Home Capital Program 2015-2019 The politics behind the MTA capital funding deal

The politics behind the MTA capital funding deal

by Benjamin Kabak

For those of you who like to unplug during the weekend, you may have missed New York City’s biggest Saturday news drop in years. After months of unnecessarily feuding over MTA financing, the governor and mayor agreed on a capital funding split that puts the city on the hook for $2.5 billion and presents a clear win for Andrew Cuomo. I’ll have more on how this deal may affect certain projects. Today, we look at the politics involved.

In The Times Michael Grynbaum explores how this deal won’t stop the political fighting between Cuomo and Bill de Blasio. Two car guys haven’t exactly had their “come to Jesus” moment with regards to support for transit. The Journal meanwhile delved into the ins and outs of the deal. Here’s Josh Dawsey and Andrew Tangel:

According to people familiar with the matter, the agreement that the city will commit $2.5 billion for major repair and expansion projects was largely reached because neither side saw a continuing fight as politically advantageous—and recognized the downsides of battling over funding while the city’s subways were increasingly packed and deteriorating…

For at least a week Mr. de Blasio and his aides wanted to end the fight but also didn’t want to be seen as capitulating to the governor’s demands, people familiar with the matter said. Even as the governor and the mayor quarreled with each other in public, top aides to the mayor discussed how much to offer Albany and called business leaders, advocates and others to gain support. They finally decided to offer $2.5 billion to the state Wednesday night—hoping to strike a deal soon thereafter—and one was essentially completed by late Friday…

Still, the deal over MTA funding presented unanswered questions. Some observers wondered how specifically the state and city would come up with the money. Others wondered how the MTA could reduce costs from its five-year plan without also cutting back on the scope of the projects. Much of the work involves major repairs to keep the system running safely or improvements to bring equipment such as signals and switches up to modern standards.

The authority is expected in coming days to weigh how it might potentially alter some projects’ timing without scaling them back, according to a person familiar with the matter. The MTA’s board is expected to vote on a revised plan later this month. There are also questions about how much sway the city gained from the deal over MTA projects within the five boroughs. Mr. de Blasio said Saturday that the agreement would give riders and taxpayers a stronger voice.

If you read between the lines — or if you read the lines — of Tangel and Dawsey’s report, the city thinks it got something when in reality, it got nothing. Cuomo promised to follow a toothless law, and he’s unlikely to sweep up much, if any, from the MTA anyway considering how politically loaded such a move has become. It’s also not worth the headache over $20-$30 million every year when $8.3 billion is on the table.

Meanwhile, what exactly did the city get? The mix of projects is unlikely to change, and if, say, the MetroCard replacement effort or B division countdown clocks continue to lag, the MTA can point to the $700 million gap between the state’s request and the city’s promise as the cause. It’s ugly all around.

Ultimately, the two car guys remain what they were, but the MTA gets its money. The fighting was unnecessary and led to no new reforms on the spending side that are badly needed. What happens in five years is, as de Blasio and Cuomo figure, someone else’s problem.

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27 comments

Larry Littlefield October 12, 2015 - 9:44 am

Neither the city nor the state, neither Cuomo or DeBlasio, are putting up any money. And none of their crowd are going to be putting anything up either.

We will pay more, and accept less. How and in what manor is the secret. The idea that our heroic politicians are generously giving us our money is the lie.

It’s time to stop letting them get away with the fiction that they are no different sides. The issue is who gets to rob us more? Which unions? Which contractors?

Cuomo thinks the fire, police, transit and contractors and their unions, and the LIRR mafia, should be allowed to rob us more.

DeBlasio thinks the teacher’s union should be allowed to rob us more. I hope those TWU ads, the demand to allow additional disability fraud by the PBA, will eliminate any illusions the Mayor might have had about what the public employee unions have become. Those who back him are no different.

This whole thing has just shown the total contempt for the serfs.

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Justin Samuels October 13, 2015 - 4:34 am

Union jobs, whether construction, education, civil servant, and all the public sector unions you are really a huge part of NYC’s actual middle class.

Outside these middle class, you just have people working in crappy low wage jobs with no benefits, and of course a few rich people.

So that’s why these public sector unions have so much sway, because without them NYC would just be a bunch of temps and low paid hospitality/retail workers.

Btw unions do not take away money from public transportation. In most nations the national government pays for transit expansion. The US government coule prioritize spending money on mass transit in big cities and yes they have more than enough money to completely redo the transit network in NYC.

For the expansion that some of you want, there is no way to do it without substantial federal funding. Work harder on demanding money from Washington.

And keep in mind states like NYC send more money out in federal taxes than they get back.

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Nyland8 October 12, 2015 - 10:25 am

One can’t help but be reminded of the power and importance strong political advocacy can have on the mass transit system. At the end of the last millennium, a 7 Train to the Hudson Yards was not even a gleam in anyone’s eye. Today, despite taking too long, and costing too much, thousands of New Yorkers were able to attend ComicCon at the Javits just a short block’s stroll away from our newest subway stop. Thank you Major Bloomberg.

