Archive for MTA Politics
Throughout the course of his career, Richard Ravitch has been something of a jack-of-all-trades in New York and an on-again, off-again savior for transit. He’s served as the Lieutenant Government of New York, and he authored a plan to revive the MTA’s finances during the depths of the agency’s financial crisis. He also served as the authority’s head during the start of its revival in the early 1980s. When he talks, New Yorkers generally listen.
On Wednesday, Ravitch unexpectedly took the microphone during the MTA’s Board meeting, and he had some strident words on the morning of a controversial vote. As you may recall, a few weeks ago, out of the blue, Gov. Cuomo announced a rollback of the Verrazano Bridge toll. In a move that would cost the MTA $14 million in dedicated revenue, Cuomo forked over a discount on the toll. Although the state will reimburse $7 million, this move comes without any corresponding aspects of Sam Schwartz’s traffic plan, a move to compensate transit riders or a nod to the MTA’s labor or economic situation.
Thus, when Ravitch took the microphone Wednesday morning, he did not mince words. Noting first that New York law requires MTA Board members to represent the MTA first, he leveled serious charges toward board members. “The law made it very clear that you, as members of the board of a public authority, have as your fiduciary responsibility an obligation to the mission of this authority,” he said. “That is your overriding obligation.”
Even though Gov. Cuomo, who ostensibly can control the board through a decent number of votes, wanted the toll plan, Ravitch believed it shouldn’t have made it past the vote, and he pointed to all the right things. “You are in the midst of two labor negotiations in which you are undoubtedly asserting, and properly so, the financial constraints that make it impossible for you to meet the demands of the labor unions. That argument is inconsistent with voluntarily reducing the revenues of this authority,” he said.
In the face of Ravitch’s words, the MTA Board still approved the toll decrease, but it was a divisive vote. Ted Mann, covering his last MTA Board meeting while on the Wall Street Journal’s transit beat, covered the turmoil:
One board member, former New York City budget director Mark Page, abstained from the vote, explaining that he didn’t believe the toll rebates were “an MTA initiative,” and hadn’t been subjected to the authority’s usual decision-making processes. “I don’t believe if the question were being asked solely of the MTA and this board that we’d be taking this action ourselves with our resources at this moment,” Mr. Page said…
But that position wasn’t embraced by the board, even as members prepared to vote in favor of the plan. “Why do lower bus fares not have an equal claim on the MTA’s finances?” member Norman Brown asked, noting that the city also provides Staten Island Ferry service, free of charge. “I live in a little place called Brooklyn,” he said. “We’re the ones that pay the toll that you’re always citing as a horrible toll.”
The six-dollar residential discount rate is “already a substantial” discount, Mr. Brown said. “Do the math.” Another board member, Jeff Kay, said the MTA should remind state officials later in the year, as the authority lobbies for financial support for its operating and capital budgets in Albany, that the authority has acceded to demands from the legislature about how it levies tolls. “I really do hope they’re taking ownership of our funding decisions,” Mr. Kay said, adding ”Guys, we’re doing what you asked us to do.”
Staten Island representatives were quick to defend the measure. “This has gone though a lot of permutation, and overcome many obstacles in the last two years to get this done,” Allen Cappelli said. “We eliminated the obstacles, got Albany on board. This was well-discussed and well thought out, and we’ve finally come to this day. I feel like doing the dance of joy.”
It’s not an easy issue. As I noted to Ted Mann on Twitter earlier in the day, while the rest of the MTA region got nothing in the vote, we do enjoy one-seat train service into Manhattan on a regular schedule. Staten Island’s been waiting 80 years for that, and such a plan isn’t on the horizon. But Cuomo’s giveaway was just that, and everyone else is going to pay as the various interest groups angling for a piece of the MTA’s pie load up for a fight.
As Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an election year giveaway to Staten Island drivers — at the expense of New York City’s subway and bus riders — yesterday, a few residents of the isolated borough accused me of harboring disdainful attitudes toward Staten Island. It is, after all, a equal among boroughs, as much a part of New York City as Brooklyn and Manhattan. I believe a borough of under 500,000 sometimes get more attention than it deserves in a city of eight million, but it certainly isn’t Staten Island’s fault that it has no subway connection to the rest of our extensive system. It would be a far different place with one.
