Category Archives: metropolitan transportation authority

The DeBlasio and Cuomo Administrations: A Review

A public chief executive has three jobs: policy, management, and leadership. With leadership being using one’s influence as a public figure, in competition with celebrities and marketing influencers, to change what people voluntarily do on their own, rather than what the government forces them to do or does for them.  For state and local government, the key policy is the budget — who is made to pay how much, and what it is spent on, compared with the past and compared with other places.  Management determines how much in services and benefits people actually get for that spending.

Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo spent much of their tenures feuding.  They would have you believe it was over policy and ideological differences.  I believe their primary ideology is careerism, the advancement of their own careers to higher office, and this made them rivals — and the rest of us and our futures pawns.  Perhaps that’s why both “President” DeBlasio and “President” Cuomo left office widely despised.  

But what did they actually do?  Even as we just had an election for Mayor, and are currently having an election for Governor, the media doesn’t seem to be talking about it, other than issues of the moment such as bail reform.

Most people can’t do it, but one ought to separate what the pols do from the broader situation. DeBlasio and Cuomo didn’t cause the opioid epidemic, the surge in homelessness, or the COVID-19 pandemic, or in Cuomo’s case, the long-term economic decline of Upstate New York.  But they didn’t cause the economic boom and soaring federal debt that allowed them to pander to every special interest group without completely screwing anyone else except transit riders and the later-born (until the future) either.  With regard to the budget, I’ve created some charts that make a fair and perhaps telling comparison.  This post will briefly describe what I plan to do, with additional posts making the comparisons to follow.

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Sold Out Futures by State:  Debt and Infrastructure for FY 1972 to FY 2019

The federal government just passed a $ 1 trillion “infrastructure bill” that, for a while, will increase the amount of federal funding for infrastructure.  Most of the actual spending, however, will be continue to be done by state and local governments, just as has been the case in the past.  The modest increase in spending, adjusted for inflation, is intended to address a backlog of needed projects.  But federal funding is only one source of money for state and local infrastructure.  State and local taxes are another, and bonds, usually paid off over 30 years, are a third. 

The extent of infrastructure varies from place to place.  In rural areas the only public infrastructure might be a county or town road, supplemented by power supplied by a rural electrification co-op, and telephone and postal service cross-subsidized by those in cities.  Instead of paying for public water, sewer, and solid waste collection, people provide these for themselves.  In cities, on the other hand, there may be mass transit, public sidewalks, airports, seaports, public water, sewer, solid waste collection, and in some places public electric utilities.  So do low-density rural states spend less on, and receive less in federal funds for, infrastructure?  Do states with low past infrastructure spending also have low debts?  How are the estimated $1.4 trillion infrastructure spending shortage and the $3.2 trillion in state and local government debt distributed around the country?  Read on and find out.

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Sold Out Futures:  A State-By-State Comparison of State and Local Government Debts, Past Infrastructure Investment, and Unfunded Pension Liabilities Through FY 2019

In two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, with society under stress, we have seen increasingly strident political fights over whose cultural attitudes and preferences should be imposed on others, who should get to contribute less to the community, and who should get to take out more.  In the shadows, however, is a bipartisan consensus as to who should be made worse off and be sacrificed the rest of their lives to pay for it all.  Ordinary people in later born generations, those who will be living in the United States in the future.   The pandemic has given politicians of all alleged views, and the interest groups that back them, an excuse to do, to an even greater extent, what they have done for 40 years.  Cash in the common future to address the perpetual “emergency” of the present.

So it was in Washington in 2020 when The Donald and the Republicans, having already sent the federal debt soaring to cut taxes for the rich and then ran a federal deficit equal to one-quarter of the U.S. economy.

And so it is in Washington today, where Biden in the Democrats claim their plans will be “paid for” – meaning the burden shifted to the future would only be as great as it was under Trump and the Republicans.

It is in this context that for the fifth time, I have reprised an analysis of state and local government finance data from the U.S. Census Bureau, for all states and for New York City and the Rest of New York State separately, with data over 49 years, to determine the extent to which each state’s future had been sold out due to state and local government debts, inadequate past infrastructure investment, and underfunded and retroactively enriched public employee pensions.   You’d think that the extent of disadvantage for the later-born, and who benefitted from creating it, would be the number one issue in every state election, and the number one topic of debate in the media.  Instead, it remains under Omerta, especially here in New York.  Shouted down under the comforting culture war issues that Generation Greed prefers.  So, although standing up for the later born and common future may amount to nothing more than standing on the beach shouting into a hurricane as a social tsunami heads for shore, over the past month I have updated the “Sold Out Future” analysis with data through FY 2019.  This post, a national summary and explanation of where the data comes from and how it was used, and the next three, will show what I found.

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The MTA:  Why Always the Most Expensive, Interminable Way?

A couple of, well, decades ago, the MTA started planning MetroNorth service for the time when East Side Access opened and many Long Island Railroad trains would be going to Grand Central Station.  This could provide an opening for MetroNorth trains, at least those on the Hudson and New Haven Lines, to go to Penn Station.  The tracks are already there, so this should be relatively simple and cheap right?  