When one considers just how many riders depend upon it, I can’t help but wonder why it is – or how it is – that we can ever elect a Mayor or a Governor NOT based on their strong political advocacy of mass transit. Anyone who understands how the Tri-State area works should think it the single most important issue in selecting a candidate.

When are all the mass-transit users going to come together and demand – as a single voting bloc – that a strong commitment to mass-transit be a top priority when electing ANY representative of the people in government? Whatever the shortcomings of de Blasio and Cuomo, it is we, the electorate, who put them in office. We have to learn to make our voices heard BEFORE the parties pick their candidates. Nobody in New York – or for that matter, New Jersey – should ever rise to a ballot with an “R” or “D” next to their name without strongly coming out in favor of expansion and improvement of mass transit. We have only ourselves to blame.

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AG October 12, 2015 - 10:45 am

Did you attend the show at the Javits? I was wondering how busy the station would get. The next time I go to the Javits I surely plan on using it.

As to the second part of your equation – you have to remember that even in NYC about 40 percent of people do NOT use mass transit. Even the people who do – the majority have little to no idea that it is the very system they hate which makes NYC the world economic power it is (that an the size of the port 200 years ago). So in the end – not as many people care as should. In the suburbs – forget it… Like Sonny in “A Bronx Tale” – ‘nobody cares’

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Nyland8 October 12, 2015 - 2:02 pm

Yes – I attended on Sunday – not the busiest day – and the mid-day stream up and down the escalators was continuous. I have to imagine at closing that the station would have been mobbed.

I don’t know where you get your figures from, but if I assume them to be true, then at least half of the 40% who don’t use mass-transit must have colleagues or employees who do, or interact on a daily basis with people who depend on it. Which means that they can easily be made to recognize the importance.

And no, the suburbs depend on mass-transit no less than the urban areas do.

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AG October 12, 2015 - 4:51 pm

Convincing them they depend on it is something completely different though.

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Guest October 12, 2015 - 5:05 pm

How do you figure that 40% of city residents do not use mass transit? I would say that the vast majority do on a regular basis.

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Bolwerk October 12, 2015 - 6:09 pm

Depends on what he means. He might be right about commuting. He’s probably wrong if he means 40% don’t use it at all, but a significant number of regular users are going to use it less than daily.

I rather doubt that many people are too stupid to see it benefits them even if they aren’t the primary users though.

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adirondacker12800 October 12, 2015 - 8:32 pm

I”m not gonna try to find numbers for metro New York. In nice round numbers less than half the population goes to work regularly. The other half is too young, too old, too sick or otherwise out of the labor market.

AG October 12, 2015 - 7:37 pm

Commuting is the number 1 reason people use mass transit… Go check that percentage. But somehow it’s strange that people one it strange. Go anywhere in any borough and you can survey how many people own cars and drive them. Now obviously if you are talking about adding Holden that’s another matter… But children don’t vote.

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AG October 13, 2015 - 11:52 am

terrible mobile keyboard… should have read “strange people find it strange” and “now obviously if you are talking about adding children”

Bolwerk October 12, 2015 - 1:21 pm

Bloomberg is a thief. That subway project was basically just a giveaway to his developer buddies. The same money could have been spent on a subway or even light rail line in the boroughs to help an order of magnitude more New Yorkers. But we don’t count.

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Nyland8 October 12, 2015 - 2:10 pm

What you say may be true – but that doesn’t alter my point about how having a strong political advocate enables mass-transit projects to get done. Lautenberg’s Secaucus Transfer is another great case in point.

The inverse is also true, just as Christie’s crushing the ARC project has all-too-painfully demonstrated.

Senators, congressmen, governors, mayors, … even borough presidents – can all have enormous impact on moving much needed mass-transit projects forward – and the viability of their candidacy should be vetted on that basis.

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Bolwerk October 12, 2015 - 6:13 pm

Well, I would personally hold an urban mayor to a higher standard of transit advocacy than a suburban senator or governor.

Bloomberg was better than the current guy on transit issues at least. But still largely indifferent to transit.

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Justin Samuels October 13, 2015 - 4:27 am

Bloomberg was the first mayor in many decades to even have the city fund subway expansion. Of course this was done for West Side developers, but so what? Developing the West Side now brings in a much bigger tax base to Manhattan, and because of Bloomberg’s pro development policies the city is now much more able to invest in transit. Though he was forced to concede, it’s because of Bloomberg’s legacy that de Blasio was able to commit 2.5 billion dollars to the MTA Capital Plan.

AG October 13, 2015 - 11:49 am

Yup… Without the billions of dollars in surplus money Bloomberg left – De Blasio would be even LESS effective as a mayor than he has been. Scary thought.