It is, however, Staten Island’s fault that it’s such a car-heavy, transit-phobic place, and it is not appropriate for the Governor, even after a year of negotiating, to alleviate a toll burden just because it’s an election year. It’s also worth noting that Staten Islanders pay the least for their admittedly meager transit service with a free ferry and a railroad that charges fares only at a pair of stations. But that’s part of being an equal partner amidst the five boroughs that make up our city. Some will pay less; some more. It should generally balance out.
As you can see, from a transit perspective, I have decidedly mixed feelings about Staten Island. I don’t have these feelings about Gov. Cuomo. He has no transit policy for New York City, comprehensive, piece-meal or otherwise, and he seems more intent on governing for votes than on governing for policy.
The big news that came out of Thursday concerned toll relief. What was originally supposed to be a $14 million contribution from the state became a 50-50 split. Since the MTA has a shaky surplus, the agency will contribute $7 million and the state will fill the gap so that Staten Island residents in non-commercial vehicles will now pay just $5.50 to cross the Verrazano Bridge and, in order to combat commerce clause challenges, commercial vehicles that travel the bridge frequently enough will see a reduction in tolls. The Verrazano Bridge, for Staten Island residents, now costs half what, say, the Triborough Bridge does for Bronx residents.
The toll relief is likely to go into effect on April 1, though it may take longer to reprogram E-ZPasses. “The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is a lifeline for Staten Island – for its residents, for its neighbors, for its businesses and for its economy,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement. “This toll relief will allow Staten Islanders to keep more of their money on the island and will make a real difference for companies that rely on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to keep their business thriving.”
Staten Islanders already enjoyed discounts rates on the toll, and that’s fine. I’m agnostic on toll relief by itself, but this move is a symptom of a bigger issue. As an editorial last week in the Staten Island Advance made perfectly clear, this is an election year move designed to help Cuomo shore up support in a more right-leaning area of the city, and it comes at the expense of everyone else. As Streetsblog notes, this is robbing a lot of Peters to pay off a few Pauls:
Make no mistake, though, the governor is undermining the MTA. For one thing, revenue from tolls is the only raid-proof source of funds for the MTA. The money goes straight into the agency’s accounts instead of passing through the state first, so Albany can’t pocket it. Cuomo may commit to “making the MTA whole” at his press conference, but any general funds spent this year won’t necessarily be there in the future. Albany’s support for transit has a way of shriveling up over time…
Other likely effects of the Verrazano toll cut: Tougher negotiations with the TWU, which can now point to what appears to be slack in the MTA budget (but isn’t really), and a slightly less compelling case for the Move NY toll reform plan, which swaps higher tolls on crossings into Manhattan for lower tolls on outlying bridges like the Verrazano.
Ultimately, $7 million in the grand scheme of things isn’t going to bankrupt the MTA, but it whittles away at the money that’s there. Cuomo claimed that the toll relief would disappear if the MTA’s finances declined, but that’s a political fight for another era. Meanwhile, with the MTA’s tenuous financial picture driven by debt, using surplus funds to cut a deal simply weakens that surplus.
Sam Schwartz has floated a plan that lowers preexisting bridge tolls and raises others to create a more balanced transit policy. It has its flaws, but it supports modes of travel that are better for the city and should reduce congestion. What Cuomo did yesterday contained no elements of that plan or any sense that he had a plan in the first place. It was a giveaway for drivers at the expense of subway and bus riders, and it sums up his approach to transit in a nutshell. How utterly disappointing.
It’s been a few months since the idea of city control over the MTA creeped into the news. At one point, city control came up nearly weekly at Sal Albanese, Joe Lhota and Christine Quinn all set forth proposals for city control of either its transit system or the MTA. But also-rans don’t get to set policy, and now that the waning days of Bloomberg are upon us, a discussion on city control has reentered the picture.
The latest comes to us from The Observer and general New York gadfly Larry Penner. He calls upon our mayor-elect to reassess city control over its transit system. My revoking the lease agreement in place between New York City and the New York City Transit Authority, Penner argues, Bill de Blasio could quickly move to reassert mayoral control over the subways.
