Archive for MTA Politics
When I published my postmortems this week on the decision to halt subway service amidst the threat of snow and on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s LaGuardia AirTrain, I didn’t think I’d be revisiting those topics any time soon. I knew they would both be in the news, but I thought we could let them rest. I was wrong.
The Snow Plan
I’ll start with the snow plan. MTA head Tom Prendergast journeyed to Albany on Thursday to discuss the state of the MTA’s budget. He was there to lobby for the capital plan, but the talk turned to the snow. Since Prendergast is in the position — as we all are — of answer to his boss, he did his best yet again to defend the MTA’s reaction, but it’s been clear that Prendergast is out there as much to protect Cuomo as anything else.
At one point during the State Senate hearings, Prendergast discussed the reasons for the closure and decided to argue for public safety. “If people were inconvenienced,” he said, “that’s far better than somebody dying.” Of course, this ignores 110 years of New York City history in which no one has ever died in a snow storm walking to or from the subway, and it is in fact, as I’ve said, safer to keep trains running in a storm than shutting them down for the simple fact that some people will have to travel and should be accorded the respect to make the decision to go out in bad weather conditions.
But that’s an argument I’ve exhausted. I want to instead talk about the MTA’s plans. I had the chance to read the MTA’s 2014-2015 Winter Operations Plan. It contemplates running service in all kinds of weather from cold temperates (Plan I) to a declared snow emergency (Plan V). This is a 360-page document designed to maintain subway service through inclimate weather while working to ensure that no one is stranded.
On Tuesday — during a planned snow emergency — here’s what should have happened: The MTA would have moved trains from outdoor yards to underground express tracks while all service ran local. If conditions warranted, the agency could “order the orderly closing of lines to prevent incapacitated trains and uncertain travel plans for passengers.” As the plan notes, “if weather becomes too extreme…the Brighton, Sea Beach, West End, Dyre, Rockaway, Culver, and Canarsie lines will experience outages so that lines can be cleared and back to full service as soon as possible.”
This wasn’t some fly-by-night plan, and the idea, as some have put forth, that the public couldn’t handle on-the-fly service changes betrays the daily reality of service changes. It is, frankly, insulting to the public. With proper communication, people can get around relatively safely, and service changes are less confusion than stranding people miles from home. Ultimately, the MTA had a plan, and Cuomo made them deviate. We should understand why, and the explanation, which may very well be a political one, should be thorough.
Early on Thursday, the Daily News reported that the MTA may explore running trains in snowstorms. It’s a funny way to put it because the MTA already has a plan to run trains through serious snow storms. Prendergast and Cuomo could certainly reconsider the plan and implement a Plan VI shutdown that’s a bit more thought-out than Monday’s decision. Ultimately, they should remember though, as Glynnis MacNicol wrote, not everyone has the choice to stay home no matter how bad the weather gets.
The Cost of the LGA AirTrain
At the same public hearing up in Albany, Prendergast got to talking about the Governor’s plan for the LaGuardia AirTrain, and, oops!, it might cost more than $450 million. Prendergast mentioned under questioning that the $450 million was at the low end of a cost range, and that the upper bounds of the project’s budget is closer to $1 billion. It made little sense at $450 million; it makes no sense at $1 billion. And does anyone believe the MTA, the Port Authority or whichever other entity the State of New York tabs to build this thing would deliver it at under half a billion dollars? I don’t.
For more on the Albany hearing and Prendergast’s answers on the AirTrain costs, check out Dana Rubinstein and Jimmy Vielkind’s coverage at Capital New York. The MTA is trying not to come across as blind-sided by Cuomo’s proposal, but it seems clear that they were.
Let’s start today with a proposition: New York City didn’t get as much snow as initially expected, and the supposedly disappointing nature of the storm has clouded the commentary. That said, even if the city had gotten 20-30 inches, I contend that, with service properly curtailed in the right spots, the New York City subways could and should have operated as originally planned. This is a widely, but not entirely, accepted contention, but it’s one that gets to the heart of the role transit plays in city life and the MTA in planning transit.
