Over the past few weeks, months and even years, as the mayor and governor have engaged in a recent public war over responsibility for subway financing, with Gov. Cuomo using transit lapdogs to attempt to explain, incredibly, that funding the subway is a city rather than a state responsibility, a counter-narrative has emerged in some wonkier corners, and it’s a counter-narrative I have long embraced. The MTA does not actually need more money or more funding. It has an annual operations budget of over $15 billion and a five-year capital plan of nearly $30 billion. But as has been shown time and again, most notably by Alon Levy, the MTA’s spending is exponentially greater than every other subway system’s in the world. Before politicians send even more millions and billions into the black hole of spending that is the MTA, aggressively cost reform should be front and center on the table.
But we are instead left with a political game of hot potato, and instead of cost reform, we have an escalating war over money with the city and state each trying to outmaneuver each other in a ploy to get more money for subways. The latest battle in this war started while I was on vacation in Mexico two weeks ago when MTA Chairman Joe Lhota introduced the MTA action plan, a two-pronged approach with a $836 million Phase 1 that will serve as a short-term band aid and a Phase 2 that could cost at least $8 billion and that is designed to address the heart of the subway’s problems: a system-wide replacement of the subway’s signal system.
The Subway Action Plan was put together by the usual gang of NYC transit “experts” – your Wyldes, Doctoroffs, Samuelsens, Kalikos, Russianoffs and Mosses of the city without worldly input – and is available here as a lengthy pdf. In the short-term, they key elements are as follows:
- Emergency track cleaning and repair initiatives as well as emergency signal repair efforts;
- Increased subway car maintenance efficiency;
- Potentially adding cars to certain C line trains;
- A seatless-car pilot on the Times Square Shuttle and L trains that could add space for up to 25 more people per car (though this is decidedly unfriendly and went nowhere when first proposed in 2010);
- More frequent station cleaning;
- Streamlined EMS dispatch procedures and staging areas;
- A variety of other management-oriented changes designed to improve subway operations.
These sound modest because they are, and the heavy lifting comes in Phase 2 when the MTA has to get down to the business of modernizing the backbone of the subway system. But the MTA feels these efforts can begin to attack the root of the frequent problems plaguing the system lately. The praise for the plan came in from a variety of corners with the MTA sending out press releases from David Dinkins and a former FRA administrator. But while the state offered to fund half of it, many of the statements — and some aggressive attacks by Cuomo’s friends at the TWU — were not-so-veiled attempts to draw more money out of Bill de Blasio and NYC.
Now on the one hand, this fight is ridiculous. New York City taxpayers are footing this bill whether the dollars are appropriated at the state level or the city level, and we’re the ones suffering through bad service and paying the fares each day. We’re paying no matter what. On the other hand, de Blasio and Cuomo are set to battle this out until one of them wins, whatever victory emerges.
For a week and a half, de Blasio refused to budge and Cuomo dug in…until Sunday when this story hit The Times. The mayor will propose a tax on those earning $500,000 or more that will help fund the subway action plan and the Fair Fares initiative to offer subsidized subway fares to low-income New Yorkers. This is part of a plan that Michael Gianaris, a state senator from Queens, has pushed recently and would affect approximately 32,000 New Yorker taxpayers.
Coincidentally (haha), both Joe Lhota and Andrew Cuomo put out similar statements praising the mayor’s move, but channeling Veruca Salt, they both demanded more now. “After saying the MTA doesn’t need money, we’re glad the Mayor reversed himself,” Joe Lhota said on behalf of the MTA. “However we need short-term emergency financing now. The Mayor should partner with us and match the state funding now so we can turn the trains around. There’s no question we need a long-term funding stream, but emergency train repairs can’t wait on what the state legislature may or may not do next year.”
“The subway system is in crisis today. We need two things: immediate action, and a long-term modernization plan. One without the other fails the people of the city. “The State is currently evaluating a range of dedicated revenue proposals for the future to be discussed and advanced in January when the legislature returns. There is no doubt that we need a long-term dedicated funding stream. But there is also no doubt that we cannot wait to address the current crisis. Riders suffer every day and delaying repairs for at least a year is neither responsible nor responsive to the immediate problem, or riders’ pain.
“The City should partner with us and match the State funding now so we can begin Chairman Lhota’s overhaul plan immediately and move forward. We cannot ask New Yorkers to wait one year to start repairs.”
But there’s a rub: On Sunday evening, Zach Fink and Emma Fitzsimmons both reported that Cuomo may begin floating various forms of congestion pricing next year in his State of the State speech. As recently as his Friday appearance on “The Brian Lehrer Show,” Bill de Blasio proclaimed congestion pricing a non-starter due to the environment in Albany. The mayor, a motorist, has been loathe to carry the torch for a plan, but it could be, in the parlance of our times, something of a game of multi-dimensional chess. If de Blasio supports it, Cuomo won’t, and if Cuomo comes up with it first so that it’s one of his pet ideas, the governor will find a way to push it through.
So perhaps the endgame of this summer’s (and spring’s and fall’s and winter’s) bad subway service is a fight for and over congestion pricing. There are worse outcomes for the city; that’s for sure. But right now, the subways need Lhota’s action plan and better service before the bottom falls out. Let the politicians duke it out, and someone, for the love of all that’s holy, please pick up the mantle of cost reform.