Lecturer highlights issues in funding for transportation
Richard Ravitch, the former head of New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, discussed his experience managing the MTA during a guest lecture yesterday at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center.
Ravitch’s lecture, titled “The Tragedy of Transportation: Underfunding our Future,” began with the story of how he took charge of the MTA. In 1979, Ravitch was on the board for New York City’s WNET public television station when New York state’s then-governor Hugh Carey offered to appoint him as head of the MTA.
“I said to him: ‘Are you out of your mind?’” Ravitch said. “I’ve been riding the subways since I was 10.”
When he became head of the MTA, Ravitch said the transportation system was in very poor shape and in desperate need of renovation. Ravitch also discovered that it was severely underfunded, only receiving about $100 million, even though the costs of modernizing the MTA would cost about $2 billion.
“It was easy to explain why the system was deteriorated,” he said.
Ravtich then discussed how he persuaded the state legislature to allow the MTA to borrow money and increase taxes to enable the MTA to pay back those loans. Ravitch said the additional taxes enabled the MTA to borrow about $14 billion to modernize its infrastructure.
While heading the MTA, Ravitch faced criticism from the press and the public because the subways and buses were constantly having accidents and mechanical failures. Ironically, this actually helped him do his job because he used it to convince legislators of the importance of additional revenues.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the media, there would have never been a backdrop to get the politicians to recognize the capital necessary if we were to have a viable transportation system.”
He also praised Carey for supporting him despite the potential political costs.
“He was able to persuade the political system to provide the funds necessary and not hold the rising fares against the people who raised them and beat them over the head with it and make them politically vulnerable,” Ravitch said.
Ravitch then said in recent years, transportation infrastructure improvements have been harder to accomplish — many states must deal with rising costs of pension and health care benefits for retiring government employees along with the shrinking tax revenues the recent recession has caused.
Also, Ravitch said politicians find it easy to divert funds reserved for transportations for other uses to avoid politically unpopular tax hikes or cuts to other government program, because the impact of transportation projects do not manifest right away.
“There’s not a lot of short term political benefits to building a big [transportation-related] construction project if it will not be finished until seven years from now,” Ravitch said. “It’s easy to defer public infrastructure expenditures because you don’t see the benefit [right away].”
Ravitch recounted when former President Ronald Reagan responded to a reporter’s question on how he could support a gasoline tax increase to support mass transit by saying it was not a tax, but a user charge.
He compared this to how politicians are extremely reluctant to raise revenues in any way because it could cost them their political careers.
“Nowadays from Congress, you can’t get bupkis,” he said. “There’s a dysfunctionality in the political system.”
Ravitch said politicians’ reluctantly support raising revenues to make improvements to transportation infrastructure, as a result of politicians focusing on their short-term political concerns instead of the long-term consequences of their political decisions.
“Kicking the can down the road is the easiest thing to do,” he said.
Ariana Blake, the transportation representative at the Rutgers University Student Assembly, said she attended this event to learn how she could apply Ravitch’s expertise about improving transportation systems to how the Rutgers system.
“If anyone knows anything about transportation, he would know about it,” said Blake, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. “I hoped to learn about what has been done to transportation on large scales like the MTA and what lessons from that can be applied to Rutgers.”
Nicholas Tulach, a project coordinator at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, said Ravitch’s guest lecture gave him a new perspective on the problems related to modernizing the transportation system.
“The challenge is basically political,” Tulach said. “It’s not just an economic or physical infrastructure problem — it’s that politicians are not making the best decisions.”
Robert Noland, director of the Voorhees Transportation Center, said he is glad Ravitch emphasized the idea that people have to take a stand for investing in a better future by investing in public transportation.
“It’s a matter of making yourself heard,” he said. “By not investing in your future, you are undermining your future.”