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Reducing commuter misery is essential to ending NYC’s ‘Ghost Town’ of shuttered stores

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Reducing commuter misery is essential to ending NYC's 'Ghost Town' of shuttered stores

New York has lost its captive office commuters, a loss that contributes to the city’s ghost-town effect. To have a hope of luring commuters back, the state and city will have to treat public transit not as a utility, but as an amenity — something people, for the most part, like to do.

Luckily, Gotham will start the post-COVID era with some advantages, in long-term mega-investments that are about to pay off. 

For the first time ever, the Big Apple’s corporate employers and their office workers have proved that they don’t need the city. People may not like working at home forever, and they may become less productive and competitive. But the blunt truth is that they have done it for almost a year now. People’s tolerance for commuting misery has thus irrevocably decreased. 

New York can’t rebound unless it coaxes commuters back. On an average fall day in 2019, of the nearly 3.9 million people who descended on Manhattan below 60th Street to work, shop or run errands, 76 percent came in via some sort of transit. That figure included 2.2 million subway riders, nearly 350,000 commuter-rail passengers and nearly 300,000 bus riders. 

With subway ridership at 30 percent of normal and railroad ridership at about 20-25 percent of normal, the question is how to get at least some of them back. 

The answer: Make it nicer. The state’s Moynihan Train Hall, a new portal into Penn Station, which opened New Year’s Day, points the way forward. No, it doesn’t add train capacity. It does make people feel like they are wanted

As it happens, New York has a bunch of similarly cool stuff coming online in the next year or so, which will boost moods and garner a little commuter interest. Hard to believe, but in 18 months, East Side Access, the $11.1 billion Long Island Rail Road terminal below Grand Central, will open. Together with new track capacity on Long Island, it will give tens of thousands of suburbanites a far easier and more pleasant commute to East Midtown.  

And yes, in trying to bring back Upper East Siders, it’s better to have the five-year-old Second Avenue Subway than not. That’s partly because the stations are clean and big. 

Now, we’ve got to do the same for Jersey commuters, investing in new Hudson River tunnel capacity and a new bus terminal. And we need to keep modernizing subway signals, so more frequent trains are permanently less crowded. 

None of this will matter much, though, if a perpetually broke Metropolitan Transportation Authority (and New Jersey Transit) have to cut service or raise prices. In the post-COVID world, nobody with a choice is going to pay even more for a monthly railroad pass to wait longer for a train. And employers know that letting people work at home, even a few days a week, represents a big savings for them.  

The federal government’s $8 billion bailout has bought the MTA time, at least until the end of this year. The authority should be using that time to cut costs. At the commuter railroads, in particular, decades-old featherbedding union contracts should be torn up, with both sides starting over. 

There’s no point in making commuting nicer, if the commuting destination itself is miserable. Major transit hubs like Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal and the Port Authority Bus Terminal are plagued with open-air drug use and vagrancy. The problem isn’t so much inside the stations, but on the surrounding blocks. To counteract unpleasant foot traffic, big real-estate firms should deploy teams of brightly uniformed civilian “greeters” to make returning commuters, theatergoers and tourists feel welcome. 

Fifty years ago, Mayor John Lindsay had a pet obsession: air-conditioned subway trains. It seemed bizarre, when Gotham was descending into high unemployment and crime, for the mayor to badger transit officials and contractors to force them to do what they insisted they couldn’t do: cool the cars.  

But Lindsay was right. People aren’t cattle, and they care about the quality of their commute. Improve, and they will come.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.  

Twitter: @NicoleGelinas

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Opinion

NY should give restaurants and retailers a tax holiday

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NY should give restaurants and retailers a tax holiday

Good news: After the horror of the past year, New York’s budget crisis isn’t as bad as it could be. Now, Team Biden is sending even more billions our way. Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio and lawmakers should use part of this money to support restaurants and retailers through the most direct way possible: a sales-tax holiday. 

A recent report by city Comptroller Scott Stringer found that Gotham likely will end this fiscal year in June with a surprise surplus, nearly $400 million. It isn’t because de Blasio has cut spending. Overtime has continued to soar, and Hizzoner never achieved the labor savings he promised. Spending is actually $500 million higher than the mayor said it would be. 

Rather, tax revenues are coming in better than expected. Personal-income and business taxes will be $900 million higher than the mayor estimated in January. 

When the pandemic set in last year, the city projected a double-digit decline in personal-income taxes, but these revenues are looking to fall by just 2.3 percent in the year that’s just ending. This one tax source, at $13.7 billion annually, made up about one-fifth of the city’s $64.4 billion in taxes, pre-COVID. 

It has held up remarkably well, considering that, as of December, 560,000 New Yorkers, or 14 percent of the pre-COVID workforce, were still unemployed. For the upcoming fiscal year, which starts in July, the city faces a $1.4 billion deficit, one that will be easily closed by the largesse Washington is showering on states and cities, including $5.6 billion to Gotham. 