Political reality makes this potential move a non-starter, but Penner’s piece tosses around a few ideas worth exploring. Noting that the MTA was born out of a need to shore up finances and remove politics from the decision-making process, Penner touches upon a theme I’ve covered: Albany is willing to take credit for the good, but no one will take credit for the bad. City control can solve that problem.
If Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio feels he could do a better job running the nation’s largest subway and bus system, will he step up to the plate now and regain control of his destiny? … Mr. de Blasio has fellow Democrats NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James and a future NYC Council Speaker, along with 48 of 51 NYC Council members. Starting with the upcoming July 1, 2014 municipal budget, will they work with him to support increasing NYC’s capital funding to the MTA?
…Mr. de Blasio has fellow Democrats Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, along with 99 members of the State Assembly. Fifty-nine are based in NYC. There are 16 more from Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Putnam, Rockland and Dutchess counties, giving Silver a working majority. State Senate minority leader Andrea Stewart-Cummins has 20 of 22 members from NYC. There are two more members lead by Senator Jeffrey Klein of the “Independent Democratic Caucus” from NYC. Add two other NYC-based and 12 Long Island-Hudson Valley suburban Republican State Senators led by GOP Senate leader Dean Skelos, and there is a working majority coalition within the MTA service area.
Asking suburban-based members of the State Legislature—be they Assembly members or State Senators, Democrats or Republicans—to support any non NYC resident paying a commuter tax has historically been and will continue to be doomed to failure. This will continue with all having to face voters in 2014. Asking them all to support increasing funding to the MTA would benefit constituents of NYC based public officials who ride New York City Transit bus and subway. It would also benefit suburban based office holders whose constituents ride either the Long Island Rail Road or Metro North Rail Road. This could build a winning majority coalition in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Will Mr. de Blasio attempt to build bridges on mutual issues of interest with suburban residents that could benefit everyone? Will he challenge Albany to increase its contribution to the next 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program by billions more?
Penner’s piece is perhaps written through rose-colored glasses. While the MTA districts may have a majority of seats in Albany, Democrats and Republicans do not see eye-to-eye on transit funding schemes, tax plans or direct capital contributions. They won’t work together, and they certainly won’t bridge the gap because the new mayor of New York, who ran on an aggressive left-wing platform, asks nicely.
City control, therefore, remains unlikely, and even the head of the MTA — who knows his boss is in Albany — has spoken against it. It won’t solve the problems of responsibility or funding, and no mayor will voluntarily take on a headache of which New York cured itself back in the early 1950s.
I have a hard time finding even a silver lining in the city control cloud. By removing the decision-making from the hands of the state, the city will have to take on funding obligations it hasn’t seen fit to address for decades. Plus, the regional planning issues — which the MTA barely addresses — will fall entirely by the wayside right when they shouldn’t. With a mayor-elect who identifies as a driver, it’s hardly the time to expect for progressive transit leadership from City Hall even if we hope for better (or at least Bloombergian levels of support).
So we are again left with the feeling that city control is an idea that sounds better in practice than reality. City residents already control six of the MTA’s 14 board votes and numerous non-voting seats, and de Blasio can set transportation policy — especially in the realm of buses and street space — through the Department of Transportation. Let’s not yet wrest subway control and the financial hassles that come with it from the state quite yet.
Yet again, the MTA lockbox has died at the pen of New York’s governor.
It’s no secret that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tenuously embraced transit while serving as New York’s chief executive. His signature infrastructure project — a questionably necessary rebuild of the Tappan Zee Bridge — is notable for doing away with even a lane in each direction dedicated to buses, and although he’s rushed to take credit for the MTA’s good news, he hasn’t been anything close to a transit leader in the way Eliot Spitzer was before his career was derailed.
This year, for the second time, Cuomo had a chance to make a mark on the MTA. He was again presented with a bill that proponents have termed the MTA Lockbox. The bill itself is largely symbolic and wasn’t actually much of a lockbox. In fact, even current MTA head Tom Prendergast, taking a cue from his boss, wasn’t sure the measure would be a necessary or fruitful one. But had it been implemented, it would have served its purpose in that it would have at least required the state to include a diversion impact statement with details on the amount diverted in terms of its impact on service and expressed as a number of monthly fares.
