It’s too early in the mayoral race for the current slate of candidates to begin their usual diatribes about transit in New York City. No one has yet made any promises they can’t fulfill, and none of the candidates are close enough to securing a nomination to engage in a truly serious discussion of transportation issues under city control. But one candidate has enough experience in the field to raise some thought-provoking ideas.
That candidate, of course, is the MTA’s last permanent CEO/Chairman. Running for the GOP nomination on the strength of his handling of the MTA during Sandy, Joe Lhota enters the field with the most hands-on transit experience of anyone else, and a few times over the past few weeks, he’s discussed transit funding and control. Essentially, Lhota has said he wants to remove elements of the MTA — bridges and tunnels, notably — from state control. The idea still seems to be in the developmental stages, but he elaborated a bit last night.
Courtesy of Dana Rubinstein, we have a transcript:
By the way, all of the bridges and tunnels that are controlled by the M.T.A. are within the five boroughs. None of them connect anything other than the five boroughs. It now costs $15 round-trip to go from the Bronx to Queens. It costs $15 to go from Brooklyn to Staten Island. The reality is, right now, I can’t think of anything that’s reducing economic development as much. It begs the question, what are they doing with all that money, the $600 million of surplus which is going to subsidize mass transit?
I think mass transit needs to be subsidized. But when you look at the numbers, New York State actually ranks last in the country in the subsidy-per-rider that they provide. You can look at what they do in Massachusetts for the T or what they do for Metro in Washington or MARTA in Atlanta. Those states give more money per rider than in New York State. New York State shouldn’t be last in anything. It should be first. But I also believe that if you ever want to have any issues of talking about congestion pricing or anything like that, it would be great to get the M.T.A. out of the picture, let the City of New York control every bridge and tunnel in the City of New York.
I think I see where Lhota wants to go with this, but he’s muddling up some points. On the one hand, there’s a compelling argument to be made that the city — not the state — should have control over its transit infrastructure. Not only should that include bridges and tunnels, but it should encompass subways and buses as well.
On the other hand, as he’s arguing for more city control, he wants higher state subsidies. It’s a political balancing act that’s likely impossible to realize. Albany won’t agree to forking over more money while relinquishing control. It just won’t work that way. I’ve always been convinced Albany will in fact agree to relinquishing control if the city is willing to pick up the funding slack, but that’s a non-starter for a lot of reasons.
One other aspect of Lhota’s statement bothers me as well. He may be geographically correct that the MTA’s bridges and tunnels connect boroughs with each other, but that’s a rather provincial way of looking at the network. The city’s roads and the city’s rails are part of a wider network that connects us to other areas outside of New York City and even neighboring states. City residents and businesses are the primary drivers, but ours is a regional economy. It’s within such a context should any discussion on proper control over transit take place.