New York Should Use Marijuana Taxes to Repair Subways, Report Says

By Paul Gaita 12/14/18

One NYU professor makes the case for why the state should use marijuana tax revenue to fund the MTA's Fast Forward plan to fix the popular transportation system.

New York residents waiting on the subway platform for a train in need of repairs

For New York City residents, the simple act of taking the subway can come with a host of problems: long delays in crowded, poorly ventilated and aging cars, and stations without basic elements of accessibility, such as elevators.

Delays can impact the schedules of the more than 1.7 billion individuals that use the subway each year, and late employees can cost businesses more than $380 million per year. The Metropolitan Transit Authority announced a "Fast Forward" plan to address these concerns, but the project is expected to take a decade and cost more than $40 billion.

New York University (NYU) professor Mitchell L. Moss has a possible solution; use the tax revenue from legalized marijuana sales to fund the subway project.

Moss's plan, outlined in a report published by the NYU/Wagner Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, suggests that legalizing marijuana could add between $110 and $428 million in annual tax revenue to Empire State coffers. That figure is lower than a projection by New York State's health department, which suggested that taxes from legal marijuana could yield $670 million per year. 

Figures like those – as well as growing dismay over the subway system's woes by the public – have generated interest from city officials, including the Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup, a panel assembled by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to conceptualize ways to pay for the subway project.

Some members of the panel, including former City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, as well as current City Council speaker Corey Johnson, have voiced their support for the plan.

With Democrats currently in control of the state Senate, Governor Cuomo suggesting that a legalization bill is in the draft stage, and subway riders voicing support for the plan in an informal New York Times poll, Moss's proposal appears to be gaining traction.

But as Vox pointed out, exactly how much marijuana tax revenue can be diverted to transportation remains unclear. 

Colorado, which has earned $862 million in total revenue from legal marijuana since 2014, is one of the few states that use those funds for transportation issues. According to the Denver Office of Marijuana Policy, the city will put $9 million into "mobility projects," like sidewalk repair and the creation of bike lines, in 2019. But the majority of tax funds will go towards regulation of the city's marijuana sales, as well as education and safety.

The $9 million is just part of the remaining funds left after those issues are paid.

Eric Escudero, who serves as director of communication for the Office, said that the funds are welcome, but "it's not going to solve every issue that needs financial or taxpayer support."

He noted that changes to the marijuana market – specifically, when new states initiate legalization – might impact how much tax revenue can be earned. As a result, Denver does not look at their marijuana tax as a silver bullet.

"It's important that you don't promise the streets are going to be paved with gold because of marijuana, because that won't happen," he said.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.