The trouble, as we well know by now, started when Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to shut the subway system late Monday night. He spent a little bit of time consulting with MTA leaders, but by all accounts, this was a decision he imposed upon the agency. It wasn’t part of their well-developed snow response plan, and it was one that was unprecedented in New York City history. As I discussed last night, before we knew the storm wouldn’t be as substantial as threatened, the subway system can withstand the weather so long as the proper precautions are implemented.
In the aftermath of Cuomo’s decision, the
Monday Tuesday Morning Quarterbacking has been nothing but blowback. We learned early on that Mayor Bill de Blasio — who admittedly has no political control over the subways — knew about the shutdown approximately 15 minutes before Cuomo announced it, if at all, and in a post on The Upshot on The Times’ website, Josh Barro delved into the economic costs of effectively closing down the city for a day. Barro explores the argument I made last night concerning a seeming overreaction to the storm, and he too feels that shutting down the subway should be implemented rarely and with great deliberation.
Meanwhile, WNYC’s Kate Hinds delved into the plans the MTA had at the ready. Her piece is informative and important as it highlights how the operations teams tasked with managing the subway were more prepared than the governor. She writes:
The MTA has a winter playbook it turns to when it comes to snowstorms, detailing just how much service it can safely provide. And speaking at a lunchtime press conference on Monday, as what looked like a blizzard bore down on the East Coast, the agency’s chief said it was time to put one piece of it into action. “We’re going to put a Plan V in effect,” MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast said, “which occurs when we have a storm of this magnitude.”
Plan V is meant to prevent debacles like the December 2010 storm which blanketed the city in 20 inches of snow. [After that storm, the MTA] revised and expanded its winter operations plan. According to that 360-page document, a copy of which was obtained by WNYC, Plan V governs operations during a declared snow emergency. To protect the fleet, subway cars are to be stored on underground express tracks, reducing service. Some lines which duplicate service, like the B or the Z trains, may be suspended. Lines that run outdoors — such as the N or the A lines in Brooklyn and Queens — may run less frequently. The plan also details specific crew actions, and even talks about where to position diesel trains in the event that a regular subway car gets stuck in the snow.
Plan V indicates how committed the MTA is to keeping subways running in the worst of winter weather. Since 2010, subway service has been occasionally disrupted during snow, but never completely shut down. And the system had never, in its 110-year history, been entirely closed because of snow until New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to on Monday.
The MTA’s eventual ex post excuses rang hollow because they were. As we’ve seen before, Tom Prendergast must stand by his boss, and he did that during a press conference Tuesday when he said closing the system allowed for a quicker restoration of services. That wasn’t a factor last winter when Transit implemented its severe weather policies, and it wouldn’t have been an issue this week even with 20 inches of snow. In response, the Straphangers Campaign has asked for some soul-searching. “What role,” they asked, “did Governor Andrew Cuomo and other non-MTA officials play in the decision to shut down the transit system?”
But, to return to my proposition, why should the subway run in bad weather? Because the city keeps running, even if at reduced speeds, and New Yorkers need to see that transit is a safe and reliable option when cars aren’t. Emergency workers and first responders need to get to their hospitals and firehouses and precinct houses. Low-wage workers who don’t have the benefit of taking a day off because it snowed need to get around. Cuomo’s move in fact made it more dangerous as people were left to trudge six or seven miles through the snow. That’s not, as I noted last night, how New York operates, and it’s not how the city and its subway is designed to operate. The system can weather the storm, and that’s a point that seems to be lost on the governor.
If Cuomo wanted the credit for responding to a Serious Weather Event, he has to take the blame too when his initial reaction was the wrong one. Giving him a pass would simply set the stage for another subway shutdown driven seemingly by long-term political concerns rather than short-term benefits to the eight million New Yorkers whose city never really sleeps.
