Archive for MTA Politics
Mercifully, the mayoral primary season is rapidly drawing to a close. By this time next week, we’ll know if a runoff is in our future or if the Democratic and Republican candidates for Gracie Mansion have been selected by a sliver of New York City voters, many of whom head to the polls with a strong bone to pick. Still, before this bit of political theater wraps up, we had to suffer through one final debate.
During the Democratic demagoguery, the topic of discussion shifted to transit developments, and two reports from the debate show the same old/same old. Stephen Miller at Streetsblog summarized accordingly:
If you thought the last Democratic mayoral debate was thin on transportation issues, you could be forgiven for thinking that the issue didn’t come up at all during last night’s event. Blink, and you might have missed it. Like last time, transit was relegated to the lightning round, and thin questions from the moderators didn’t elicit much information from the candidates.
At the previous debate, all the candidates had MetroCards in their pockets but we learned last night that they are, for the most part, infrequent straphangers: Thompson said he had last taken the subway on Monday, while de Blasio and Weiner rode the train last week; Liu and Quinn hadn’t swiped a MetroCard in about two weeks.
On the subject of the MTA, Liu said he had “gone after very powerful interests,” repeating the myth created by disgraced former Comptroller Alan Hevesi that the authority keeps “two sets of books” to obscure its finances from the public.
I don’t even have the heart to argue against Liu and his stubborn — if not worse — insistence that the MTA kept two sets of books. It’s been proven false every which way to Sunday, and the man who didn’t qualify for public funds because he actually kept fake campaign finance books isn’t one to talk. Those who vote for Liu deserve the worst.
Dana Rubinstein meanwhile reported on a different exchange:
The imposition of tolls on the East River bridges is widely understood to be a component of any realistic congestion-pricing scheme, and congestion pricing is the only recourse transportation advocates consistently put forward as the solution to the M.T.A.’s chronic budget problems.
“Do you support East River tolls?” asked one of the moderators. “Let me begin with you, Ms. Quinn.”
“I don’t support East River tolls,” she responded. “No.”
“No, but I have a plan to implement them for out-of-city residents,” he added.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
“Alright, and Mr. de Blasio?”
The candidates all have various wishes to expand transit access, and a few have been forth some concrete plans. No one, though, wants to pay for it, and we’ve gotten the summer of “no, no, no.” John Liu’s plan, torn up by Streetsblog in April, was again the least thought-out even among a field of flat-out denials, and somehow, one of these politicians will have a loud say in the future transit policies and priorities of New York City.
When Michael Bloomberg ran in 2009 for his third term as mayor, he launched his campaign with 33 changes for the MTA. These ranged from the obvious, with more countdown clocks and a new farecard leading the way, to an impossible plan to implement F express service during the Culver Viaduct rehab to a strange call for free crosstown bus service. Just days after winning reelection, Bloomberg seemed to rollback his promises, calling them mere suggestions instead, and if any have seen the light of day over the past four years, Bloomberg certainly shouldn’t receive the credit.
In 2009, Bloomberg’s problem wasn’t one of underthinking. He had ideas, but they came out of left field. Much as his drawing-on-a-cocktail napkin plan to send the 7 to Secaucus materialized out of thin air, his transit proposals too were developed seemingly with no input for anyone actively engaged in the space. The had their Big Ideas, but those Big Ideas had little to no chance of becoming reality. I still, after all, have to pay for my crosstown bus.
Four years later, we have a mayoral campaign one week away from the party primaries, and there are no Big Ideas. The leading candidates have talked vaguely about more subway service for outer borough residents, increasing the reach of Select Bus Service and expanding the city’s network of ferries. The former MTA head has discussed building a subway to Staten Island (though good luck finding any mention of it on his website), and the guy polling a distant second wants to build a monorail down the center of the Long Island Expressway. Transformative Big Ideas are missing from the discussion, and I’ve been thinking about why.
As my thinking goes, I’ve come up with a few reasons why there are no Big Ideas. The first is a practical one that doesn’t hold up. As the state controls the MTA, most transit expansion is allegedly out of the hands of the mayor. It’s easy for a candidate to wash his or her hands of transit planning if responsibility for funding and operations lies elsewhere, but that’s the easy way out. Mayor Bloomberg wanted the 7 line extension built; he delivered the money; and in less than 10 months, the 7 will terminate at 34th St. and 11th Ave. A mayoral candidate with the right Big Idea could easily see it through.