And so for second time, Cuomo vetoed the bill. Last time, he stripped it of requirement to issue an impact statement. This time around, his simply vetoed the whole thing. He was kind enough to include a veto statement:
This legislation is almost identical to a bill passed by the Legislature in 2011. However, the Legislature, at that time, agreed to amend that legislation to allow the Governor to transfer funds when the Governor declares a fiscal emergency, the Governor notifies the leaders of both houses, and a statute is enacted to authorize the transfer. This bill would repudiate that agreement. I have never declared a fiscal emergency and directed such transfers. The Legislature has not articulated a sound basis to change the current law. For these reasons, I disapprove this bill.
Essentially, because the legislature would not give Gov. Cuomo the carte blanche ability to raid the MTA’s coffers in the name of a “fiscal emergency,” the lockbox is dead and gone again. Transit advocates, who unanimously lined up behind the measure, were dismayed. “Governor Cuomo’s veto of the Transit Lockbox Bill sends the wrong message to New Yorkers who ride buses and trains, and who seek fiscal transparency,” the Tri-State Transportation Campaign said. “The veto means that taxes and fees dedicated to public transit will remain extremely vulnerable to budget raids.”
Streetsblog, which noted how Cuomo’s veto statement plays a bit fast and loose with facts, gathered a few more quotes. John Kaehny of Reinventing Albany said there was “simply no responsible excuse for” Cuomo to ignore this bill while TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen called the veto “puzzling” and dubbed Cuomo “the only one in Albany who thinks the lockbox bill is a bad idea.” State Senator Marty Golden, one of the bill’s sponsors, vowed to try again. “The bill is a common-sense mechanism that ensures funds dedicated to transit stay with transit,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cuomo also vetoed A6249, a bill that would have required the MTA to issue reports detailing all service cuts since 2008 along with a plan to restore service. I profiled this bill back in July and didn’t see much reason behind it then. The MTA has recently enacted service increases and already put forward substantial materials exploring the cuts and their impacts. In rejecting this measure, Cuomo noted that the MTA is already required by federal law to produce such reports. “What this legislation purports to seek already exists,” he wrote. “It is unnecessary.”
It’s hardly a wash though to note that Cuomo rejected one good measure and one bad. The lockbox adds a layer of accountability to Albany’s budgetary maneuverings that has been missing for decades. I’m sure this effort will resurface again soon, but it’s disheartening to see Cuomo ignore such a loud and forceful groundswell of support for a measure that is both a symbolic gesture to protect transit and a real attempt at economic reform.
When last we saw the lockbox bill, it had begun to garner upstate support but hadn’t yet been presented to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature. Well, late last week, the bill moved to the governor’s desk, and advocates are again calling upon Cuomo to sign the measure. Today, a statewide coalition of organizations representing labor, business, transit, the environment, disabled, aging, faith-based, smart growth, good government, bicycling, housing, and transportation groups sent the governor a letter [pdf] urging him to move on the bill.
The letter, which highlights previous efforts to pass this protective measure and the way the impact statement was stripped from the 2011 measure, lays it on the line. “Raiding dedicated transit funds is poor policy, and a breach of trust with the public who rightly believe that transit funds should go to improving transit. One quarter of the State’s workforce relies on mass transit to get to work. They, their employers, and the economy rely on these dedicated taxes to help pay for subway, bus and commuter operations and transit capital projects,” the advocates say. “Given your commitment to rebuilding and renewing New York’s economy and infrastructure, and increasing fiscal transparency and public accountability, we join the 213 members of the New York State legislature in asking you to sign the ‘transit lock box’ bill.”
Interestingly, one potential advocate — MTA head Tom Prendergast — discussed the lockbox earlier this fall and expressed only lukewarm support for it. “While I like lockboxes,” he said at a Crain’s New York business breakfast in September, “I don’t get unduly tied to them and at the end of the day, if the money we need comes our way, that’s what I’m looking forward to.” Still, New York and its myriad transit riders would be better off and better informed with the lockbox protections firmly in place.
The New York State Court of Appeals has upheld yet another appeal of the MTA Payroll Mobility Tax, delivering another blow to Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano’s never-ending attempts to starve transit. Despite Mangano’s second such loss and a dismissal by the court that effectively means no constitutional question was directly implicated by the case, the Tea Party-backed Nassau County official, will continue to spend taxpayer dollars on another avenue of appeal.