Four years ago, when a huge winter storm socked New York City, the MTA and then-Gov. David Paterson, in the final few days of his tenure, got unlucky. For the first time in years, two subway trains — an N train in the Sea Beach line and an A train a few hundred yards outside of Howard Beach — were stranded for hours. Snow piled up; trains couldn’t move; lawsuits were filed. It was a political nightmare with the headlines to match. Since then, the MTA has tried to address bad weather events, and they have, by and large, succeeded.
The agency’s response to this worst-case scenario was to develop plans for various amounts of snow that largely maintained subway service. Generally, in blizzard conditions, all express service is curtailed so Transit can store trains underground, and service along the train lines that operate in open trenches rather than along elevated lines is curtailed. And you know what? It worked! Trains operated throughout most of the city, and no one was stranded in snowstorms. It required employees to clear elevated platforms, but the city could operate largely as normal.
And then today rolled around. It’s right now 11:30 p.m. on Monday, and the snow accumulations aren’t as severe as earlier forecasts predicted. Still, the worst of the blizzard is expected to hit while most of us are sleeping, and when we wake up in the morning, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx could have over two feet of snow on the ground while Manhattan and Staten Island may have around 18 inches. It doesn’t even really matter how much snow we get because, for some reason, Gov. Cuomo shuttered subway service at 11 p.m., and by all accounts, the decision was a unilateral one.
The MTA didn’t see this coming. After all, the city had never in 110 years closed the subways due to snow, and in fact, early on Monday, Tom Prendergast basically said that a shutdown was unnecessary. As he noted, most of the subway network is underground, and it doesn’t snow underground. Now, we learn that the subway shutdown caught the MTA off guard. Via a report in the Brooklyn Paper that’s been corroborated by other MTA sources, the agency may continue to run empty trains because the Governor thought he knew best:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s move to shut off the city’s subway system overnight on Monday ahead of an anticipated blizzard came as a surprise to transit workers and runs against common sense, because the trains need to move as part of keeping the tracks clear and will be running all night anyway, according to a transit insider. The governor’s 6 pm announcement that subway and bus service would be halted completely at 11 pm came as a surprise to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Incident Command Center, where workers first heard about it on the news, said the source, who lacks authorization to speak about internal matters and asked to remain anonymous.
The halting of subway service is the first ever for a snowstorm. It is ill-considered because an actual turning-off of the entire system requires moving all the cars to far-flung facilities for storage, as the agency did during Hurricane Sandy, when flooding was a concern, and rebooting from that takes ages, the insider said. Emergency personnel will be riding the trains overnight while no one else is allowed to, per the source. The closure will strand people and put lives at risk, not because the subways can’t run, but because Cuomo wants to look good, the source said…
The lack of ground transportation options makes keeping the subway open all the more important, the transit source said. “The roads being closed is all the more reason the underground lifeline should be open,” the source said.
The problem with Cuomo’s decision is that it doesn’t make sense. It’s a noble goal to keep cars off the road so that emergency response teams and plows can move through the city unimpeded. But it ignores the reality of New York City — an often inconvenient one for Cuomo — to shutter the subway. Now, New Yorkers, from everyone building cleaning crews to service employees at bars who are on duty until 4 a.m. to nurses and hospitals on duty overnight, can’t get around the city because the Governor decided it was somehow a danger for a subway system that operates largely underground to keep running through a massive but hardly unprecedented snow storm. Cuomo doesn’t want to deal with headlines placing the blame for the next stranded subway on his shoulders so instead, the entire city is effectively shut down.
A great irony in the governor’s move is that the subway itself arose from the paralysis of the Blizzard of 1888. New Yorkers needed a way to get around in a snow storm, and the subways were the perfect antidote to surface congestion. Now, after two hurricanes during which it made sense to stop subway service due to serious flooding concerns, the governor has decided that favorable headlines trump urban life. After all these years, should we expect anything else from a governor who hasn’t recognized the role transit plays in driving New York City’s existence? Sadly, I guess not.
