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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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MTA’s Broad Reach

The New York state Legislature imposed a new payroll tax in 2009 to finance the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s operations (MTA), re-routing 34 cents of every $100 earned in the state’s 12 downstate counties into the MTA’s coffers. It was an audacious move, and now extracts more than $1 billion out of the region’s economy each year.

The MTA has benefited enormously from the media’s portrayal of the tax; you can afford 34 cents, right? Yet a family earning $100,000 in 2011, for instance, will send $340 this year to the MTA through their employer(s). The self-employed must pay the tax, too. Few even remember rental car users and taxicab patrons were also forced to pay more as part of 2009’s MTA bailout package.

State Senator Jack Martins (R-Mineola) sponsored legislation this spring which would eventually return an estimated $767 million in MTA payroll taxes to employers and the self-employed in Long Island, New York City and five other counties: Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester. The way it would be done: phase out the MTA payroll tax gradually for most New York businesses, with the exception of those based in the city’s five boroughs. City employers would continue to pay 21 cents per $100 in payroll earnings to the MTA because of their employees’ disproportionately heavy usage of the MTA’s services.

Senator Martins’ measure was passed by the GOP-controlled state Senate, and generated a question from Newsday’s editorial board. They wondered where the MTA would find the $767 million the state Senate’s Republicans want returned to employers and the self-employed.

The answer is simple yet controversial. The MTA’s payroll tax could be eliminated entirely for non-city employers and the self-employed outside the city’s boundaries if the MTA were allowed to take control of, and install, cashless toll machines at the four toll-free crossings into Manhattan: the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges. Cashless tolls at these four sites could generate anywhere from $600 million to $800 million a year for the MTA, the proposal’s advocates estimate, while illustrating that Albany is serious about funding mass transit and reducing traffic. New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) currently owns, operates and maintains those four structures but I imagine the Bloomberg administration would be open to transferring these facilities to the MTA.

The objections to placing bridge tolls in the city where none now exist would come from the Democrat-controlled state Assembly. Many of the 150 state Assembly members today are from the five boroughs, as was the case in 2009. Two years ago, the Democrats also had a city-centric majority in the state Senate and the governor, David Paterson, was a former state senator from Manhattan. None of them had any interest in disrupting East River crossing traffic patterns.

Times, however, have changed. The Republicans control the state Senate, and Governor Cuomo resides in Westchester County. Moreover, the MTA remains short on cash, even though they cut services last year and raised commuter rail, bus and subway fares again this year. More fare hikes await mass transit users in 2013. The free ride on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges has got to end.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net