It’s a bit of a simplification and injustice to a complicated time in New York history to say that the MTA’s founding in 1968 was driven by politics. It was, as students of the Empire State’s past know, part of a ploy to dump Robert Moses from his position of power atop the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. The real decision to remove the subways, its funding and fares from the purview of electoral politics really came in the mid-1950s with the founding of the New York City Transit Authority. But that’s neither here nor there as we come today not to praise the MTA but to bury it.
The New York City Transit Authority began in 1953 as a public benefit corporation of the State of New York, and the MTA died in late July of 2015. It’s exact time of death is hard to pinpoint, but it came at around noon on Wednesday when Gov. Andrew Cuomo determined that the MTA wasn’t a state agency and noted, as a symptom or a cause or even just a non-sequitur, that the apparently now former-agency headquarters aren’t in Albany.
— Kate Hinds (@katehinds) July 29, 2015
I may or may not be employing a fair bit of hyperbole to make a point, but either way, it’s worth delving into how exactly we got here. The latest round of capital funding politicking came this week. After Cuomo vowed state funding to cover the MTA’s $9 billion capital gap so long as the city ponies up more money too, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast penned a letter to the mayor’s office asking for money. He defended what he feels is a modest request:
As to the assertion that the State runs the MTA and the City’s representation is not adequate, I should note that of the 17 voting members of the MTA Board, four are designated by the Mayor and six by the Governor. When the City faced its financial crisis and lacked the resources to restore a crumbling system, the MTA brought it back from the brink of collapse, restoring ridership and rebuilding it into one of the best and most extensive public transit systems in the world. And while the City fiscal crisis that necessitated the State provide the majority of the MTA’s public funding has long passed, we have never recalculated the responsibility for financing an authority that principally serves the city. Today, the City has greater surplus funds than the State.
We are also concerned that the public might be misled by the suggestion that New York City government is already paying more significantly toward MTA operating costs or that the need for recurring capital investment on a large scale is, as First Deputy Mayor Shorris suggested, “a reflection of the failure of the MTA governance model.” MTA revenues from New York City residents who use the system are substantial for the obvious reason that use of MTA services is profoundly greater in NYC than in other parts of the MTA service area. To illustrate, trips on NYC Transit, Staten Island Railway and MTA Bus services average 300 trips per resident per year. For the commuter railroads, the intensity of use is less than one-tenth that…just 29 trips per resident on average…
The direct City aid to the MTA’s operating costs in 2015 is $1.88 billion, or 27%. State subsidies will total $4.73 billion or 69%. It is my view that the MTA, an independent authority created by the State and operating with a governance structure that has seen minimal change since its origins in the late 1960s, has well served both the City of New York and the MTA region. In other words, we believe that the MTA governance model and New York City’s representation in MTA decisions have over the decades worked very much to the City’s benefit.
Unfortunately, Prendergast’s letter [pdf] ended on a down note concerning potential revenue sources. “Finally,” he said, “I have read that the City may pursue funding strategies that were not politically feasible in the past and are not likely politically feasible now. Pursuing these strategies would likely cause further delay and leave the MTA exactly where we are today one year from now.” So basically Prendergast wants more money from the city but doesn’t want that money to come out of sustainable transportation policies involving a traffic pricing plan. Alas.
Meanwhile, de Blasio has responded with something of a shrug, noting that the city has already commited more money this year and that he wants to know where the state money will come from before committing city resources. He has also hinted, through spokespeople and subordinates, that he feels the MTA is a state agency and that the city doesn’t have the responsibility without control. If that’s not a direct challenge to the 60-year political and economic structure of the New York City Transit Authority, I don’t know what is.
So then, is the MTA dead? Andrew Cuomo has essentially disavowed it as a state agency at the same time Bill de Blasio notes that the New York City subways aren’t New York City’s responsibility while the MTA’s head has to go begging to politicians via publicly released letters to fund the whole damn thing. It would seem then that the MTA is an orphan with no adults taking responsibility. It’s dead.
Or is it? The MTA was created to insulate subway fare policies from the electorate. The Board of Estimates would never win reelection if it kept approving subway fare hikes, but the subways were collapsing due to a lack of revenue from decades of fares that weren’t targeted to inflation. By creating a public benefit corporation, the state ensured that elected politicians never had to approve a fare hike and that the public could direct its ire on rising prices and declining service at appointees and bureaucrats rather than elected representatives.
So maybe I’m wrong. The MTA hasn’t died. Rather in 2015, the MTA has become the perfect embodiment of its founders’ dreams. No one has to take any responsibility for transit funding schemes and the trains will, more or less, still run somewhat on time. Cuomo and de Blasio may both win while the millions of New Yorkers who rely on the MTA’s various railroads for their daily commutes will all collectively lose.