Yancey Roy of Newsday broke the news:
New York’s top court threw out a lawsuit Thursday seeking to overturn the controversial MTA payroll tax on constitutional grounds. But Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who filed the suit, still has 30 days to appeal on other grounds.
The state Court of Appeals dismissed Mangano’s lawsuit without comment, upholding a mid-level court ruling that the tax, paid by employers in the 12-country region served by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is constitutional…
Court spokesman Gary Spencer said Mangano has 30 days to file a motion asking the court’s permission to argue the case. Nassau County attorney John Ciampoli said Mangano definitely will appeal. Ciampoli said the payroll tax was “fundamentally defective in how it was adopted” by the state Legislature.
At this point, Mangano is barking up the wrong tree. He’s not going to get the tax overturned, and his efforts to continue this lawsuit are bordering on laughable. If he loses his reelection bid this November, I’d expect Tom Suozzi would drop the appeal. Polling, however, is very close for this race.
More telling, though, is this comment on the Newsday article. “This tax is a hideous intrusion on the rights of Long Islanders who do not use the MTA,” one commenter said. If that’s not a telling glimpse into the provincial and siloed viewpoints of Nassau County residents who look down upon transit without realizing its true impact, I don’t know what is.
With recent polls giving Bill de Blasio a fifty-point lead over GOP challenger and former MTA head Joe Lhota in the race for mayor, New York voters haven’t seen a particularly robust discussion of the issues, and even with a pair of debates looming, I don’t expect much of substance to emerge. Lhota faces too big a polling gap and recognition issues while de Blasio has nothing to gain from being out front of any policy debates. That said, the two candidates offered up some vague details on their funding plans for the MTA.
The city’s relationship with the transit agency has been a rough ground lately. City-based politicians seem to agree that the five boroughs should have more of a say on the MTA Board. Currently only four of the 12 seats are appointed by the Mayor, but the Governor has appointed city residents as well. Yet, city politicians aren’t keen on acknowledging that with great power comes great funding responsibility, and discussions surrounding city contributions to the MTA budget often result in a lot of stammering and attempts at changing the subject.
The mayoral race has been no different. No candidates are proposing congestion pricing or East River tolling, and while de Blasio has spoken about protecting the MTA payroll mobility tax as an important source of revenue, Lhota has suggested divorcing bridge and tunnel toll revenues from subway funding schemes. By and large, these positions have ranged from non-controversial to non-starters. Still, this week, we’ve seen divergent viewpoints from both candidates.
On Monday, Pete Donohue wrote about how Lhota would increase city contributions to the MTA’s budget. Lhota wouldn’t provide a specific figure or identify where the money would come from, but he noted that the city should be more involved in the MTA’s capital program. “I do believe the mayor and City Council should start participating in a significant way in the capital plan,” Lhota said. “We need to participate more.”
De Blasio, meanwhile, said that he doesn’t believe the city is fiscally healthy enough to up its MTA contributions. “I think there are some things we can do that are meaningful, like help expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, and there’s a contribution the city can make to that through capital funding,” the mayoral frontrunner said in a radio interview today. “But in terms of the core of our budget, no, we’re not in the position to do that right now.”
Since de Blasio is likely to win in November, his comments aren’t the most encouraging, but it’s all likely to be a load of nothing. Neither candidate has put out a transit plan comparable to that developed by Mayor Bloomberg four years ago, but mostly that just means neither will underdeliver when it proves impossible implement, say, free crosstown buses as Bloomberg once proposed. Still, resignation before the election won’t translate into action after, and the city’s strange economic relationship with its own subway system won’t change much from today’s awkward status quo.
As the last sprint of the mayoral race kicks into gear in the coming weeks, New Yorkers will continue to hear about Joe Lhota’s brief tenure atop the MTA. Notable for the agency’s competent and speedy response to restore service in the aftermath of Sandy, Lhota’s reign also coincided with a fare hike and toll increase. While the economic plan predated him and was an absolute must for a cash-shy agency, he was the face of the authority as prices increased, and that’s a tough problem to overcome for a candidate running, in part, on his successes after the storm.