The second reason dovetails with the first: It’s easy to come up with Big Ideas; it’s less easy to convince voters to pay for them. The 7 line extension cost over $2 billion, and someone had to pay for it. The Second Ave. Subway costs over $4 billion, and the money has to come from somewhere. Paying for Big Ideas often involves convincing voters to fork over more money in the form of taxes or user fees (that is, East River bridge tolls or congestion pricing), and increased taxes or user fees doesn’t win primary voters. Without a way to pay for Big Ideas, any Big Ideas put forward become empty promises.
The third reason concerns timing. The 7 line extension was first proposed during Mayor Bloomberg’s first term; the groundbreaking was in his second term; and the start of revenue service will be during the next mayor’s first term. Even with three terms, Bloomberg will not be in office long enough to see his pet project open up. There will be no ribbon cutting with the mayor and no photo op. As ribbon cuttings and photo ops are the lifeblood of local politics, candidates are more than hesitant to argue for something that won’t see the light of day well after their terms are up. Why should someone else steal the limelight?
Finally, the last reason focuses around the key rule of primaries and, to a larger extent, electoral politics in general: Do not upset your voters. Although New Yorkers support congestion pricing plans that fund transit, primary voters do not. Although New Yorkers want more subway routes, people bemoan the impact of construction to no end. Although New Yorkers recognize the inadequacy of the bus network, removing space for cars and handing it over to buses instead seems to be tantamount to signing your own death sentence. In all cases, too, the people who care the most and have the most to lose, as they see it, turn out to vote in primaries.
All in all, these factors lead to safe and uninspiring campaign promises that candidates won’t try too hard to keep anyway. The problem is partially structural and partially due to the lack of a frontrunner. But here we are, a week away from primary day with no Big Ideas in sight.
It was back in the waning days of June when the State Senate and Assembly both passed a lockbox bill with strong protections for transit funding. This was the second time that the bill had passed the legislature, and while Gov. Cuomo had gutted the protections that prevented a raid on transit financing last time around, advocates were optimistic that the bill would gain Cuomo’s signature. Since then, though, we’ve waited. And waited. And waited.
Lately, though, there is a reason for some optimism as upstate newspapers, not usually in favor of anything that bolsters the MTA — they amazingly view it as a drain on the rest of New York State — have lined up behind the lockbox. Since the bill protects all transit money and not just that earmarked for the MTA, upstaters have reason to argue for a signature. The Buffalo News voiced its support this week, and The Press-Republican from Plattsburgh sounded off last week.
Over at Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein sees this groundswell of support as an indicator that Cuomo will soon have to sign the bill. If everyone in New York state wants these modest protections in place, the governor will have to step in and govern soon enough.
We’re hitting the home stretch of the silly part of the 2013 mayoral race. In two weeks, the first primaries will be over, and we’ll know if a run-off is in our future. The early stages of the race to succeed Mayor Bloomberg have not been particularly comforting for New Yorkers looking for a champion of progressive transit and transportation issues. Buses and ferries have dominating the discussion while a lackluster embrace of bike infrastructure, to say nothing of any truly transformative ideas, has marred the race.
In today’s papers, we have two issue summaries of the candidates’ various stances on transit and transportation, and you may wind up sighing in frustration after reading through these Q-and-A’s. Dan Rivoli in amNew York asked about MTA governance and funding, transit “ideas” and biking. He hit upon the key issues, and the candidates’ responses left something to be desired.
When it comes to MTA funding, Bill de Blasio, for instances, wants to “change the federal approach to mass transit funding and get the federal government much more deeply into the mass transit business again.” Bill Thompson wants to restore the commuter tax, and John Liu would have the city throw in an additional $100 million to the MTA’s capital budget — an amount equal to less than one half of one percent of the capital budget. Christine Quinn continues to bang the drum for mayoral control, but she doesn’t explain why. John Catsimatidis called for an MTA Inspector General, a position that has been in place since 1983, and everyone — Republicans and Democrats alike — has endorsed more Select Bus Service lanes.
