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CityLaw Breakfast: Jerrold Nadler

The first CityLaw Breakfast of 2006 featured Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) who delivered a lively talk on transportation issues in New York City.

CityLaw Breakfasts are free, open to the public and broadcast by Crosswalks cable television throughout the five boroughs. The Breakfasts are sponsored by Consolidated Edison, Verizon, Greenberg Traurig and The Murray Goodgold Foundation.

Rep. Nadler began by noting that the Transportation Authorization Bill passed by Congress last year was two years late. An authorization bill is put forth every six years and provides a framework for planning and spending. The latest bill asked for $375 billion for six years to maintain current transportation. The Bush administration has said that figure is not acceptable and called for a budget of $256.4 billion.

Rep. Nadler explained that the administration based this figure on the 18.3 cents per gallon gasoline sales tax.

The administration’s principles are that you cannot use any revenue from general funds for transportation and that you may not increase the gasoline tax, Rep. Nadler said. This means, he added, that over six years, the amount you collect never goes up unless consumption goes up and our energy policy is to discourage more consumption.

"Since there is inflation, you are going to be spending an increasingly decreasing amount,” Rep. Nadler said. Eventually, the system simply will collapse from lack of money.

“Either we can afford to maintain a decent transportation system or not,” Rep. Nadler noted.

The congressman then turned his attention to the way funds for transportation are distributed by the federal government. A donor state, he explained, gets back less funding that it sends to Washington through the gasoline tax. A donee state gets back more. New York receives more funds back because it invested billions in mass transit and so is more energy efficient than some other states. Some states object to this, Rep. Nadler said, but the right way to determine allocations is not to look at only one account but all of them. If a state is going to get back the same amount it send in, Rep. Nadler said, there really is no reason to have a federal government. The purpose of the federal government is to collect from one place and distribute to others. Overall, Rep. Nadler said, New York State sends between $14 billion and $18 billion more to the federal government than it receives back.

Another transportation issue of concern, according to Rep. Nadler, is the proposed rail freight tunnel to be built under the Hudson River.

“This tunnel was first proposed in 1910,” Rep. Nadler commented, “so if it is finished in 2015, it should be right on time.”

The rail freight tunnel will provide an alternative to New York’s current premiere freight hauling system – trucks.

“Everything goes into and comes out of New York City by truck,” Rep. Nadler said. He added that the trucks tear up the roads, cause enormous traffic problems and release fumes that contribute to the increasing rate of asthma in the City. The extensive use of trucks also is a major security problem.

“Ninety-three percent of everything that comes into New York City goes over the George Washington Bridge,” Rep. Nadler said.

If the bridge was not in use, the Congressman added, the City would only have a three-day supply of food available without new supplies coming in. Building a rail freight tunnel would take one million tractor-trailer trucks off New York City roads, and a study of the project by the Environmental Protection Agency is favorable. So, why has nothing been done?

“The politics of it is that it’s not of great interest,” Rep. Nadler said. “Why? Freight doesn’t vote.”

Rep. Nadler also spoke about the rail link to JFK airport and plans that have been proposed to connect the link to the LIRR and extend it into Manhattan, serving the East and West Sides. Another part of the plan calls for a new tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The idea is to make sure that LIRR commuters can get to downtown Manhattan as easily as midtown, Rep. Nadler said. He explained that there is concern that Wall Street firms will move to midtown if it is harder for their workers to commute from Long Island to downtown.

“Should we spend $6 billion to keep Wall Street downtown?” Rep. Nadler asked. “If we were spending this money to keep Wall Street from moving to Greenwich, Connecticut, it might make sense.”

The development of the far West Side also is a concern. An extension of the Number 7 line has been proposed at a cost of more than $3 billion. However, Rep. Nadler argued the infrastructure for subway service expansion on the West Side already exists in the form of Amtrak train tracks that are virtually unused. Making use of these tracks would cost between $100 and $125 million, Rep. Nadler said. There is a problem because this system would not interconnect with the East Side line. This should be studied, Rep. Nadler said, but even if more work was done to connect to the East Side, the cost would still be far less than $3 billion. The bottom line, Rep. Nadler said, is that the government should not commit to major projects without studying them thoroughly.

All projects ought to be analyzed, Rep. Nadler concluded, and in the end, the common denominator for transportation projects should be service delivery.