Home MTA Politics Schumer: We must continue to build

Schumer: We must continue to build

by Benjamin Kabak

It’s safe to say that Chuck Schumer and Chris Christie aren’t friends. As I explored, New York’s senior senator had some choice words for the New Jersey governor at a Crain’s Breakfast yesterday. Amidst a speech about the need to invest in the region’s infrastructure, the senator slammed Christie for canceling the ARC Tunnel and setting back the region’s progress. It is, by now, a familiar refrain.

But while Schumer’s fight with his cross-Hudson, cross-aisle rival made headlines, the rest of his speech is worthy of attention to. His summed up his focus thusly: “It has been one of the particular geniuses of New York going back centuries that we have always recognized the importance of investing in infrastructure, even when others did not.”

Today, it might seem a bit unwieldy to praise our infrastructure efforts. New York’s subway system and road network are not in the best of shape, and the advancements we’re making seem, like the Second Ave. Subway, costly or, like the 7 Line extension, misguided at best. Still, Schumer praised even these small signs of forward movement. “On the Upper East Side, the Second Avenue subway is finally becoming a reality,” he said. “Although progress remains slower than we would like, the fact that we are in the ground and actually moving ahead after eighty years of discussion and abortive starts is a great achievement…Ultimately, when all four phases of the Second Avenue Subway are completed, we will be improving the commute of over half a million riders every day.”

During the speech, Schumer spoke at length about the why of it all. “Without increased capacity, Manhattan, and the surrounding areas that depend on it, would stop growing. Our competitive advantage would become a disadvantage if something was not done,” he said while touting the benefits of the East Side Access plan.

After slamming Christie’s decision as the moment when “the region stopped looking toward the future,” Schumer let loose his litany of desired improvements. He wants New York to embrace high-speed rail; he wants a one-seat ride to Laguardia; he wants to make sure our region’s over-taxed airports can meet the demands of travel in 2011. “For New York to continue to thrive in the 21st century, we must continue to make major investments in its transportation system,” he said. “These are the projects which will fuel the region’s economic growth for the coming decades.”

With a rhetorical flourish, he ended where one would expect him to end. “In today’s competitive global economy,” he said, “to stand still is to fall further and further behind. We cannot let that happen.”

It all sounds good. Schumer has always had a knack for saying the right things, but his actions over the years have spoken louder than words. He might talk about investing in infrastructure, and he might deliver federal grants now and then. He was certainly instrumental in getting the Second Ave. Subway off the drawing board and into the ground, but his leadership on most transit issues has been mostly non-existent/

What Schumer hasn’t done for New York and its infrastructure is substantial. He didn’t lead an effort to secure emergency federal funds to help transit authorities ease operating deficits and avoid criplping fare hikes and service cuts. He hasn’t played a role in ensuring that the MTA is adequately funded, that a congestion pricing funding scheme passed through Albany or that the MTA’s current $10 billion capital budget hole is closed.

New York City and its subway system won’t sink if Schumer neglects it or continues his laissez-faire approach to transit. Furthermore, many of these issues are far more relevant at the state level than in Congress, but with the largest transit-riding constituency in the country. Schumer should be doing more. This year, facing capital needs and a hazy operations outlook, the MTA needs all the help it can get, and New York’s powerful senator should be able to deliver.

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24 comments

Scott E January 19, 2011 - 7:57 am

“Without increased capacity, Manhattan, and the surrounding areas that depend on it, would stop growing”

Why does Manhattan need to grow? Many would argue, myself included, that the City has already grown too much for its geographical size. Other than some entrepeneurial minds looking to profit off of every last bit of real-estate, I never liked the thought of building over the West Side Yards for this very reason.

Expand transit to help those who are paralyzed by persistent traffic jams due to overgrowth, yes. Expand transit to further stimulate growth, no!

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R. Graham January 19, 2011 - 8:58 am

The growth being discussed is jobs. I am a true believer that if you send adequate transportation, the jobs will follow.

