Sep
15

A derailment, a new station, and a feud over MTA capital funding

By

The city gave $2.3 billion for the 7 line extension, and now the MTA wants a similar commitment for the current capital plan. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Over the summer, New Yorkers have witnessed a growing rift between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. The two have different visions of government and can’t really find common ground on many issues. They undermine each other, often with Cuomo out-manuevering de Blasio, and as everything from affordable housing to Uber to the MTA have become opportunities for the two to stake out competing positions, city residents have been stuck in the middle of a rather childish fight that often reminds me of the tagline from Alien vs. Predator. Whoever wins, we lose.

This rift took center stage over the weekend, first following Thursday’s G train derailment and then again out in the open during Sunday’s 7 line extension opening ceremony-slash-political battle. As I mentioned in my coverage of the event, it was a very weird opening as everyone involved used the microphone to stake out a position on MTA funding. De Blasio and MTA Chair Tom Prendergast could have been less thrilled to see each other, and they, along with Chuck Schumer and Jerry Nadler and even TWU President John Samuelsen, spent the morning pointing fingers on the matter of the MTA funding. Praising Michael Bloomberg’s and Dan Doctoroff’s funding plans for the 7 line extension proved the perfect foil for de Blasio’s inaction on capital funding.

The MTA set the stage for this awkwardness on Friday afternoon when the agency issued a press release detailing the repair efforts for the G train and slamming the city at the same time. Prendergast didn’t quite blame the city for the G’s derailment, but he came as close as he could without pointing that finger directly. Here’s what Prendergast said then:

“Unfortunately, the regional consensus that has rebuilt the MTA is fraying. The MTA’s proposed 2015-19 Capital Program would invest $26.8 billion to renew, enhance and expand the transit network. We asked the State of New York to invest $8.3 billion, and Governor Cuomo agreed. But when we asked the City of New York to invest $3.2 billion, they offered only $657 million. The City’s contribution has fallen far short of the rate of inflation, much less real support for the $800 billion worth of MTA assets within the five boroughs.

“Our 2015-19 Capital Program allocates $927.5 million for repairing and rebuilding subway line structures, including bench walls such as the one involved in last night’s derailment. That’s more than double the $434.5 million in the prior program. But the MTA is barred by law from spending a single dollar on new capital projects until the state Capital Program Review Board approves our program – which can only happen when the City agrees to pay its fair share.

“I am tired of writing letters to City officials that result only in vague calls for more conversations. The sooner we can end these games and get to work on rebuilding our transit network, the better we can serve the 8.5 million customers who rely on the MTA every day.”

For what it’s worth, another Cuomo ally, TWU President John Samuelsen had a similar response. “This derailment is a glimpse of what the future holds for NYC’s Transit System unless the City steps up to foot their fair share of the bill for the MTA capital plan,” he said. “The system won’t fix itself, and for the sake of New York’s working families, the city must address this unfunded liability.”

On Sunday, Prendergast and Samuelsen repeated these arguments. Prendergast noted that 80 percent of the MTA’s “assets” are in New York City and asked for more support from de Blasio and his administration. De Blasio noted that city residents pay enough and that the MTA should look to Albany. “We pay 73 percent of the MTA budget through the city government’s contribution,” the mayor said, “through the fares our people pay, the tolls our people pay, the taxes our people pay. We are doing our share.”

All of this infighting is exhausting. Everyone is right; everyone is wrong. And as I wrote a few months ago, this battle is both the death and pinnacle of the MTA as an entity divorced from and integral to the politics of New York City and Albany. The MTA was created due to a lack of responsible city policies on transit, and the subways removed from the realm of electoral politics. The agency has been so thoroughly insulated from the political process by the machinations of Cuomo that it has, as a state agency, somehow come full circle. Why are we even looking to the city here anyway?