Think of it as the MTA’s version of Captain Planet. With their powers combined, can they convince Albany to act on the MTA’s 800-pound gorilla in the room — that unfunded $32 billion capital plan? That’s the question looming ahead of a Tuesday morning press conference that will see Jay Walder, Lee Sander and Peter Stangle share the stage. The three former MTA heads were originally set to appear with Richard Ravitch, but the guru of New York state politics has seemingly dropped out of the event.
The lobbying effort is the brainchild of the Empire State Transportation Alliance, and the three men will call upon Albany to fund the damn thing. “For nearly 40 years, the New York State Legislature has recognized that our transit system underpins our state and the $1.5 trillion economy of the New York metropolitan region. This year, a broad alliance of former MTA leaders and transit and environmental experts have come together to urge leaders in Albany to identify stable, dedicated revenue to support the plan,” ESTA staid in a statement. “Without sufficient funding to cover all five years of the plan, we will severely damage the MTA’s capacity to provide safe, reliable and modern transit service and put our region’s growth, vitality and quality of life at risk.”
For the MTA, a gathering of this magnitude — including the who’s who of contractor associations, environmental groups, rider advocacy organizations and union leaders — is a momentous occasion, but the agency would be hard pressed to talk much about it. The MTA leaders know that, as they run a state agency that operates at the whim of Gov. Cuomo, they can’t really lobby for something without the go-ahead from Cuomo’s office, and so far, Cuomo hasn’t waded into the fray over the capital plan. So why not have a bunch of former agency heads to do the dirty work?
It’s interesting to see Stengl, Sander and Walder take the reins here. Each are very well respected within the transportation community, but each had issues navigating the politics of the MTA. Stengl had troubles with the first Gov. Cuomo (but left after George Pataki won election) while Walder had issues with the second. Sander was bounced due, in part, to his lack of relationship with Gov. Paterson but had a vision for the agency. But leaving the MTA’s top job isn’t a sign of anything other than normalcy these days, and here they are.
I won’t be able to attend Tuesday’s press conference, but we will hear these leaders talk about “why funding the plan with new revenue is vital for the continued success of the greater metropolitan region.” New revenue, perhaps, is a code word for a push for the Move NY traffic pricing plan or another revenue-generating scheme that will require action from Albany. It’s getting harder to ignore the drum beat, and having former MTA heads free from the shackles of Albany and willing to talk will only boost the view that, sooner or later, the city will have to comes to terms with its transportation priorities and the way it plans to fund the next five, 10 or 15 years.
A few updates for you tonight, some concerning hot-button political issues of the day. You had to know it would be hard for the MTA to escape these.
Ironing out the challenges of cashless tolling
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly four years since the MTA introduced cashless tolling on the Henry Hudson Parkway, but here we are. While I had originally hoped this would do away with a major objection to congestion pricing, the MTA hasn’t yet expanded this long-running pilot beyond the bridge over the Spuyten Duyvil. Now we learn why.
In a piece illustrative of the zany deals the MTA has to strike with states to which it provides various services, Andrew Tangel explores how gaps in enforcement, particularly with respect to Connecticut drivers, is slowing the process. The MTA, you say, is barred by deals it has with Connecticut from sending collections agencies after drivers who do not pay bills they receive. Although the vast majority have E-ZPasses, Connecticut drivers owe the MTA half a million dollars.
Admittedly, this is small change for one river crossing, but it’s holding up implementation at more crowded spots such as the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Verrazano Bridge. “Until we have legislation in place, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to do it out at the larger facilities,” Don Spero, MTA Bridge & Tunnel CFO, said to The Journal.
The MTA is working to change these arrangements, but Board members are getting restless. “It’s stupid that we’re not doing this,” Staten Island’s Allen Cappelli said. “To have to sit there because you’re using antiquated equipment is insulting.” The pilot meanwhile has been a marked success as 99 percent of cars now travel across the bridge at speeds of 30 mph or more.