If you send the 7 to the Jake, the rest of that area will develop new jobs in need of new employees. If you do the same on 2nd Avenue, the entire east side will develop new jobs. Growth is always a must and I don’t mean in terms of living population. I’m talking about the fact that as the decades pass and new technology continues to become the norm in our lives, more jobs that existed 10-20-30-40 years ago are becoming non-existant. Transportation in turn will lead and continue to lead to new job growth.

Like the old saying goes, if you build it, they will come.

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Bolwerk January 19, 2011 - 2:57 pm

Nice in theory, but not guaranteed in practice. Plenty of “undesirable” neighborhoods ought to be growing because the A or 1 goes through them.

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R. Graham January 19, 2011 - 3:56 pm

The point revolves around increasing capacity in Manhattan. Expansion in the outer boroughs is nice if it makes sense for allowing people to get to where they need to go the most, Manhattan and then of course back home.

Expansion in Manhattan has been sorely missing for 70 years with the SAS alone. That’s the focus in that point. Second Avenue is no undesirable neighborhood and even if it were one it wouldn’t stay that way for too long. Alphabet City has long been excluded from real public transportation but has gone from undesirable to hottest nabe to you can’t get in there in just a matter of 15 years.

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Marc Shepherd January 19, 2011 - 9:03 am

There’s an inherent contradiction in your comment. Those persistent traffic jams are mainly due to the transit bottleneck getting into Manhattan. While it may seem therapeutic to blame the growth you don’t like on real-estate barons (as if no one else benefited but them), the fact is that Manhattan is the region’s core. There’s a reason why a certain tunnel was called ARC: economic growth in Manhattan there tends to fuel growth in the surrounding areas as well.

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Bolwerk January 19, 2011 - 2:55 pm

Reality is that the general population trend in the USA and even in New York, if less so, is up. Those people will need places to live and work. The option is more transit-oriented development to house them, or more suburban-style development to house them. You may be right that the policy of encouraging growth in Manhattan isn’t so beneficial to those who need affordable housing, but it’s not the most harmful either (it’s probably motivated by the tax revenue it encourages).

Unfortunately, far too much development policy discourages transit use. Just throwing lines on a map won’t fix that either. Places need to be rezoned to encourage density and (here’s the part many pols lack the balls for:) discourage parking and heavy POV traffic.

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tacony palmyra January 19, 2011 - 5:22 pm

As a Manhattanite, I don’t feel “paralyzed by persistent traffic jams” in my borough, because I can just take the train or walk. I feel far more paralyzed by the traffic jams in the places where I have no other options.

The world’s population is growing and people have to live somewhere. By not allowing Manhattan to grow, you just send the growth elsewhere. Whatever traffic impacts building on the West Side Yards may cause would pale in comparison to the traffic growth stimulated by the same employment and population growth in say, Orange County, the fastest growing county in New York State. It’s rather myopic and self-centered NIMBYism to cry “overgrowth” in places where it is more efficient to grow. We’re paving over the reaches of the Hudson Valley to allow you to cruise down 10th Ave in a cab?

And lastly, if you live in Manhattan, what existed on the site of your building before it was there? I’m sure a pristine pasture, a forest, and even perhaps, a smaller, shorter structure of lower density. Everybody wants to be the last one in, and shut the door on the next guy.

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Marc Shepherd January 19, 2011 - 8:07 am

An awful lot of the faults you’re laying at Schumer’s feet are not really his responsibility. Let’s take congestion pricing: the federal government had allocated substantial funds for its implementation; that’s Schumer’s job. The legislature merely had to pass the enabling legislation, and it fumbled. What Schumer, a U. S. Senator, could have done about that, is beyond me. If there is a history of Senators controlling the legislature from Washington, I am not aware of it.

Most of the MTA’s financial problems come from inaction and/or misappropriation by Albany. It’s a wet dream to imagine that the federal government will come in and fix what New York’s own legislature has broken. This is particularly true with respect to the operating budget, which it is not a federal responsibility to pay for. Even if Schumer wanted Washington to pay for that, he would meet with a chilly reception in Congress—even from his fellow Democrats, to say nothing of the Republicans.