Meanwhile, labor relations played a small role during his time as CEO and Chairman, and John Samuelsen, president of the TWU, commands a decent sized vocal bloc. Recently, though, various public statements have led me to wonder what, exactly, Samuelsen thinks of Lhota. In a Daily News piece designed more as an insult to Jay Walder than as praise of Joe Lhota, Samuelsen issued some faint praise and an incomplete assessment. Despite some gripes with Lhota over the MTA’s smart decision to shutter the subways in advance of Sandy, Samuelsen called Lhota “a quick study” who “simply did not stick around long enough to leave any permanent imprints on our transit system.”
Is that the TWU head’s final word on the matter? Of course not. In a piece issued earlier this summer in the pro-labor Chief-Leader and reprinted on the TWU’s website, Samuelsen had harsh words for Lhota over the ongoing union contract dispute. “Lhota doesn’t know a damn thing about how to run a subway or bus system,” Samuelsen said. “Prendergast knows what Track Workers go through when they’re swinging a hammer all day in the tunnel in 110-degree heat. Lhota has no idea; he’s just a two-bit bean-counter from the financial industry.”
So was Lhota just a two-bit bean counter or was he also a quick study? Is this more of a sign of TWU leadership speaking to the diverse audiences of the Daily News and Chief-Leader? Either way, Lhota’s MTA legacy remains up for grabs before Election Day.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated Joe Lhota to head up the MTA, transit advocates were surprised. Lhota was a behind-the-scenes numbers guy for Mayor Rudy Giuliani and an executive with Cablevision and Madison Square Garden with no real transportation experience to speak of. Yet in his brief tenure as MTA Chair and CEO, he become a vocal advocate for transit in New York City, conversant in the ins and outs of the MTA’s daily operations and its complex budget and a staunch supporter of its post-Sandy recovery efforts. I thought he could have been a very effective MTA head had he stayed, but the press coverage from the storm had him dreaming of Gracie Mansion.
I had guardedly high hopes for Lhota’s campaign. Here, after all, was a mayoral candidate who saw first-hand what happened when the city’s transit system shutdown. He recognized the importance of both restoring service and keeping open lines of communication with the millions of New Yorkers who depend upon the trains each day. He fought for external dollars and internal efficiency. He understood it.
As a mayoral candidate, though, transit and transportation have not been Lhota’s strong suits. It’s unclear if he’s simply playing to a base of Staten Island voters vital to his mayoral chances and other pockets of GOP voting blocs that aren’t as sympathetic to transit or the MTA, but one way or another, Lhota as MTA head was far more appealing that Lhota the mayoral candidate.
Earlier this week at Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein took a look at Lhota’s move away from transit advocacy. Here’s her take:
Months before Hurricane Sandy propelled Joe Lhota into the public eye, and then into a run for mayor, the then-M.T.A. chairman expressed hope that the subway system would be an issue in 2013. “I do believe that people are focused on this,” he said, in March of last year, referring to the M.T.A.’s precarious finances. “It’ll probably be a very big item during the mayoral race next year.”
Now Joe Lhota is the Republican nominee. And he is not talking about the M.T.A.’s finances in any sort of serious way. Which is not to say that he’s not talking about it. He thinks the M.T.A. should drop billions on a subway extension from Republican-heavy Bay Ridge to Republican-heavy Staten Island. He’s also in favor of reinstituting the commuter tax, but to fill the city’s coffers, not the M.T.A.’s.
The former Giuliani deputy who served for a year at the helm of the transit authority now wants the city to wrest control of the money-making Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and reduce tolls for Staten Islanders, even though those tolls subsidize the hurricane-ravaged subway system. He used to think congestion pricing wasn’t such a radical idea. Now he finds the very prospect of congestion pricing “draconian,” even though the latest version to make the rounds of New York’s power circles includes a toll-equalization scheme that would benefit, among other constituencies, drivers on Staten Island.
As others Rubinstein spoke with noted, some positions — such as congestion pricing — aren’t tenable for a mayoral candidate with serious hopes for a primary victory. Furthermore, with city control over the MTA somewhat limited, the mayor can speak until he’s blue in the face about transit advocacy and policies without actually being able to do much. Still, I’d rather see a candidate support a sensible approach toward transit investment and development than backtrack on a year’s worth of progress.
