." DOT, of course, is the Department of Transportation, whose main job is to look after the city's roads-streets- and-bridges people.

Historically, Convissor notes, this money has been divvied up about 50-50 - half for the MTA, half for the DOT. So the new Giuliani proposal ($998 million versus $3 billion, a 25-75 split) adds up to "a major change of transportation priorities," says the sensible Convissor. "And it's a push in the wrong direction."

The car-versus-subway arguments are getting some overdue attention among serious transportation brains. And the friends of mass transit are finally beginning to do the hard statistical research.

This stuff isn't always fun. But by and large, it seems to be proven what most subway riders know instinctively: That even in New York City, where 56 percent of households don't even own a car, drivers are lavished with government subsidies while the bus-and-subway crowd collects the crumbs.

The AAA and other auto lobbyists, not surprisingly, are forever arguing precisely the opposite: That the regions overburdened drivers are being saddled with oppressively heavy costs of subsidizing mass transit.

But a major new study driving in New York should prove once and for all that those numbers don't add up.

"Subsidies for Traffic: How Taxpayer Dollars Underwrite Driving in New York State," the study is called. It was conducted by Komanoff Energy Associates, a legitimate consulting outfit, and was paid for by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which is made up of the Regional Plan Association, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic and 10 other groups.

The consultants laid out a not-so-simple question:

"Do motor vehicle drivers pay their way in New York City?"

This is complicated because many costs have to be factored in - the building and upkeep of streets, road and bridges being only the most obvious. And to figure out the true cost of driving, you'd also want to include, at the very minimum, such things as debt service, the toll operations, the police services, licensing and traffic-court expenses.

"New York State motorists pay $4.5 billion annually in users fees, including motor fuel taxes, bridge and tunnel tolls, registration fees, parking fines and taxes, and truck and taxi licenses.

"All levels of government - state, federal, cities, counties and public authorities - spend $6.9 billion annually on road construction and maintenance, driver and vehicle licensing, road-related police and fire services and other highway expenditures in New York State."

That's $4.5 billion in, $6.9 billion out - leaving drivers subsidized to the tune of $2.4 billion a year.

The numbers for the city alone are not as extreme, but they carry the exact same message: City motorists contribute $658 million a year to the municipal pot, but $1 billion a year in direct government largesse is lavished on them. (Even adding subsidies from the $256 million in Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority tolls, drivers still come out $105 ahead.)

And this doesn't even count the more amorphous costs that drivers pass off on us: air pollution, the medical costs of accidents, the time wasted in traffic jams, the taking of otherwise productive land for roads and highways. The list goes on and on.

"Right now, we're having this budget haggling at City Hall," said Cora Roelofs, who co-authored the study with Charles Komanoff. "The policymakers should really pay attention to the balance between driving and mass transit. It turns out that drivers get a lot more than they pay for."


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