Home MTA Politics Thompson’s weak plan for transit

Thompson’s weak plan for transit

by Benjamin Kabak

Yesterday, I examined Bloomberg’s transportation record in the run-up to next week’s mayoral race. Today, let’s explore what Bill Thompson is proposing for he alleges to be a sensible transit strategy for New York City.

For much of the election cycle, current Comptroller Bill Thompson has been mostly silent on the issue of public transportation in New York City. While he has taken a seemingly pro-car stand against bike lanes (October, September), his statements about transit have been seemingly muted.

Muted, that is, until this week. On Tuesday, Thompson attempted to engage in a war of words over transit with Mayor Bloomberg. Per Celeste Katz, Thompson faulted Bloomberg for the MTA’s problems:

Thompson says Bloomberg’s “top-down decision-making approach has led to two fare hikes in 15 months, service cuts, and crumbling subway stations. As fares have gone up, the Mayor and his MTA appointees have been largely silent.”

Thompson said he’d “appoint MTA Board members who are transit activists and more representatives of the riding public—unlike the Bloomberg Administration’s loyalists who have no special knowledge or even prior familiarity with transit. And my appointees will be instructed that raising fares will not be the silver bullet solution to the MTA’s mismanagement and bloated budget.”

In one sense, Thompson is right. Bloomberg’s MTA Board appointees have no real transit experience and no special knowledge to bring to the table. The four votes under mayoral control include a pair of lawyers, a former OMB head and an ex-city official. True advocates for sensible transit they are not.

But on the other hand, Thompson misses the point. Bloomberg’s supposed “top-down decision-making approach” hasn’t led to the fare hikes. Rather, his withdrawal of city subsidies for the MTA has led to some major budgetary constraints at the transit agency. The city once contributed up to 10 percent of the MTA’s capital budget; now, the Big Apple sends just $60 million — or one percent of the MTA’s capital budget — to the agency. If Thompson were serious about supporting transit and if he wanted to attack Bloomberg, that would be his talking point.

So what then has Thompson been saying? He has a page on his campaign website dedicated to transit, but unlike Bloomberg, he has no long-term mobility plan. Rather, Thompson advocates for nothing too radical. He will:

  • Appoint transit activists who represent riders to the MTA Board.
  • Support tighter control and more oversight of public authorities.
  • Fight for more city-based MTA funding.
  • “Review MTA capital projects to make sure projects like the 7-line extension continue to make economic and transportation sense. If they don’t, look at other options like light rail or BRT that could do the job less expensively.”
  • Expand the Bus Rapid Transit system.
  • Maintain the station agent program.
  • “Object when the MTA tries to cut service, as it recently did on 38 bus lines with little public input and little justification.”
  • “Involve the public from the beginning in making decisions about transportation, so that residents are not blind-sided about decisions that affect their commutes or businesses.”

The bullets in quotes are his words; the rest are paraphrased. My favorite is the one about objecting to MTA service cuts. He won’t promise to fund the MTA, but he will object! That’s standing up for New Yorkers.

Thompson’s transit policies show no coherence and no plan. He wants to “involve the public” even though the public has already been involved. He wants to review MTA capital projects even though he has no authority to do so, and he doesn’t seem to understand that the 7 line extension is a city-funded project that won’t be stopped right now.

I don’t believe a Thompson mayoralty would bring much innovation to transit. If he is elected, though, his impact on the MTA will be minimal. The same holds true for Bloomberg. Unless these two candidates are willing to fork over the big bucks, their transit campaigns are mostly just talking points and populist appeals with little force behind the words.

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JP October 29, 2009 - 7:05 pm

thanks for doing that, Ben.

rhywun October 29, 2009 - 7:45 pm

You keep saying the city needs to fork over more money. Where is it supposed to come from…? We’re already worn out from funding billion-dollar stadiums and out-of-control pension costs and health care fraud.

Benjamin Kabak October 29, 2009 - 7:47 pm

That’s a perfectly acceptable answer. But if that’s going to be our solution, then city officials should stop demanding more services — services that cost money — from the MTA. Sound like a fair trade-off?

Anyway, the city has a $60 billion capital budget. More than $60 million should go to the MTA.

rhywun October 29, 2009 - 8:33 pm

the city has a $60 billion capital budget

I’m not sure what that means. Are you saying we spend that much on schools and roads and stuff every year? Holy crap.

Scott E October 29, 2009 - 10:51 pm

Whether or not Thompson is capable, either by skill or by power, of fulfilling some of these promises is irrelevant. As anyone who reads the user comments to MTA-related articles on the Daily News or New York Post web sites knows, the majority of the public – the voting publicTHINKS the mayor has totalitarian rule over the MTA, and they blame Bloomberg for everything. Thompson can either educate, which would effectively help his opponent, or he could just play to the public’s belief.

Alon Levy October 30, 2009 - 12:59 am

Review MTA capital projects to make sure projects like the 7-line extension continue to make economic and transportation sense. If they don’t, look at other options like light rail or BRT that could do the job less expensively.

To me this reads as “The 7 extension is a waste of money and needs to be scrapped yesterday.” This suggests good transit sense, certainly better than it seemed when Thompson was campaigning against bike lanes.

Benjamin Kabak October 30, 2009 - 1:01 am

I too am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on it, but two things:

1. If that’s what he means, then why not say it? Don’t hold back your punches on the campaign trail. My bet is that he hasn’t thought it through enough.

2. Does it make more or less political sense to pull out of a project that is being TBM’d right now? The machines are digging. It’s pretty much reached the point of no return without some serious political blowback.

Alon Levy October 30, 2009 - 4:37 am

1. Thompson has been holding back the entire campaign.

2. It makes more political sense. The machines are digging. Great. Make them stop at 10th Avenue and put a station there. Drop the wild-eyed development schemes, which always involve some politically connected developer getting billions of dollars from the city government to build luxury apartments.

Getting There Is Half the Fun, and Half a Dollar More - City Room Blog - NYTimes.com October 30, 2009 - 12:54 pm

[…] review of William C. Thompson Jr.’s proposed transit strategies, and how they rate. [Second Ave. […]


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