Similar dynamics are playing out with the state budget, which is even more dependent on income taxes than is the city budget. 

Why the disconnect? Income taxes are already highly progressive. In 2018, the top 1 percent of New Yorkers — 38,714 households — paid 42.5 percent of city taxes. This group hardly makes up the city’s restaurant, entertainment and retail workers, who have suffered the brunt of lockdowns.

As of December, “only” 6 percent of finance workers had lost their jobs, which isn’t nothing. But half of leisure and hospitality employees, including restaurant workers, were still out of work. 

For all of the local governing class’ talk about massive tax hikes on the rich to redistribute some of this money, there is a pragmatic way to redistribute some of that money now, without driving (more of) the rich away: Cuomo and de Blasio should use some of the expected federal relief funds coming New York’s way for a sales tax holiday for restaurants and retailers, via state legislation (the state controls the city’s sales tax). 

Consider: In a normal year, restaurants in the five boroughs would do about $27 billion in ­annual business, according to a ­report by the state comptroller. The tax take of that is about $2.4 billion, roughly split between state and city. But this is nothing like a normal year: Much of that business is gone, anyway, no matter what the tax rate is. 

The city and state simply wouldn’t “lose” very much money, then, by declaring a summerlong restaurant sales-tax holiday on meals under, say, $200, starting in May, when it’s warm enough for people to eat outside again. 

Effectively giving people a near-10 percent discount on their meals is a good way to get them eating out again. 

And it won’t take away from ­future business. Eating a meal you wouldn’t have eaten otherwise in May doesn’t mean you will forego eating out in December, if the mood strikes you. 

In fact, a sales-tax break now may bring in more revenue to the state and city, in the long term, by keeping some restauranteurs afloat. Other localities are free to ask Albany to do the same for them, as well.

Plus, a tax holiday would get more restaurant workers back to work, meaning they would once again pay income tax. 

The state and city should also consider a smaller sales-tax break for struggling retailers, as well. 

Gotham and the Empire State still have long-term budget problems, sure. The city’s biggest long-term problem is that its property-tax revenues are still falling, creating deficits in future years. 

But property taxes are falling ­because the value of the property is falling — and that’s partly because of so many vacant restaurant and retail spots. A closed restaurant or store brings in no sales taxes — and less property and income taxes over time. 

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal. 

Twitter: @NicoleGelinas

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Opinion

Elites see my black baby as nothing more than a carbon-emitter

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Elites see my black baby as nothing more than a carbon-emitter

An hour after my daughter was born, I found myself racing back and forth between my wife’s hospital room and my newborn’s crib in a neonatal intensive-care unit. Both faced dire health challenges. It was the worst experience of my life, but in the end, mother and baby recovered. 

The ordeal taught me something: Nothing on this earth is more fulfilling than being a husband and father.

Driving home from the hospital, I received a call: I’d been ­accepted to Yale Law School. After overcoming one obstacle, I would soon face another as a young dad and a law student. 

A year later, I’ve had the privilege of telling my classmates about the joys of marriage and parenthood — but not everyone has been receptive. One student told me it might be “unethical” to have children in today’s America. 

That view is distressingly common among our elites. Many ­climate activists, including AOC, fret that children increase our carbon emissions over their lifetime, hastening an ecological crisis. Apparently, human life loses intrinsic value in a ­crisis.

Well, there is another crisis plaguing our country: At 1.7 births per woman, the US fertility rate is at its lowest level in modern American history. Recent research shows that we haven’t experienced replacement-rate fertility since 2008. In other words, 13 years have passed since we last produced enough children to even maintain current population levels.

It turns out that our downward population trajectory comes with consequences. As elderly people live longer, there are fewer working-age citizens to pay into Social Security and Medicare programs — adding more stress to an already-strained system.

As a former US Army officer, I’m also concerned about long-lasting national-defense ramifications. A decline in young Americans means our military could find it difficult to maintain readiness as an all-volunteer force. In South Korea, another country experiencing population decline, the military is expected to shed 100,000 troops in the next four years. We could easily find ourselves on the same path if trends continue.

Fewer babies breed major cultural worries, too, like rising loneliness and less societal happiness. Our sense of isolation and alienation long predated the lockdowns. Compounding the unhappiness, there is a significant gap between how many children people say they would like to have versus how many children our society births. 

So, what’s the holdup? 

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to raise children in today’s America. It boils down to two things: cost and culture.

Day care is astronomically ­expensive for young parents like me. Many working-age men are unable to find employment. Housing costs continue to skyrocket. Student debt cripples nearly my entire generation — delaying family formation for some and leaving others with little impetus to marry and start a family at all.