In The Times today, Matt Flegenheimer conducted similar interviews with a focus on the question I posted above. The ideas for improving subway service reveal vague promises light on detail. De Blasio wants to “address outer borough subway service needs” while Liu and Quinn repeated their amNew York answers. Thompson wants to “reduce waiting times between trains and to accelerate the installation of countdown clocks across the system.” Joe Lhota discussed an city support for “an in-station recycling program…to keep platforms clean.” Catsimatidis again repeated his desires to build a monorail somewhere for some reason.
As I read through these answers, a few common threads emerged: First, everyone wants more, but no one wants to have the uncomfortable conversations about paying. We want more subway service, more bus service, more ferry service, more countdown clocks, more this, more that. But only fringe candidates with no real chances at winning have mentioned East River bridge tolls or congestion pricing as a revenue generator. (Thompson can talk himself blue in the face about the commuter tax, but that is a political hot potato he won’t pursue if elected.)
The second thread concerns ideas already in place. I’ve already dispatched with Quinn’s countdown clocks complaints, but she’s not the only one proposing something already in motion. De Blasio called for more Metro-North stops in the Bronx, which is the likely outcome of the Penn Station Access studies, and DOT and the MTA are working, albeit painfully slowly, on more Select Bus Services routes. It’s not a promise to call for something in the works.
If I truly believed the mayoral candidates would offer up something juicy during the campaign season, you could call me naive, but even for New York politicians, this is scraping the bottom of the transit barrel. No one wants to delve into the Midtown East rezoning, the Second Ave. Subway, the Triboro RX line or any discussions on funding. It’s far easier to give safe answers, but the city needs something more these days than safe answers.
Within the cozy confines of New York politics, few positions are as potentially toxic as MTA CEO and Chairman. It is, essentially, that person’s duty to deliver bad news to New Yorkers who pay only casual attention to the inner workings of the agency’s politics and economics. Straphangers remember the service diversions and fare hikes; they recall the heat and the rats. They don’t remember the times the subways work as advertised, and they certainly don’t remember fondly those who oversee the comings and goings of the MTA.
With this in mind, it was always a surprise to me that Joe Lhota opted to use the MTA as a springboard to a run for City Hall. A former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, Lhota served as the MTA for around a year, and as far as operations go, he was one of the better leaders in recent years. He cut costs; he streamlined some operations; and, as we know, he was at the helm when Sandy hit. Though he generally implemented plans put in motion well before his tenure began, he received accolades for getting the system up and running so quickly. Pay no attention to the March fare hikes or the current 14-month shutdown of the R train’s Montague Tubes. Those are but collateral damage.
As head of the MTA, Lhota seemed to recognize that the agency needed a steadier stream of funding sources. He fought zealously in Albany for every single dollars, and he toed a hard net-zero line in his infrequent discussions with John Samuelsen, president of the TWU. As a mayoral candidate, though, Lhota has tried to put aside everything he preached and practiced at the MTA. His ideas have included a vague plan to send the R to Staten Island and a misguided park-and-ride proposal. He decided to run for mayor because of his success at the MTA, but on the campaign trail, he’d seemingly rather voters forget about that year.
In today’s Times, Matt Flegenheimer explores those contradictions. As Flegenheimer notes, Lhota “seldom trumpets his tenure managing the authority,” referring instead to his time with Giuliani and his years in business with Madison Square Garden and on Wall St. The Times runs down Lhota’s record:
Beyond the storm, Mr. Lhota’s record at the helm of the nation’s largest subway system was complicated, marked by nimble political calculations and, occasionally, unforced errors. He slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in costs from the authority’s budget and restored many services of the agency for the first time since deep cuts in 2010. He angered workers with whom he had once hoped to reach a contract agreement.
He proposed possible fare increase packages so unappealing — by design, some suspected — that the public’s disdain for the final product, a compromise measure, appeared tempered. He reinstated the popular “Poetry in Motion” program that published verses in subway cars, but his abbreviated stay left several longer-term projects, like a plan to replace the MetroCard, unfinished on his watch.