Wrong.  After 22 years of planning, and the expenditure of however many $millions or $tens of millions on staff and consultants, the MTA might finally spend $1.6 billion to add a few stations to the New Haven line as part of the Metro North to Penn project.  Perhaps there will be service in another decade or two.

If there wasn’t such operational inefficiency involved, however, MetroNorth service to Penn Station could start next spring for no money at all.  How?

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“Affordable” Phonies Make Life Unaffordable for the Serfs

According to Merriam Webster online, affordable means able to be afforded: having a cost that is not too high.  And among New York’s Democrats and progressives there is always talk of having government policies make something affordable:  affordable education, affordable health care, affordable housing, affordable transportation, etc.  And yet observing 40 years of public policy in New York, I can think of only a handful of examples of policies that have actually made life, or a better life, less costly for the public at large.

When one examines the totality of public policies enacted in so-called Blue States, you see that the goal actually seems to be to make many things more expensive.  

Sometimes for reasons I agree with.  A developed country (and I’m not sure ours is) shouldn’t be making goods and services more affordable in the short run by making them more expensive, more dangerous, or more misery-inducing for the community as a whole, in the long run.  That’s what the builders of the “affordable” Surfside condo in Florida did by cheaping out on the building structure.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/behind-the-florida-condo-collapse-rampant-corner-cutting-11629816205?mod=trending_now_news_1

But mostly for reasons that would be impossible to justify if openly admitted.  To make some workers — those who work for the government, or are paid funded by government programs — richer compared other similar workers, at the expense of making those other similar workers pay more and become poorer.  And to make it more expensive to live in politically influential “liberal” communities, ensuring the less well off, their burdens and troubles, will be somewhere else.  The result is hypocrisy.

When Democrats and progressives say “affordable” what they really mean is “subsidized.”  Part of the cost is paid for by someone else, so it seems to be more affordable.  But since fiscal resources are not unlimited, even in New York City where we have the highest state and local tax burden and the most debt, the subsidies for “affordable” health care, education, transportation, housing etc. only end up going to the fortune few.  And many if not most of those few often turn out to be among those were already fortunate.  For the rest, somebody has to pay after all.  Often those who are already burdened by policies to make things more expensive – policies that lead to the need for subsidies to begin with.

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The MTA (and New York State and the New Federal Infrastructure Plan): Five-Plus Decades of Investing in the Suburbs and Disinvesting in the City

The era of large-scale federal infrastructure investment, from the 1950s through the 1970s, coincided with the era of suburban development and urban decline.  I don’t think that was a coincidence.  Cities had paid for their own infrastructure with local money, were still paying bonds for that infrastructure, and it was aging. The federal government then paid for brand new, up to date infrastructure for suburbs, and for rural areas that became suburbs, with taxes collected in part in cities, even as urban infrastructure declined.  Federal investment was limited to new infrastructure only at the time.  Most older central cities never recovered, and those that did only began to do so in the early 1980s, after the Reagan Administration cut federal investment and added local flexibility to how it was used.  More of it was then used to fix existing infrastructure, not just subsidize new suburban and exurban development.

Now it is 50 to 70 years later and the infrastructure of the suburbs is aging.  And because of lower densities, and thus more liner feet of road, water pipe, and sewer pipe per taxpayer, it will be more costly to replace with local taxes.  Some in the Strong Towns movement believe the suburbs are facing the sort of infrastructure decline the cities faced 50 years ago as a result. 

https://granolashotgun.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/teachers-pipes-and-pavement/

An issue that will be most acute in private communities responsible for their own local infrastructure, where people live so they can control who walks on their streets and not share a tax base with pre-1960 neighborhoods. Who will pay up when private sewage treatment plants fail and have to be replaced?  Did you hear about what happened at that collapsed Florida condo, where residents had argued for years about paying for fixes before disaster struck?

The older generations who live in these suburbs are used to getting things, but not fully paying for them.  The “I’ve got mine jack,” tax cut generations.  And here we have another federal infrastructure bill, enacted by suburban and Sunbelt Baby Boomers according to their preferred lifestyle, a lifestyle that poorer Millennials cannot afford and the global environment cannot sustain, to be paid for by those Millennials in the future, because most of it going to funded by soaring federal debts. With higher levels of governments (federal and state) making the choices as to how even the future money of city residents will be spent, how will New York and other older cities fare this time?

As an analogy this post will compare the suburban and city projects that the MTA promised in the Program for Action, released in early 1968 when it as formed, with the system expansions and maintenance of existing infrastructure that actually took place in the five-plus decades since.  And go from there.

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The New York City and State Budget Crisis: The Circumstances Beyond Their Control Are Only Beyond Their Control Because They Cut Deals to Make them Beyond Their Control

It’s a never-ending cycle.  When the economy is up and tax dollars are rolling in, the political/union class and executive/financial class negotiate deals with themselves to take more out, and/or put less in, to the City of New York, the State of New York, and agencies such as the MTA, because there is “plenty of money” and no one needs to be made worse off to pay for it.  Secret deals that are barely reported by what is left of the real news media, the portion of it that is willing to question what is going on and who is benefitting.  Irrevocable deals, deals guaranteed by contract, or by the constitution, even if those who received little or nothing in exchange, were not party to the negotiations, were not really represented there, and didn’t even know about them, are forced to pay for them.