Transit and the NYPD slowdown
As the NYPD rank-and-file enter their third week of their unorganized-but-somehow-coordinated enforcement slowdown, transit riders seem to be shouldering the effects of the precipitous decline of “Broken Windows”-style police work. Crime isn’t up underground; in fact, subway crime — as with all city crime — is at a low. But while cops aren’t eying law-abiding New Yorkers these days, they’re also not pursuing those breaking the rules.
Vivian Yee of The Times has this:
Below ground, the slowdown has been even more profound.
Police Commissioner William J. Bratton urges officers to target minor offenses that could be preludes to more serious crimes. Last week, however, besides the lax enforcement of turnstile-jumping, a highly visible emblem of urban disorder, officers made only one arrest in the subway system in the category of “peddler/panhandler”; none for unsafe riding (down from 68 for the same period last year); none for narcotics (down from 23); and one for a knife or other cutting instrument (down from 18).
Drivers think they’ve died and gone to heaven as well as they can now park with impunity. These numbers, and the relative lack of anarchism I’ve seen in New York City lately, raise questions of what exactly constitutes the appropriate level of police work, but that’s part of a larger dialogue. As temperatures drop into the single digits this week, crime is at a low anyway. I’ll keep an eye on this story as it relates to transit riders.
MTA kills GCT ‘Die-In’ protests
It is, apparently, against MTA rules — wherever they may be posted — to lie down in Grand Central, but for the past month, the MTA has not enforced this regulation. As protesters have staged nightly “Die-Ins” to voice their displeasure with the Eric Garner Grand Jury decision, the MTA has not made a move to clear out those who choose to lie down. Now, according to The Journal, the MTA will enforce their rules, and the Die-Ins must stop.
The MTA says they’ve reassessed this decision when protestors started placing placards on the ground, but the protestors aren’t convinced. One way or another, I’m surprised at this decision as it seems to be another First Amendment beehive into which the MTA is sticking its hand. I’m no expert on right-to-assembly jurisprudence, but the MTA has lost nearly every free speech case it has faced recently. We’ll see if this goes anyway. On Tuesday, the protesters were still in Grand Central but fewer opted to lie down.
Once upon a New York minute, just the threat of a subway fare hike was enough to sink candidates and raise voter ire. In fact, one of the reasons the MTA has had to dig out from decades of deferred maintenance — and one of the reasons why the MTA was created in the first place — was due to the five-cent fare. Until the system nearly broke down, politicians simply could not raise transit fares in New York City without seriously jeopardizing their reelection changes.
With the MTA firmly entrenched in Albany, now, one could be forgiven for hoping that the days of playing politics with MTA fare hikes are a relic of the past. One might also hope to hear from the distant rich relative or receive a lifetime supply of 30-day unlimited ride MetroCards. Politics and the MTA are alive and well.
Recently, I’ve spent some time examining Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s relationship with the MTA. When convenient for him, he uses the agency for positive press; when inconvenient, he runs away or actively works to hold off the bad news. The looming 2015 fare hikes are no exception.
As part of the MTA rescue plan a few years back, the agency committed to biennial fare hikes. Although these raises seem to outpace inflation, the MTA is still playing catch-up from the introduction of the unlimited ride MetroCard nearly twenty years ago, and the inflation-adjusted average fare is still less today than it was in 1996. The fare hikes are a sure way for the MTA to guarantee revenue and a way to level the fare with long-term inflation. We had a fare hike in 2013, and we know we’re having one in 2015. The increase in revenue may have dropped from a projected eight percent to around four percent, but the fare hike is coming one way or another.
In the past, the MTA has unveiled fare hike information in early October in order to prepare the public for hearings and brief the Board on the fiscal plan. This year, the MTA has engaged in near-radio silence regarding the fare hikes. In fact, during last week’s MTA Board meetings, agency head Tom Prendergast danced around the issue. He again confirmed the hikes were happening and promised information within a few weeks. Otherwise, though, he was tight-lipped on the numbers or proposals for revenue increases.