He apologized for remarks about a state senator (“he does nothing”), Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (who, “like an idiot” made misguided service predictions after Hurricane Sandy, he said) and a member of his own board, whom he assailed as a liar and challenged to “be a man” during an uncomfortably heated public meeting about the authority’s schedule. And he remained zealously fixed on possible system disruptions — a man, some suggested, who so thrived in a crisis that at times he seemed to seek one out — investigating subway accidents or delays that might have been handled several levels below him.
But the biggest problem of all, of course, is the fare hike. Although MTA budgetary policies were in place long before Lhota took over, he continued the practice of levying a fare hike very two years. He proposed a steep initial increase to make the preferred compromise seem better than it was, and he set the MTA on a course to continue fare hikes in 2015, 2017 and every two years for the foreseeable future. It’s tough to run as the former MTA chair; it’s tougher still to run as the MTA chair who continued to raise fares.
This view may not be particularly fair to Lhota. He made the best of a tough situation, and had he continued in as head of the MTA, I’m sure we’d be assessing his tenure in a positive light right now. But he’s running for the chief executive spot of the city. He’d have less control over transit policy but hasn’t shown a willingness to port over the lessons learned from the MTA to his mayoral candidacy. That’s the prism through which Lhota the candidate is viewed, and the current image isn’t a particularly flattering one.
As the first round of the city’s illustrious mayoral campaign hits its homestretch, we’ve heard and dismissed a lot of bad ideas concerning transit. A Republican hopeful called for monorails while the leading Democratic fundraiser drew a bunch of lines on a map and called it the Triboro RX bus route. I’ve been critical of these supposed campaign promises, and as Ted Mann explored a few weeks ago, so have a few others. Is there anything worth debating?
One idea I’ve shied away from discussing keeps coming up again and again, and it is one proposal worth mentioning. That is, of course, city control over the MTA and, to a lesser extent, city control over bridge and tunnel fares. Joe Lhota has been pressing for the latter, and a few candidates the former. These topics have their origin in city history and no easy answer.
Originally, the city did control the subways through the Board of Transportation, and it was a problematic relationship to say the least. Due to a need to appease voters, mayor after mayor refused to raise the subway fares. The precious nickel remained in place for decades, and inflation meant that the subways were generating pennies in revenue compared with their initial takes in the early 1900s. The over-simplified version of history is that through an effort to shore up the Transit Authority’s finances and push Robert Moses out of power, the state-run MTA came to be. The state assumed responsibility for funding the subways and, in return, the state controls the MTA through board appointments.
As mayoral control over the MTA has waxed and waned as a campaign issue, Dana Rubinstein a few weeks ago offered up an overview of the debate:
The chance that Albany legislators representing the city’s suburbs and, whose constituents rely on the authority’s Long Island and Metro-North railroads, would voluntarily cede control of their favorite hobbyhorse to the mayor of New York City is approximately zero. The notion that the state would transfer power to the city and continue to fund mass transit at the current rate is unlikelier still.
Nevertheless, it’s a lot easier to talk about mayoral control than to discuss finding new revenue streams for the transit agency. Which is why Quinn and her rivals have been talking about mayoral control the way they have. On Friday, at a Queens press event about a proposed three-borough select bus service route, Quinn once again said the mayor should make the majority of appointments to the M.T.A.’s board, and appoint the head of the M.T.A.’s bus and subway division, New York City Transit.
“Right now, 90 percent basically of the ridership of the M.T.A. is people using buses and subways,” she said. “There is no question that bus and subway riders in the five boroughs, the majority of them New York City residents, are the economic engine of the M.T.A. But we have the voice of a piston on the board.”
On the record, the MTA and its current leadership are not looking to see the current political structure change. In a radio appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast responded to the campaign. “The underlying premise of the creation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was the need, and this is some farsighted individuals back in the 60s, that realized you needed to deal with transportation on a regional basis,” he said. “If we look just at the needs of Long Island. the needs of the lower Hudson Valley that Metro-North provides services to, or New York City in terms of its bus and subway system, we will miss that regionality. So if we start to hive off sections of the MTA and manage them specifically from the needs of that constituency base, we’re gonna get hurt on a regional basis.”
It’s hard to assess claims of regionality from the MTA simply because the organization is still so siloed. Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road don’t get along and lack interoperability. The fare structure isn’t harmonized across the various agencies and promises to streamline operations have been slow to become reality. Still, the idea that the MTA benefits the entire region is still valid. Just because the vast majority of rides originate in the five boroughs doesn’t mean the only people who benefit are city residents, and the mayor appoints four board seats, second only to the Governor’s six nominees.