As Streetsblog, Ben Fried calls Cuomo’s politicization of the MTA “brazen,” but I think that’s too strong. Cuomo is simply exploiting the MTA to its logical extreme. The governor should definitely pinpoint how he plans to raise nearly $9 million for the currently-unfunded five-year capital program, but the city should contribute too. The city still is the legal owner of the subways, and the overwhelming majority of us who ride everyday are city residents, taxpayers and, hopefully, voters. It’s not unreasonable for the city to contribute to the capital plan as it does, via fares and taxes, to the operations side.

So what’s the way out of this mess? It’s easy for me to say the city should pay more, and it probably should. But it can do so very specifically by picking projects that benefit city residents. The city could earmark money for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway or a Utica Ave. extension, and the MTA would gladly take the dollars without a further peep. Problem solved. Of course, this solution doesn’t begin to tackle the MTA’s runaway costs, and a blank check won’t fix this overarching problem. But that’s not de Blasio’s argument, even if it should be. Cuomo and de Blasio can fight this one out until the end of the year when the MTA has to start suspending capital construction contractors, but that just means we the riders lose. I don’t much like that future.



15 Responses to “A derailment, a new station, and a feud over MTA capital funding”

  1. SubwayNut says:

    Am I the only one who noticed something strange on that plaque. No elected officials, normally plaques for station openings are full of them.

    If the station had opened (on time) while Bloomberg was mayor I bet his name would have been on it.

    • John-2 says:

      Looking at the gap in the plaque, the politicians’ names seem to have been deliberately left out — at least for now. They can still go back in later and fill in the names (and it wouldn’t be a shock to find out there was a behind-the-scenes fight over just exactly which names deserved to be on the plaque, so they decided as of now just to leave it blank until they have some sort of Paris Peace Talks type of negotiations to determine the lucky winners).

  2. John-2 says:

    Both Cuomo and de Blasio seem to be suffering from the same problem mayors and governors in the past have suffered from — they want to dedicate new stuff, but only will commit to construction if they know it can be completed fast enough to be finished while they’re still in office. And when it comes to funding preventive maitenence, well, who’s going to vote for you because you funded repairs to a walkway in a Brooklyn subway tunnel … at least until it collapses, as the one in the G train tunnel did last week.

    Even then, it’s not like it collapsed any time around Election Day, so for both the governor and the mayor, that’s a risk they’re willing to take. In their minds, better to put money in places people can see it and they can openly take credit than to put it into keeping 80-to-110-year-old infrastructure in good working order. The fight today between Cuomo and de Blasio is pretty much just an updated version of the Rockefeller-Lindsay fights from nearly 50 years ago, and we all know what happened to the system because of that.

  3. Brooklynite says:

    For all the arguments about whether NYC is funding the MTA sufficiently or not, I really don’t like the rhetoric about them not paying their “fair share.” If I recall correctly the MTA started with their request to the city being less than a billion. Now the “fair share” argument has allowed them to triple that argument. Given that the fair share can be expected to be as big as the brass’s and unions’ pockets (which are notoriously infinite), there’s no end in sight.

    Why does nobody mention why construction costs are 10x what they are worldwide?

    • Bolwerk says:

      Yeah, the “fair share” for the city is a modest increase over what the city has been paying from the city treasury. The state has managed raising money for the MTA for two generations now, so it’s not reasonable to suddenly throw the bill back at us. But, effectively, whether the state pays or the city pays, the money is raised/financed by taxing NYC’s economy.

      The capital plan is maybe like 2x or 3x more expensive than it should be (for what we’re getting), not 10x. It’s new construction that is 10x as expensive as it should be.

      • johndmuller says:

        In typical political parlance, ‘fair share’ in this case would reasonably be interpreted as Bolwerk said, a modest increase above what the city has been paying. Since the ante has been raised somewhat substantially this time around one could argue for a more generous boost. I agree that the mayor is probably being unfairly targeted as a skinflint when in fact the lion’s share of the MTA’s money and about 50% of the States money was itself originally the city’s money to start with. Most of this is just the political back and forth between the Guv and the Mayor. Obviously it must matter to someone which pot the money comes out of, but mostly it is coming form the same original pockets, it’s just a question of whether we’d rather Cuomo or De Blasio had some extra money to play with afterwards at the expense of the other’s budget.

