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.