Volume 17 • Issue 36 | February 4 - 10, 2005

The M.T.A. and a stadium referendum

Hundreds of thousands of subway riders all around the city and in Lower Manhattan were pleasantly surprised to find the C train back in service Wednesday. After a subway relay room fire on Chambers St., Laurence Reuter, president of New York City Transit, said it would take a minimum of three years to restore service. A day later he said six – nine months and a week later the service was actually restored.

We’re ecstatic that Reuter was wrong two times and that C, A and other riders were seriously inconvenienced for only ten days. The gross but welcome miscalculation is just the latest piece of evidence that Transit and its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, cannot always get the numbers straight. The M.T.A.’s recent estimate about the value of its West Side rail yards should not be taken as authority – nor should the estimates from the city or the New York Jets, who hope to build a stadium there.

The M.T.A. would have to sell the air rights to build the stadium and we are not confident the authority is maximizing the value of its property with its recent $300 million estimate. A quick review of the Mis-estimation Authority’s recent history includes exaggerating the agency’s short-term budget shortfall to push through a fare hike; massive missteps and corruption on the 2 Broadway construction boondoggle project; and officials’ hyping the commuter time benefits to expanding the South Ferry subway station.

Gov. Pataki, who picks the M.T.A. leaders, is a strong proponent of the stadium and as such, has incentive to pressure the agency to cut the city a good deal on the air rights.

The Jets and Mayor Bloomberg obviously want the price to be low to strengthen their case to build a stadium there. The M.T.A., the city and the Jets have agreed to let George Mitchell, former U.S. Senate majority leader, to mediate the monetary dispute. Mitchell, who mediated the Deutsche Bank insurance dispute near the W.T.C. site and religious disputes in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, is more than qualified to resolve this disagreement, but we’re concerned the M.T.A. may have set the ceiling too low.

The city and especially the state have not given the M.T.A. nearly enough money for needed capital projects or to keep the subway fare at $2, so the air right price tag is crucial. The M.T.A.’s $300 million estimate might turn out to be accurate, but that figure can’t be trusted unless it is tested against some sort of open bidding process, as has been suggested by some of Mayor Bloomberg’s likely opponents this fall. At least two of them, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, have called for a voters’ referendum to decide whether a stadium makes sense on the West Side.

A referendum makes sense to us too. Let the mayor take to the voters his case that the $600 million public stadium subsidy will be small compared to the added tax revenues. And let the stadium opponents make their arguments which sound credible to us – namely the financial assumptions of the stadium plan seem speculative; the Midtown offices needed to finance the stadium threaten Lower Manhattan’s redevelopment; the traffic and congestion problems are significant; and that the M.T.A. can’t afford to get less than market value for its assets.

Currently stadium negotiations have moved to Albany, where Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, an effective advocate for Lower Manhattan, holds the key vote. The public would be better served if Silver supported the referendum effort and let New Yorkers decide what is best.

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