“For me to go any further than that is inappropriate because there haven’t been discussions. We have to follow the process and ultimately this has to follow a process where there’s an interchange with the public,” Prendergast said when pressed on the issue.
So why the delayed timeline and the lack of details or even a leak? I’ve been told by a few people in the know that Governor Cuomo has put the kibosh on fare hike talk until after Tuesday’s vote. He’s not in danger of losing to Rob Astorino, and the existence of the 2015 fare hike is public knowledge. But Cuomo doesn’t want the press to focus on numbers and increased costs at or around Election Day. He wants to run up the score on his opponents and then have this news come out. (This may as well be why the MTA Reinvention Commission hasn’t turned in a report yet, but I haven’t been able to confirm or refute that suspicion one way or another.)
And so we get another round of MTA politics. No one is discussing fare policy before Election Day. No one is discussing the capital plan, and no one is talking about ways to reform the MTA. It’s just the way Gov. Cuomo wants it.
The Commercial Transformation of Columbus Circle
The MTA’s rehabilitation of the Columbus Circle subway stop was an odd project. Like many before and after it, it took far longer than the MTA budgeted and ended not with a ribbon-cutting or even an announcement but with a whimper. One day, it was under construction, and the next day it wasn’t. It’s still not quite finished either as the corridor underneath 8th Ave. remains simply that.
As part of the original plans, this corridor was to become a commercial space with high-end tenants. It was, then-MTA head Jay Walder told me, to be the first of a new breed of MTA real estate. Instead of dingy newsstands and off-beat shops, Columbus Circle was to pave the way for a re-envisioning of subway real estate. It could be popular and a destination in and of itself.
Now, years after the renovation wrapped, that dream is inching closer to reality, Matt Chaban wrote in The Times this week. Chaban profiled Susan Fine, the current head of Oases Real Estate and the former MTA exec who was in charge of the rebirth of Grand Central, as she works to draw in tenants at Columbus Circle. Beginning 2015, 30 storefronts will line in the corridor as a set of shops called TurnStyle. These stores will include grab-and-go options such as Magnolia bakery, some electronics and high-end shopping spots, and larger upscale fast food types.
If Fine is successful — and that’s not a given as she has to convince New Yorkers to dine in a subway station — the MTA could bring this public-private commercial partnership to other subway stations with high foot traffic and open spaces. Taking up residence in the 7th busiest subway certainly won’t hurt the cause. “The trick was really figuring out strategies to slow people down,” Jessica Walsh, one of Fine’s partners, said. “If we can make it an interesting space with its own identity, we’re pretty confident we’ll not only catch commuters, but tourists and even people on their lunch break. Deep down, we all love the subway.”
CM Rose lead Staten Island calls for transit investments
As the MTA’s next five-year capital plan has come into view, complaints from Staten Island have increased. I wrote about the isolated borough’s complaints last week and pinpointed politicians as the leading cause of their problems. To be fair to Staten Island, though, not all of their politicians are as opposed to transit improvements as others, and this week Council Member Debi Rose flashed her credentials.
In a piece for the Staten Island Advance, Rose made the case for more transit investments for Staten Island. Not satisfied with the new ferries or the promise of new rail cars for the Staten Island Railway, Rose argued for some use for the North Shore and West Shore rights of way. She isn’t wrong, but her piece highlights the political problems here as well. Rose admits that the city doesn’t invest enough in transit, and although she rails against fare hikes and toll increases, she doesn’t propose a solution or a funding scheme.
As I’ve said before, the answer here is simple: Put your money where your mouth is, and the MTA will listen. If Rose wants BRT for the North Shore ROW, all she has to do is find a way to pay for it. But would she risk alienating Staten Island drivers, a strong constituency who will not be the first to support a congestion pricing plan? I doubt it. Without leadership that leads to dollars, nothing will happen.