So what’s the right answer? Is there one? Mayoral control of the MTA brings with it mayoral responsibilities and obligations. It’s a non-starter for political reasons, and it isn’t something New York voters should rush to embrace for economic reasons as well. It will, however, never not be a campaign issue because it sounds good on the surface. Ideas that sound good on the surface though often aren’t underneath.
Early last week, The Times ran this editorial on the transit ideas that have come out of the 2013 mayoral campaign, and I sat on the article for a few days. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that candidates have decided to focus, to some degree or another, on transit issues, but on the other, the editorial is incredibly disappointing. It praises the candidates for offering up their ideas without taking a critical look at how nearly all of the ideas have been bad ones.
In fact, the editorial proclaimed many of the transit ideas “good,” and I had to wonder if we were all paying attention to the same campaign. Without even acknowledging John Catsimatidis’ zany monorail plans, The Times praised Christine Quinn’s horrendous Triboro RX SBS route, the new-found love affair with ferries and many plans already in the works, including more Select Bus Service routes and the Penn Station Access plan. “It will take effort and political skill to turn ideas into reality, from the tiny — Ms. Quinn proposes countdown clocks outside subway stations, which would be quite nice — to the transformational. But few jobs are more important for the next mayor,” The Times said.
The worst part though isn’t the fawning over half-hearted attempts at avoiding the city’s serious mobility problems. Rather, it is the framing device The Times used to present it editorial. It launched the piece with praise of Rudy Giuliani’s move to make the Staten Island Ferries free. It is, they said, “a small daily improvement in commuters’ lives that, multiplied by millions of rides and many years, surely adds up to something monumental.” Even though the decision was “influenced as much by politics as by need,” it is “an example of what can happen when a New York mayor highlights and fixes a neglected transportation problem.” Except its not at all.
By making the Staten Island Ferry free, the city has foregone literally millions of dollars annually that could have been invested into the transit system. This money could have been used to improve other connections between Staten Island and the rest of the city. Even if the city had simply installed Metrocard machines and granted ferry riders a free transfer to the subway or bus, the annual take still would have been around $5 million. Over the course of 16 years, that’s around $80 million not available for other improvements for no good reason other than politics. Is it worth it?
Shortly after making the Metrocard’s replacement a campaign issue, Christine Quinn dragged the MTA’s countdown clocks into the fray as well. As A Division riders adjust to the comforts of life with countdown clocks, Quinn wants the MTA to expand the program so that the clocks are available outside of subway stations. Quinn claims, incorrectly, that most stations do not have clocks visible until after a customers has swiped through fare control, and she wants to make transit more efficient by eliminating the need to walk downstairs to check on the next arriving train.
“Providing riders with information is not complicated; it’s the least the MTA can do,” she said. “By taking common-sense steps and making simple changes to the way information is provided to subway riders, we take the frustration and anxiety out of daily commuting.”
The MTA hasn’t responded to Quinn’s statements, but I don’t think this is quite as big a concern as she thinks. Essentially, at an undetermined cost, Quinn wants to move countdown clocks from fare control to the surface level while other options — real-time subway tracking apps, for instance — exist. At stations where CBS Outdoors has installed their advertising screens, the MTA could incorporate the Subway Time API into the digital feeds, but this seems like a solution in search of a problem. A far better proposal would involve funding for speeding up the effort to bring these clocks to the B Division’s lettered subway lines.
In the same release, Quinn also proposed providing audio announcements on buses and subways in Spanish throughout the system and “other native languages…in communities where it is most helpful.” It’s a noble gesture, but aren’t we deluged with enough noise pollution in the subways as it is? Do we have to be told about suspicious packages or unavoidable delays in two or three other languages when we often just want to ride home in peace?
Once upon a time, Alan Hevesi, then the comptroller of New York State, fired a complaint at the MTA that the agency had been maintaining two sets of books. Claiming that the MTA hid $500 million in order to justify a fare hike, Hevesi leveled this charge at a time public sentiment toward the MTA was at a low, and it stuck. The MTA’s bookkeeping had been sloppy, but not illegally so. A judge eventually found no wrong-doing or evidence to back Hevesi’s claim, and the comptroller himself wound up in jail for his own fiscal improprieties.