Alon Levy October 13, 2015 - 12:11 pm

Developing the West Side now brings in a much bigger tax base to Manhattan

Not when the developments get tax breaks!

AG October 13, 2015 - 12:58 pm

Yet with all the tax breaks received – NYC had/has record tax revenue… Seems there could be a correlation – no? Even now that De Blasio has lobbied changes to housing tax policy – permit filings have fallen off the proverbial cliff. Everyone is rushing to get things in order before the changes take effect. So the mayor’s idea is doing the exact opposite.. He wants to spur growth – to increase supply and hopefully drive down prices – but it will only slow it….

By the same token all the thousands of jobs already signed on to Hudson Yards – and the residents who will move into the housing has most certainly increased economic activity. At the end of the day – less economic activity means there will be less tax revenue.

That said – specifically relating to transit – the gas tax should be raised – and if not “congestion pricing” – the free East River bridges should be tolled. In fact – that proves the earlier point further. Aside from raising revenue for transit – it also changes usage. Increasing gas taxes causes people to drive less – and tolls (or higher) cause people to use the structure less.

Justin Samuels October 13, 2015 - 2:48 pm

Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway has also increased real estate tax revenues in the areas from 63rd to 96th Street. Values will go up even more as phase one opens.

The tax revenues from the West Side and Yorkville can go to system expansion. Residents have already moved into much of the completed new housing in the vicinity of the Hudson Yards. This will continue.

AG October 13, 2015 - 5:22 pm

Of course… Property taxes increase on older properties… Transfer taxes from all the real estate taxes.. Sales taxes increase because of all the increased shopping – etc. etc. In a similar way – getting rid of the tax on clothes below $110 did help the poor – but overall it increased jobs for the poor because much of the retail leakage that went to the suburbs stayed within city limits. By foregoing that tax it increased overall economic activity within the city. There are plenty of examples.
There are some taxes which good to raise… Too bad they can’t tax earnings at strip clubs. I’d love to see them add a further surcharge for cigarettes to pay for all the cleaning we have to do with all the cigarette butts. As I mentioned earlier – the east river bridges should be tolled to pay for transit. Why – strip clubs reduce value in neighborhoods (glad Hunts Point community board finally got the last one there closed) – cigarettes are unhealthy and cause litter problems – and in a dense city cars actually decrease economic activity. Giving incentives to things that increase economic activity on the other hand – make sense.

adirondacker12800 October 13, 2015 - 1:05 pm

Tax abatements don’t last forever.

Nyland8 October 13, 2015 - 1:52 pm

Yeah … you’d think Bolwerk, right? Nevertheless Lautenberg was the single biggest shepherd of the ARC project in D.C. Were it not for Christie, it would just be a couple of years from opening. And there’s no doubt about his role in Secaucus – the transfer station bears his name. If ARC had come to pass, Senator Lautenberg would have been the biggest and most effective political mass-transit advocate in my lifetime. He should be remembered and honored as such.

So when it comes to big capital projects, there’s a lot to be said for having a man in Washington, and if the greater New York area electorate had any sense, they’d put mass-transit advocacy on top of the campaign agenda for any politician – local, state or federal. It’s an issue that helps everyone – even the car drivers who never use it.

Larry Littlefield October 12, 2015 - 10:28 am

“When are all the mass-transit users going to come together and demand – as a single voting bloc – that a strong commitment to mass-transit be a top priority when electing ANY representative of the people in government?”

When are we going to have elections?

“Whatever the shortcomings of de Blasio and Cuomo, it is we, the electorate, who put them in office.”

The public employee unions, contractors, Wall Street and the real estate industry put them in office. Apparently different factions of them, leading to a fight over the spoils.

“We have to learn to make our voices heard BEFORE the parties pick their candidates.”

Meanwhile you have the state legislature. Who is out there running against the incumbents on behalf of the serfs?

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Quirk October 12, 2015 - 7:21 pm

So those people that voted in the elections vote didn’t count? This is a legitimate question, just a little bit confused. Also thanks in advance for answering my question!

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Larry Littlefield October 14, 2015 - 7:46 am

That’s right, they didn’t count.

Check out the elections for State Legislature and the House of Representatives. Unless somebody offends the executive/financial class or political/union class enough to get an actual opponent, they don’t exist, or barely exist.

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smartone October 12, 2015 - 10:50 am

I told you this in previous thread

The Mayor got nothing in this deal
He should have made this 2.5 billion be earmarked to expansion project in NYC
like second avenue subway phase 2 or utica avenue line
Expansion in NYC subway is first thing to go in these capital project short falls
if he had gotten this earmark then any shortfalls in budget would have been for upgrades to system
which pols and voters consider critical and therefore would get funding SOMEHOW

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tacony October 12, 2015 - 12:47 pm

De Blasio is a terrible politician and Cuomo is a terrible human being.

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