The Man-Spread Blight
Finally, a more whimsical piece from amNew York that delves into one of the most egregious breaches of subway etiquette: the man-spread. We’ve all been there when some guy next to us is sitting with his legs spread far wider than any normal human would ever need. Perhaps it’s overcompensation; perhaps its ego or obliviousness; perhaps it’s a combination of all three. Whatever the cause, it drives me nuts.
In an amNY piece, Sheila Anne Feeney tried to get to the bottom of this phenomenon, and her article will in turns amuse and infuriate you. The perps and defenders act so righteous — “Men need space,” one person said — while those trying to find seats get glares or worse.
A few years ago, at around the time Sandy swept through New York, Andrew Cuomo determined it looked gubernatorial and in charge for him to announce good news regarding the MTA. In the grand tradition of New York executives stretching back to 1968, Cuomo decided that the MTA could be used to boost his image with downstate voters, and now, every time good news comes out, his press office sends out an email “announcing” the happenings. Tunnels reopening? Sandy work on the R train wrapping early? New wireless service underground? Federal storm preparedness funds? It all comes from Cuomo’s office.
“What happens though when there is bad news?” you may wonder. Funny you should ask because that’s when Cuomo disappears faster than Keyser Soze. He’s more than willing to take credit for everything on which he had little to no affect; that is, after all, his prerogative as the MTA is a creation of the State of New York. But when something doesn’t go right, when there are bad headlines to be made, Cuomo does what many others have done before him — he tries to distance himself from the MTA. (He may even be exerting pressure to actively avoid bad news. From some accounts, the MTA may wait to announce the details of the 2015 fare hikes until after Election Day so Cuomo can avoid the bad press. Usually, the new fare schemes are announced in mid-October prior to a March fare hike. But I digress.)
This dynamic came to a head this week following the CPRB rejection of the MTA’s capital plan. In his comments about the capital plan, Cuomo, who you may recall is in charge of the MTA, seemed surprised that the thing had a $15 billion gap. He didn’t offer up any solutions and seems to think all is copacetic when it comes to MTA funding.
Here’s what he said to Capital New York: “The first budget from every agency also always calls for $15 billion. That’s part of the dance that we go through. That’s why I say it’s the initial, proposed budget. We’ll then look at that budget and go through, and we’ll come up with a realistic number. But we have a very real $4 billion surplus, and we have a 2 percent spending cap that I still follow. So that’s the discipline that’s in the process.”
When later asked about a funding scheme involving, say, congestion pricing, Cuomo was quick to dismiss the idea. As Kate Hinds reported, Cuomo simply said, “There’s no need for it. We have a surplus. Look, we had a $10 billion deficit, and we didn’t do tolls.” That $15 billion is just going to materialize out of thing air. (Or will Cuomo, as he intimated, use the money from the bank settlements to fund the MTA?)
For its part, in a rare act of defiance, the MTA seems to be toeing the capital line. While Cuomo has suggested the capital budget could be pared down — and it’s likely to come in below the current $32 billion price tag — Tom Prendergast spoke yesterday about the need for investing in the system. Streetsblog’s Stephen Miller was on hand to report as Prendergast defended the five-year plan. Disputing Cuomo’s earlier assertion that the proposal was “bloated,” as the governor said, Prendergast warned that he’d be willing to drive the MTA further into debt. “I don’t like greater debt finance, but I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll treat that finance as a bridge to another day.”
As Miller notes, Prendergast’s co-panelists discussing transit governance were quick to point to Cuomo as the ultimate arbiter of all things MTA, whether the governor admits it or not. Many MTA board members answer to Cuomo, and Prendergast is a Cuomo appointee who serves at the pleasure of the governor. While Cuomo may try to shirk the bad news and trumpet the good, this is his beast, as it was every governor’s before him since Nelson and David Rockefeller’s plan to depose Robert Moses. The $15 billion gap is at his feet. How he moves forward will speak volumes of his approach toward New York City and transit, and I’m not feeling particularly optimistic about it.