It will be hard to get much more transit money from the federal government when New York and New Jersey have squandered so much of the money already allocated. There’s a limit to what Schumer can realistically be expected to do.

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R. Graham January 19, 2011 - 9:20 am

I completely agree and more so nothing is more disasterous to your political capital nationally than you losing battles to the state house back home.

Albany is a disease and when it came to congestion pricing they weren’t even willing to take the money and at least apply it on a term limited basis just to see how everything would work out overall. The only concern in Albany is how pockets can be lined individually and the next election. That’s it.

Schumer venturning into that territory could be bad for him and in turn bad for NY.

I also agree in terms of allocating federal funds for a mismanaged operating budget and out of control capital cost overruns. It just cannot happen. Albany all too often has a problem with applying dollars to what they were originally intended to fund. This would be the equivalent of Christie trying to keep the feds money intend for the ARC project.

I honestly feel responsibility for NYCT should be handed back to the city, with the MTA still the managing oversight. The only way to get things done is to eliminate the middle man. That’s all the MTA is. The state (governor, state senate) hires the people in charge at the MTA yet they take no responsibility when the shit hits the fan. They pretend to be outraged and the voting public blames the MTA instead of blaming their elected officials. That’s Albany and will never change, but if the Mayor had to control NYCT, allowing the MTA to manage with their transit expertise and now you’ve turned what is usually a non issue for city politics into a campaign issue. That next fare hike could cost a Mayor his job. Now you still maintain the same funding schemes from the state (what’s left of it), but now a Mayor has to go up there and fight for it. Now a congestion pricing is not just a MTA pool, but a NYCT fund if you can get it enacted.

Only problem is this. Would the state go for losing a little more power over the city? The state already feels a loss of it when it comes to schools and they try to flex it when it comes down to dishing out funds or during the renewal of mayoral control of schools. Maybe they would see the city taking back NYCT responsibility as a hidden relief.

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Joe Steindam January 19, 2011 - 9:35 am

I disagree with the idea of making NYCT exclusively a city organization, because you’re ignoring the fact that NYCT is truly a regional issue. During the congestion pricing debate, I worked with an organization that was pro-congestion pricing and we met with Legislators on LI who were only concerned with LIRR fares (certainly a priority). But as we tried to emphasize, most people who take the LIRR still transfer to the subway, so the Subway fare matters to them too. The same holds true with MNRR. Making NYCT separate will send the wrong message. The right message to make is that the State and the Counties of the region make the decisions, and they can and should be held accountable for what the MTA does.

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R. Graham January 19, 2011 - 9:48 am

I disagree. NYCT is a city transportation network. The buses and subways extend only as far as city limits. Now this is not to say that others don’t benefit or have no need to benefit from using the subways. That’s not what I’m saying at all, but you can’t argue with the fact that a city transportation network that benefit those in the city more than it does not will only benefit those who live outside of the city more.

Inside or outside the city everyone benefits from lower fares, more reliable ride, added service, etc. If I’m an MNRR or LIRR rider I would be more than pleased to know that the Mayor is responsible for NYCT. It can still be managed under the MTA umbrella, but now the mayor gets to hire the president of NYCT because even they know the difficulties in holding Albany responsible for anything MTA related.

In NYC it’s much easier to hold a mayor accountable than a state senator or a governor. The immunity levels in Albany is outrageous. It won’t happen either way because without NYCT the MTA would have a problem funding most Capital construction projects.

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Alon Levy January 19, 2011 - 12:49 pm

There’s no such thing as “city transportation network” or “suburban transportation network.” There’s a regional transportation network, one that because of historical accidents and not-invented-here syndrome has no fare or schedule integration between suburban commuter lines and inner-city lines.