There’s plenty of time for Lhota to change his tune, and I’m not convinced that Bill de Blasio is any stronger on rail and buses than Lhota could be. But as Rubinstein explores, this is as close to an about-face as one can imagine. Election Day is a week after the one-year anniversary of Sandy, and the Lhota who became a household name after the storm doesn’t yet appear to be the same Lhota as the one who will be on that ballot.
Over the past few months, as I’ve looked on with growing dismay at the field of mayoral candidates, readers have repeatedly asked if I planned on endorsing any of the candidates. It’s easier to assess why these mayoral hopefuls don’t deserve a vote than it is to explain why they do, but I’m going to endorse a pair of candidates today anyway based solely on their transit/transportation platforms. Despite some strong transit arguments in favor of some down-ballot Democratic candidates, Bill de Blasio gets my support in his primary, and in a thin GOP field, Joe Lhota should be the voters’ choice.
We’ll start with the Democrats as they present a wider array of candidates and significant overlap in positions. Here, I’ve found it easier to eliminate candidates than to support one, which speaks volumes about their various positions. John Liu, for instance, is still going on about two sets of books years after the state comptroller who initiated the charged wound up in jail and long after two New York state courts failed to find any substance to the charge. He’s also spent years claiming that the MTA doesn’t need more money to provide better transit service and that hundreds of thousands of student rides don’t add to the MTA’s costs.
Christine Quinn, meanwhile, led some pro-transit votes while in charge of the City Council, including a vote in favor of congestion pricing, but during the campaign, her ideas have seem half-baked at best. She wants city control of the MTA but doesn’t seem to understand the costs associated with such a move or the history behind state control. Her Triboro RX SBS proposal seemed careless and haphazardly developed, and her call for countdown clocks outside of subway stations costly and unnecessary.
Overall, the various candidates struck similar themes designed to placate voters without removing traffic lanes: More Select Bus Service routes; more ferry routes; more subway service; no plans to pay for anything. Down ballot, Sal Albanese embraced Gridlock Sam’s plan for congestion pricing and transit funding, but he, unfortunately, won’t garner much support in Tuesday’s primary. How then did I come to Bill de Blasio?
In part, my support from de Blasio comes from an appreciation of his transit platform, and in part, my support comes from the recent StreetsPac endorsement. While recognizing the limits that face the mayor with regards to transit, de Blasio has made more bus rapid transit — a network over which the mayor exerts plenty of control — a centerpiece of his campaign while calling for a new Penn Station focused on the needs of commuters and biking and street safety improvements. His approach is holistic and comprehensive, and while I wish he had expressed more of a willingness to up city contributions to the MTA’s capital budget and some concrete plans for expanded subway service, his plans are the best amongst an uninspiring bunch.
On the Republican side, I am supporting Lhota, a former MTA head, because I too believe trains should stop for no kittens. Need I say more? OK, OK. I’ll say more. The kittens are ultimately besides the point anyway.
Throughout the campaign, John Catsimatidis hasn’t shown any attention to the nuances of transit, and his campaign website is devoid of any sort of issues list. Earlier tonight, he claimed that the Second Ave. Subway “is a disaster” that has “put almost every merchant out of business” and tried to blame his opponent for a project that began in earnest a decade ago. That alone is enough to dismiss his candidacy out of hand, but he’s also spent considerable time railing against bike lanes and trumpeting a monorail that would run alongside the Long Island Expressway.
Lhota, on the other hand, hasn’t run a banner campaign on transit and transportation issues. His website too is devoid of a transit platform, and he discussed removing pedestrian plazas for one. He’s also expressed a desire to remove Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority revenue from the MTA, a highly problematic proposal for the MTA’s budget, but he has proposed a subway to Staten Island either as a carrot for key GOP voters or a future transit expansion. I endorse him here for what he’s done rather than for what he’s said. As head of the MTA, Lhota showed a keen instinct for and understanding of the problems facing the agency. He has knowledge and experience to be a leader on transit if he so chooses.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about a candidate running for mayor. I wish we could witness a robust debate on transit investment priorities and expansion opportunities. For the primaries, at least, those discussions don’t often win votes or support. So this is where we are. Get out there and vote on Tuesday, and if transit and transportation are on your mind, Bill de Blasio or Joe Lhota should get your lever pull.