Richard Ravitch: “So Much to Do” (Public Affairs 2014)

Ross Sandler

Ross Sandler

Richard Ravitch in his book So Much to Do states two “stubborn facts” about public transportation: public transit costs more than what private markets can provide, and “public” in public transit means politics. Ravitch ‘s readable book tells how for 50 years he has successfully helped political leaders bridge these stubborn facts of public promises and public revenues.

Ravitch describes himself as “a negotiator by experience and temperament,” but his goal has been to match politically acceptable sources of money with public desires. Governors repeatedly asked Ravitch to reveal the gap between actual costs and revenue and then to lead the implementation of painful solutions. He began with housing and the bankrupt Urban Development Corporation that predated New York City’s fiscal crisis, moved to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at its lowest ebb, and continues to address today’s pension and Medicaid crises.

Ravitch’s book is a partial response to the refusal by the New York State Legislature to adopt his enlightened FY 2011 budget proposals. Ravitch asserts that the fiscal difficulties in the states are not just a series of individual crises, but a national problem reflecting generous promises made and obligations undertaken without the resources to support them. He calls for budget realism and public attention, and shows how these attributes can succeed in containing promises within revenues.

Ravitch’s prominence allows him to create public issues without having an organization behind him, and not just any public issue, but a public issue of the most arcane: a budget issue. Recently, on February 25, 2014, the MTA thought it could slide through a budget trick to help Governor Andrew Cuomo’s reelection campaign. It proposed to lower the Verrazano Bridge tolls for Staten Island residents, an election-year gift costing public transit riders $15 million. Ravitch as private citizen scolded the MTA board members at the public session held just before the board vote, telling them that a “yes” vote was a violation of their fiduciary duty. The New York Times reported the incident, and the sheepish board members were forced to make up the lost toll revenue.

Government regularly makes promises while day dreaming revenues. Ravitch is the master of working through these political tricks in order to convert promises into realistic programs. His is a unique and rare skill which makes his book a compelling read.

Ross Sandler.

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