R. Graham January 19, 2011 - 1:32 pm

That’s a completely fair analysis. However, I made the point because the city once had complete control of NYCT until the financial crisis of the 70s. Now I’m not saying the city should go back to that. I feel the city should have more political input than it does right now. As of now the city has 4 members on the board which features 11 others appointed by the governor. Albany doesn’t care about public transportation as is because quite frankly, the MTA has no links to a majority of the members of the state senate and as a result the governor doesn’t have to hear about it.

If you ask me, I say the MTA was the worst idea ever conceived in NY State government history. We’ll have a transportation authority manage the bridges, tunnels and all other regional public transportation within southeast NY. 70s comes around and the country is in a financial crisis. The 2nd Avenue subway is stopping construction yet again and NYCT is in a complete state of disrepair with no one able (city & state) or willing (feds)(Thanks Prez Ford) to foot the bill.

So along comes the idea to punt NYCT to the MTA, but just like today no realistic plan for funding is devised. Look at how long it took to get the 63rd Street connection done. That’s not a 30 year project any other decade other than the years of the great depression.

When the MTA was created it enabled more of this punting the ball to continue. Need money in the 80s to bring the subway system up to a state of good repair? Richard Ravich says borrow the money. So they borrow it. Need money for the 95-99 capital construction contract plan? Gov Pataki says borrow the money. Voters are becoming outraged at us politicans for the threat of service cuts? So we’ll first, fire the Chairman and the CEO that Spitzer appointed because they brought attention to us do nothing politicans which is a no-no. Second, we’ll replace you with someone else (it’s good he has transit experience). Third, we’ll come up with a plan to give you funds so it will correct the problem of the finger being pointed at the pols to begin with. Fourth, when everyone calms down we’ll take the money and dish it elsewhere.

I said it before and I’ll say it again. The MTA is a punting organization. A tool used by politicans to obsolve themselves of they’re real responsibilities to public transportation and also a tool for them to vent at they’re own appointees to maintain they’re hands off stance when it comes to transit issues. It’s been this way for 40 years and the only way it changes is if Andrew Cuomo with this opening of a lifetime give it the acknowledgement it deserves or if the current structure is radically changed to force responsibility upon the pols in an open and public way.

Alon Levy January 19, 2011 - 4:49 pm

The problem with the MTA is general organizational dysfunction. A reshuffle of the organization, even one that takes NYCT out of it, won’t change anything. The same Very Serious People will still be in charge and the same rules will still apply because they don’t conceive of them as an urgent problem.

paulb January 20, 2011 - 3:26 pm

Some of the money that David Gunn used to fix up the subway starting in the latter 1980s came from the money we got when Westway was canceled.

Joe Steindam January 19, 2011 - 9:23 am

“If there is a history of Senators controlling the legislature from Washington, I am not aware of it.”

There certainly is a history of Senators wielding extreme influence in their state from Washington, but much of it is from the days of machine politics, and if you want to call the New York Democratic Party a machine, I don’t think Schumer is the boss. That honor would probably lie with Silver. Either way, since Schumer left the State Capitol for the Federal Capitol, he’s exercised little influence over Albany matters.

I think Ben is right that more could be done with helping the MTA’s Capital Construction budget hole, that at the least seems like a place where federal money is usually flowing, seeing as the Feds don’t pay for operations. Obviously Schumer could try to convince the Government to offer temporary assistance with operation funding to transit agencies and the MTA, seeing as the Stimulus did that elsewhere (kept teachers and policemen from being laid off), but sadly, the political moment for that is gone, and it probably won’t happen again. Assistance with the capital fund is more likely to move forward in the Senate, which is to say not very likely at all.

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R. Graham January 19, 2011 - 9:53 am

Or even better, what would solve a massive amount of problems would be for the feds to give the MTA grant money with an eye on making a large advance payment on the MTA’s annual debt payments. I don’t know how much is left from the borrowing days of the 90s and some of it from the 80s, but that interest every year is a back breaker for a system that should be self sufficent. Our fare increases are mainly to for this debt and it’s truly unfair.