Still, the idea that the MTA has two sets of books has been an enduring and popular myth. The public can easily latch onto it because they don’t feel the MTA is own their side, and politicians use it to curry favor with disgruntled voters. It came up in both 2009 and 2010, and now that a potential mayoral candidate is riding the coattails of his time with the MTA, in essence, it is resurfacing again this year.
The latest issue comes from — you guessed it — Staten Island, and it involves Senator Andrew Lanza and Representative Nicole Malliotakis. When we last ran across these two, they had recently been railing against better bus service after bemoaning the lack of transit options for Staten Islanders. Malliotakis seemed awfully concerned with a theoretical group of senior citizen drivers who would find themselves in bus lanes and panic over receiving a ticket.
Anyway, after Joe Lhota last week in a debate called the MTA “most transparent governmental organization,” Lanza and Malliotakis responded in turn. Judy Randall from the Staten Island Advance has the story:
The two lawmakers are backing Lhota rival John Catsimatidis, who didn’t appear to take umbrage at the comment during the debate, but joined them in denouncing it in a joint statement. “When I think of the MTA, many descriptions pop into my head,” Catsimatidis said. “Transparent is not one of them.”
“Joe Lhota’s statement defending the MTA is a gross untruth,” said Lanza (R-Staten Island), adding that the agency fought to defeat legislation he authored which would have required it to undergo an independent audit. “That action alone certainly undermines Joe Lhota’s laughable claim that the MTA is the most transparent agency in the USA.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Malliotakis (R-East Shore/Brooklyn) took exception with the agency’s finances. “The MTA has a $250 million surplus from the tolls it collects from the bridge,” she said. “Under Lhota’s watch, the MTA reached a debt of $40 billion. I, for one, would like to know where that money is being spent.”
Lhota responed with a statement concerning his desire to remove the MTA bridges from state control, but put that zany idea aside for now. The real issue is one of accountability and transparency. The MTA is very transparent. It posts all of its budget materials and board materials on its website as soon as these materials are available for public consumption, and anyone with a little bit of time, energy and focus can wade through them to develop a picture of the MTA’s finances. If Malliotakis, for one, would like to know where the money is being spent, she should just look for herself.
The real issue — and it’s always an issue politicians are loath to explore — concerns not how the MTA spends money but how much they’re spending and on what. It’s great the MTA has become so transparent in light of where they used to be with budget information; it’s no so great that so much money is tied up in debt payments and pension and benefits obligations. It’s shocking that the MTA is spending nearly a $1 billion per new station for the Second Ave. Subway and is constructing the world’s most expensive transit projects the city over.
At a certain point, someone in Albany has to take some responsibility for understanding and appreciating the fiscal mess the MTA has found itself in. It’s not a mess the agency is trying to hide, and it’s one out there for everyone to see without the need to subpoena, FOIA or forensically audit the agency. It’s under our noses, but our politicians would rather take pot shots at the agency than attempt to solve the problems. That’s not government at its finest.
Even though numerous lower courts have upheld the Payroll Mobility and even after New York State’s Appellate Division judges overturned the lone Supreme Court case that didn’t find the tax constitutional, Nassau County isn’t giving up. The Long Island plaintiffs will appeal this week’s decision to the Court of Appeals, the highest state court in New York’s judiciary system, Newsday reported today.
Details on the appeal as scarce for now, but it seems that Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is content to spend more taxpayer dollars pursuing a lawsuit he has no chance of winning. Meanwhile, those from north of the city are still bemoaning the tax as well. “Dutchess County can’t afford this tax. It’s bad for the economy, whether it’s constitutional or not,” Assembly rep Kieran Lalor from Fishkill said. (This isn’t the first time Lalor has slammed the tax.)
Ultimately, though, this tax isn’t any more of a job-killer than completely defunding the MTA to the tune of $1.3 billion annually would be. The regional economy would simply dry up without this subsidy. The tax is constitutional, and it will remain on the books. If Lalor and his ilk dislike it, it’s up to them and other state representatives to find a better solution that they feel is more equitable than a payroll tax.