It’s been a few months since the idea of city control over the MTA creeped into the news. At one point, city control came up nearly weekly at Sal Albanese, Joe Lhota and Christine Quinn all set forth proposals for city control of either its transit system or the MTA. But also-rans don’t get to set policy, and now that the waning days of Bloomberg are upon us, a discussion on city control has reentered the picture.
The latest comes to us from The Observer and general New York gadfly Larry Penner. He calls upon our mayor-elect to reassess city control over its transit system. My revoking the lease agreement in place between New York City and the New York City Transit Authority, Penner argues, Bill de Blasio could quickly move to reassert mayoral control over the subways.
Political reality makes this potential move a non-starter, but Penner’s piece tosses around a few ideas worth exploring. Noting that the MTA was born out of a need to shore up finances and remove politics from the decision-making process, Penner touches upon a theme I’ve covered: Albany is willing to take credit for the good, but no one will take credit for the bad. City control can solve that problem.
If Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio feels he could do a better job running the nation’s largest subway and bus system, will he step up to the plate now and regain control of his destiny? … Mr. de Blasio has fellow Democrats NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James and a future NYC Council Speaker, along with 48 of 51 NYC Council members. Starting with the upcoming July 1, 2014 municipal budget, will they work with him to support increasing NYC’s capital funding to the MTA?
…Mr. de Blasio has fellow Democrats Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, along with 99 members of the State Assembly. Fifty-nine are based in NYC. There are 16 more from Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Putnam, Rockland and Dutchess counties, giving Silver a working majority. State Senate minority leader Andrea Stewart-Cummins has 20 of 22 members from NYC. There are two more members lead by Senator Jeffrey Klein of the “Independent Democratic Caucus” from NYC. Add two other NYC-based and 12 Long Island-Hudson Valley suburban Republican State Senators led by GOP Senate leader Dean Skelos, and there is a working majority coalition within the MTA service area.
Asking suburban-based members of the State Legislature—be they Assembly members or State Senators, Democrats or Republicans—to support any non NYC resident paying a commuter tax has historically been and will continue to be doomed to failure. This will continue with all having to face voters in 2014. Asking them all to support increasing funding to the MTA would benefit constituents of NYC based public officials who ride New York City Transit bus and subway. It would also benefit suburban based office holders whose constituents ride either the Long Island Rail Road or Metro North Rail Road. This could build a winning majority coalition in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Will Mr. de Blasio attempt to build bridges on mutual issues of interest with suburban residents that could benefit everyone? Will he challenge Albany to increase its contribution to the next 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program by billions more?
Penner’s piece is perhaps written through rose-colored glasses. While the MTA districts may have a majority of seats in Albany, Democrats and Republicans do not see eye-to-eye on transit funding schemes, tax plans or direct capital contributions. They won’t work together, and they certainly won’t bridge the gap because the new mayor of New York, who ran on an aggressive left-wing platform, asks nicely.
City control, therefore, remains unlikely, and even the head of the MTA — who knows his boss is in Albany — has spoken against it. It won’t solve the problems of responsibility or funding, and no mayor will voluntarily take on a headache of which New York cured itself back in the early 1950s.
I have a hard time finding even a silver lining in the city control cloud. By removing the decision-making from the hands of the state, the city will have to take on funding obligations it hasn’t seen fit to address for decades. Plus, the regional planning issues — which the MTA barely addresses — will fall entirely by the wayside right when they shouldn’t. With a mayor-elect who identifies as a driver, it’s hardly the time to expect for progressive transit leadership from City Hall even if we hope for better (or at least Bloombergian levels of support).
So we are again left with the feeling that city control is an idea that sounds better in practice than reality. City residents already control six of the MTA’s 14 board votes and numerous non-voting seats, and de Blasio can set transportation policy — especially in the realm of buses and street space — through the Department of Transportation. Let’s not yet wrest subway control and the financial hassles that come with it from the state quite yet.