        In a broader sense, an interesting approach to this would follow the recent precedent set by the 7 line extension – where the City funds the new construction and the State/MTA take care of the rest, the operations and maintenance. Under this approach, the city would donate whatever the outlay on the SAS would be for this capital period (I don’t really have that number, but it might be about $1B (perhaps to as much as $3B+). The city could probably afford this kind of money, and one could hope for some substantial percentages in matches by Uncle Sam, and the SAS might get done faster than if the city and state have to agree/aggue every time about what to do. As we’ve seen, it matters more to them than to us where exactly it comes from.

        As to the plaque, I think that Bloomberg deserves to be on it for sure; beyond him, it doesn’t matter much to me, but both De Blasio and Cuomo could pile on if they feel like they have to be.

  4. Larry Littlefield says:

    Stop using terms like “the city should pay” or “the state should pay.” They have no money of their own.

    The question is who should become worse off in what way to prevent the deterioration and collapse of the system?

    The answer, for 25 years, has been people who will live here in the future. But it the future is now.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      How about higher fares? How about higher taxes? How about more tolls? How about lower spending in categories where NY spending is higher than average, such as Medicaid for seniors or schools?

      How about questioning the pay and benefit levels of those who work for the MTA, and staffing levels and productivity? How about unionized construction costs and contractor profits?

      That’s what we are talking about here. Not “the city” and “the state.” It’s all a joke, a lie and a fraud. A game among the unaffected that shows their contempt for the affected.

      • Nathanael says:

        New York’s Medicaid spending suffers from being atomized and dealt with at the COUNTY level. Every other state handles Medicaid at the STATE level. There are some efficiencies from doing it at the state level.

  5. J in Taipei says:

    This seems too harsh on de Blasio. Isn’t most of whatever money the state puts into the capital plan going to have come from the city anyway, in the form of tax dollars? And do city taxes not pay for infrastructure elsewhere in the state? Besides, as Cuomo himself pointed out, just throwing more money at the MTA won’t solve the root problems, but Cuomo is the only one who controls the MTA and can do more than throw money at it. Sure we could get more done if de Blasio gave the MTA more money, but in the long term the state would simply have even less incentive to reform the MTA- they can simply blackmail the city and keep the patronage machine going. Cuomo may be “exploiting the MTA to its logical extreme,” but de Blasio is also being rational.
    And more generally, how do we all lose no matter who wins? I know a lot of people dislike de Blasio, but is there any way Cuomo is better (if you’re a progressive from New York City, anyway)?

    • Nathanael says:

      Andrew Cuomo is pretty darn bad; at least he *eventually* banned fracking, but that’s the only good thing I can say for him.

      de Blasio isn’t that great, but I’d much rather have him as governor than Andy Cuomo.

  6. Bolwerk says:

    The Cuomo/de Blasio cat fight seems more like a partisan than ideological spat to me. These two don’t have many political differences. They just want each other’s powers to pursue their own pet projects, most of which aren’t of much interest to New Yorkers.

    It’s probably mostly Cuomo’s fault. They weren’t together so long, but really Cuomo had a similarly icy relationship to Bloomberg at times. And Bloomberg is probably even more like de Blasio than Cuomo, at least when it comes to political issues.

    We’re ruled by children.

  7. Rachel W. says:

    Every time I read stuff like this, I just think back to the 2005 surplus and the MTA’s decision of what to do with it:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10.....ebate.html

  8. smartone says:

    Question
    if NYC has 80% of MTA infrastructure – does NYC get 80% of the budget?
    if not then DeBlasio is exactly correct

  9. Nathanael says:

    “another Cuomo ally, TWU President John Samuelsen ”

    So corrupt, incompetent, stupid rats like to hang together? I can’t see any other reason why these two would be allies.

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