Then there’s the growing anti-family sentiment, especially among elites. Babies are seen as obstacles in the fight against climate change and the quest for personal “fulfillment.” Life in the womb is no longer considered a gift but an inconvenience to be discarded at will.

Even before my daughter was born, our doctor assumed that my wife and I — a young black couple — wouldn’t want to keep our child. The doctor kept insisting that there were “other options” if we chose not to follow through with the pregnancy. 

Since blacks account for over 36 percent of abortions (despite only comprising 14 percent of the childbearing population), I suppose a young married black couple just didn’t look like parents to a pro-abortion physician.

Like many issues, the population crisis has no easy solution. There are, however, public-policy options that can help. Congress could pass pro-family legislation such as enhanced child tax credits that lessen the financial strain on those who serve society by raising kids. 

It’s not all top-down, though: Everyday Americans could help by promoting marriage and family life as the foundation of a flourishing society. Cheer on the newlywed couple; babysit for the exhausted parents; volunteer at a nearby ­orphanage. 

Children are both financially and emotionally expensive. Sure, my daughter will cost me a number of headaches and heartaches (and yes, increased carbon emissions) over the course of her life. But given the incomparable joy that she brings into our home, our neighborhood and our country every day, she has already paid her bill in full. 

Jeremy C. Hunt is a US Army veteran and a student at Yale Law School. 

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Opinion

Texas shows the way on COVID rationality

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Texas shows the way on COVID rationality

Last week, a US state decided to throw off the shackles of prolonged pandemic restrictions that have done very little good and much harm. That state will reopen libraries, museums, houses of worship and most businesses at full capacity.

No uproar ensued. The state in question was, of course, deep-blue Connecticut. A day earlier, however, when the governors of Texas and Mississippi announced their states were reopening, they got a very different reception. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also noted he will be lifting the statewide mask mandate, the liberal establishment reacted as if had vowed to personally inject the novel coronavirus into the bodies of Lone Star residents.

President Biden slammed the move as “Neanderthal thinking.” NBC’s Lester Holt declared the country at “an unsettling crossroad tonight.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention boss ­Rochelle Walensky warned against a “premature lifting of these prevention measures.” Federal coronavirus guru Anthony Fauci called the news “inexplicable” and said “now is not the time to pull back.”

Actually, the time to pull back was months ago, but better late than never. A year into the pandemic, we easily forget that the lockdowns and other draconian restrictions were imposed as a temporary measure to “flatten the curves” and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. We did that successfully. Months ago. 

No one signed up for living in lockdown indefinitely.

Red Mississippi, Florida and Texas are getting slammed in the prestige press, even as hard-line blue states like New York and California have done a far worse job mitigating COVID-19. 

As for mask mandates, if these are going to become a semi-permanent feature of life in our societies, then we need to have a ­rational, open discussion about that. My two cents: No. Hell no. 

Meanwhile, their high-handed imposition has decimated common sense, empowered busybodies and promoted irrational ­behaviors like widespread outdoor masking.

How useless is outdoor masking? In late November, right before New York’s winter spike, Gov. Cuo­mo bragged that mask compliance in the state was 98 percent. Seven out of 10 states with the highest number of COVID deaths per capita have mask mandates; New York and New Jersey “win” that awful contest. Why continue something that hasn’t worked?

When my middle son was a baby, he was a poor sleeper. Other parents of bad sleepers would try to give me advice. But why would I want advice from such parents? If their advice worked, they would see results. I wanted advice from parents who had gotten their kids to sleep. Advice, even if it sounds reasonable, is only helpful if it produces a desired outcome. 

The same principle applies here. States with far higher death rates per capita than Texas tried ­a ­restrictive technique for fighting COVID-19. Their people have suffered immeasurably because of their failed, for-show-only policies — and they have failed to contain the virus.

Even Cuomo, who clearly ­enjoyed his stint of unchecked power, has realized this nonsense has to eventually end. In January, he registered that yes, we do need to reopen at some point. “We will have nothing left to open,” he warned, sounding like he was lecturing the guy in charge who wasn’t him. “We must reopen the economy, but we must do it smartly and safely,” he added. 

Appending the word “safely” to calls for reopening doesn’t actually make the opening safer. It’s akin to people who would post pictures of themselves in large groups throughout the pandemic but hashtag the pictures #SocialDistancing!

What works, rather, are vaccinations, coupled with bolstered health facilities and treatments and a rational ­approach to risk. We have the first two things: Vaccines are working remarkably well to prevent serious illness, and our health systems are ready. 

It’s the third — rationality — that is most needed. People won’t get back to their normal lives at the flick of a switch. They have to be eased into it, and that easing should have begun long ago. It’s long past the time to face reality, reopen our states and get on with our lives. Reopened states like Texas should be lauded, not ridiculed.

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