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Eric F. January 19, 2011 - 9:22 am

Schumer has been an advocate, for over a decade now I think of replacing the “Peace Bridge” linking Buffalo to Ontario. The need for the replacement span has been manifest for a generation. The project, with full NY Congressional delegation support has gone more or less nowhere for at least 20 years. There are some rumblings that maybe something will occur soon. Schumer needs to look at the roster of enviro regulation and NIMBY lawsuit facilitation that stymies and escalates the cost of every project. The one thing he has the power to do is cut red tape, and yet his entire career has been about festooning the country with more of it. The Peace Bridge is an embarrasing debacle that should be an object lesson, and instead he lobs grenades at Christie for telling it like it is. He may have scored a 1600 on his SAT, but he can’t get a turtle pool built in less than a decade because that’s not the way this region works any more.

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Chris January 19, 2011 - 8:43 pm

First – Schumer is a legislator, not an executive. He gets paid to make a lot of noise, and shape an occasional law or two. So all he can do is keep red tape out of new laws.

Second – much of the red tape is caused by efforts to keep work places safe, enforce equal opportunity, ensure fair business practices, etc. If we want efficiency, we will have to pay a price – which may mean some palms may get greased to get a project underway, may mean that some protected classes aren’t protected, may mean that we look the other way when it comes to safety risks, etc. Is this such a bad thing? Not in moderation. But it sounds and looks bad – politicians can’t take the risk that they won’t get tainted by that badness….

So how do we fix this? Get government out of the business of running much of the transit infrastructure, and lightly regulate private providers to ensure reasonable standards of safety, etc. However, that’s easier said than done. We’ve lost the class of public leaders who could check and balance corporate interests at both macro and micro levels….

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paulb January 20, 2011 - 3:33 pm

If we can’t have new lines, what about raising speeds on existing lines so trips go by faster? I don’t mean cutting down headways or dwell time. I mean, doing track, signal, rolling stock, or whatever work would let the trains, express trains in particular, go faster.

I expect to be told the dozen or more ways it’s impossible. Still, speed is one of those things that generally impresses. And in terms of impressing customers, the TA could use a home run, or several of them.

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R. Graham January 20, 2011 - 4:18 pm

They used to be a lot faster than what they are today. The 4 train Union Square accident of 1991 changed everything. That’s when the MTA began installing grade timers and wheel detectors to protect themselves from the future potential drunk Train Operators like the one who recked the 4 train that day. A General Order was in affect and the operator tried to take the switch at somewhere above 40 MPH I believe. I think the first car made it, but the second and third were destroyed. One person died.

And because of that there will never be true speed ever again. Plus if I’m correct the new trains don’t even allow operators to go over a certain speed.

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Andrew January 20, 2011 - 10:40 pm

It was actually the Williamsburg Bridge crash in 1995 that led to most of the slow down, because it revealed that trains weren’t able to stop within the distance assumed by the signal system. That was a major safety flaw, so it couldn’t be ignored. Signals are extremely expensive, so the cars were slowed down at a short-term fix, with the long-term plan to deal with the signals as they were due for replacement.

The L has its new signal system, and the L has gotten much, much faster. Now we just have to wait for the other lines to catch up.

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R. Graham January 21, 2011 - 9:22 am

I completely forgot about that accident. Great point!

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paulb January 22, 2011 - 12:49 pm

For a few years during the early ’90s I was using the F train to Brooklyn. Has any regular F train rider not been exasperated by the pace of that train in downtown Bkln and lower Manhattan? One day going home there was an announcement at W. 4th St: “Due to scheduling adjustments the next stop on this train will be Jay St.-Boro Hall and after that Seventh Ave.”

I timed us non-stop from W. 4th to Jay St. If I remember correctly, it was 8 minutes. I don’t remember the time from there to Seventh Ave but it was quick because there was no need to crawl through that switch between Jay St. and the Bergen St. local track.

I just want the NY TA to put the Rapid back in Rapid Transit.

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