Every few years, politicians from Rockland County drum up some outrage over their inclusion in the MTA, and every few years, they demand something — usually more — while bemoaning having to pay more. It’s an odd little dance that isn’t entirely without a sound basis in fact, but it also underscores the inherent contradictions in New York State politics and how no one is ever held responsible for them.
The latest come to us from Rockland County Legislative Chairman Alden Wolfe and Legislator Harriet Cornell who is the Chair of the Special Committee on Transit. As part of the MTA
Every One Has a Pet Project Commission Reinvention Commission, the two sent comments with their views on reinvention. Wolfe’s words were fairly neutral. “Rockland has documented for years the disparity in the tax revenues generated from Rockland,” he said, “which far exceed annual expenditures made by the MTA to serve the County: it’s a $40 million value gap.”
I delved into that study back in 2012 when Rockland started making noises about leaving the MTA. It was not without merit, and SAS commenters found it to be at least discussion-worthy. I thought it didn’t quite account for the positive benefits of regular, if sporadic, train service.
Cornell used her statement as a soapbox. “Institutional, intergovernmental and jurisdictional barriers are at the heart of MTA’s insufficient attention to Rockland’s transit needs,” she said. “Rockland on the west side of the Hudson is a transportation orphan, long overdue for substantial new investment in our transportation infrastructure. The MTA has not met customer needs!”
Most New Yorkers west of the Hudson would love to be as “orphaned” as Rockland which, as I noted, has regular, if sporadic, service. But maybe Rockland deserves an improvement. Let’s see what happened when the state last tried to raise revenue for transit service. If you guessed “complain about the payroll tax,” well, you’re the next contestant on “The Gripe Is Right.”
In 2009, when the state approved the MTA Payroll Tax as a funding measure for the cash-starved MTA, the same two Rockland County legislators complaining this week led the charge to oppose the payroll tax and agitate for withdrawal from the MTA, a threat that seems to disproportionately impact only themselves. Perhaps Rockland needs to learn a lesson in politics: Sometimes you have to give first if you want to receive later.
Ultimately, Rockland does seem to draw a shorter end of the straw than the rest of the MTA counties, but moaning about improvements on the one hand while objecting to funding schemes five years earlier isn’t productive policymaking. It is though business as usual when it comes to transit politics in New York. How frustrating.
As transit rank-and-file go, few workers are more vulnerable than bus drivers. For years, they sat behind the wheel with no protection between them and their passengers as New Yorkers of all stripes filed past. They weren’t asked to actively put themselves at risk, but to fare jumpers, disrespectful riders and those looking to do more damage, bus drivers were sitting ducks.
A few years ago, the MTA, under pressure from its unions, started installing partitions, and many — but not all — buses now afford their drivers some protection. Plans include an aggressive roll-out of partitions in the future, and with BusTime and the technology upgrades, the MTA is primed to protect its drivers and respond quickly to emergencies. You would think the New York State Senate would appreciate — or at least know of — these efforts, but instead, they’ve taken an interesting approach.
Earlier this week, the New York State Senate passed a bill requiring that the MTA install partitions in every busy by 2019 and ensure that all buses have a GPS system that can synchronize with alarm by 2016. The bill, which you can read right here, now awaits Assembly action, but it is an amazing example of shutting the barn door after the horse escapes. The State Senate has, in effect, ordered the MTA to do something that, with regards to GPS, it has already accomplished and, with regards to partitions, it is well on its way toward wrapping up.
Now you can accuse me of skepticism; I am, after all, no fan of the way Albany treats transit. Plus, this legislation, if it passes the Assembly and earns Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature, could protect future bus drivers as well. But to me, this is indicative of the way Albany reacts to transit. That is, they don’t. They latch onto something the MTA is doing on its own, mandate that it happen, and then try to take credit for the solution. Instead of examining the city’s traffic issues, transit’s funding problems or future growth, State Senators are content to put a good face on nothing. What a shame.