Then a recession happens, and a budget crisis follows.   And the serfs – those who didn’t benefit from the deals, later-born New York taxpayers and service recipients, later hired public employees, those without special deals and privileges – are made even worse off due to circumstances beyond our control, as blame is cast in a circle.   

But are those circumstances really beyond anyone’s control? Even if the New York State constitution seems to put them there, that constitution could be changed, with the vote of two consecutive legislatures and a voter referendum.  One New York State legislature ends December 31st.  Another begins January 1st.  Changes to the state constitution could be on the ballot in November, 2021, as New York City residents went to the polls to vote for Mayor and City Council – if the powers that be wanted that happen.

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Bureau of Economic Analysis Local Area Personal Income Data for 2019: So This is What Was Meant by the “Fairest City in America!”

Two kinds of people have been getting richer.  The top executives who sit on each other’s boards of directors and vote each other a higher and higher share of private sector pay, to the detriment of investors, consumers, and other workers.  And retired and soon-to-retire public employees in places like New York City, who cut deals with the politicians they control to retroactively increase their already comparatively rich pensions, to the detriment of public service recipients and taxpayers.  There is the executive/financial class, the political/union class, and the serfs.  

The serfs continue to become worse off, adjusted for whatever point we are in the economic cycle.  In fact the economic cycle is part of what the executive/financial class and the political/union class use to put the serfs further down.  At the peak of a boom, they sign irrevocable deals to give themselves more because there is “plenty of money” and no one needs to be made worse off to pay for it.  But then a recession hits, and the serfs end up with higher taxes, diminished services and public benefits, and diminished pay and benefits funded by their employer, due to “circumstances beyond our control.”  Those cutting the deals never give anything back, since they have “a contract” that others, who received nothing in exchange, have to make good on.  Among the worst off victims – those in later-born generations, since those in older, earlier-born generations generally “grandfather” themselves from all related sacrifices as well.

Bureau of Economic Analysis Local Area Personal Income data was recently released for 2019, almost certainly the peak of the economic cycle that started from the bottom in 2010.  And it shows that here in Downstate New York, we have reached a milestone.  The average (mean) earnings (cash plus employer benefits) those working in the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate sectors (including both employees and the self-employed) was $122,813 that year. The rest of the private sector averaged $81,575.  The mean earnings for state and local government workers Downstate, meanwhile, was $124,095.  That is not only 52.1% higher than the mean for the rest of the private sector, including all the one-percenters outside finance, a record high difference.  But also – for the first time – more than the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate sectors. So that is what was meant by “fairness” around here!

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How Did New York City Government Recover from the 1970s Fiscal Crisis?

The legend has it that New York City avoided bankruptcy, and recovered to become the thriving city it was until recently, because all of its interest groups got together and agreed to “shared sacrifice.”  The public employee unions agreed to contract givebacks, and having their pension funds invested in the city’s bonds.  The banks agreed to roll over the city’s debts.  The rest of New York State, under the leadership of Governor Hugh Carey, agreed to shift resources to NYC.  And the federal government, after initially telling New York City to “Go to Hell,” finally decided it had sacrificed enough and agreed to a bailout.  These powerful players made the sacrifices, and ordinary New Yorkers reaped the benefits.

I’m here to tell you that the legend is a lie, a politically convenient lie.  The people negotiating in the room deferred and lent a little, but gave back nothing.  The ordinary New Yorkers outside the room then made all the sacrifices required to pay back every dime, and then some, in higher taxes and collapsing public services.  The poor were left to suffer and die unaided, with the Bag Ladies dying in the street, the schools collapsed, the infrastructure deteriorated, the police allowed city residents to be victimized by crime on a large scale, and the streets and parks filled with garbage. Property in large areas of the city was abandoned, and life expectancy fell.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470515/

Decades later, some city services hadn’t fully recovered. The beneficiaries, relocating to the suburbs, a few enclaves within the city, or retired to Florida, and the better off, were mostly unaffected.

In reality New York City recovered because things happened that those negotiating over its corpse could not have expected.  This post will explain, and use data to show, that high inflation was real reason New York City recovered from the 1970s fiscal crisis.

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Transportation Infrastructure: 2017 Census of Governments Data

For as long as I can remember, I have heard in the media that the United States doesn’t spend enough on infrastructure.  And for as long I as can remember, more and more money has been spent on other, more immediate priorities, even as federal, state and local government debts have risen.

On the other hand, I have come to see all such statements, by all interests, as essentially self-serving.  “Studies” are produced by interest groups seeking more for themselves, and pretending that they will be paid for by money dropping out of the sky, not by having other people left with less, now or later.  These are replicated by a media seeking an easy story.

So how much has the United States spent on infrastructure? How has this changed over time? And how does New York City, where the transportation infrastructure is smaller than it was 70 years ago as a result of the loss of the West Side Highway, and the 3rdAvenue and Myrtle elevated rapid transit lines, compare with the national average? Census of Governments data will be used to find out.

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