Home MTA Politics The politics of threatening service cuts

The politics of threatening service cuts

by Benjamin Kabak

As news got around of the MTA’s new plan to cut services yesterday, New Yorkers acted with predictable outrage. Many were sympathetic to the plight of the MTA while others wondered how the authority could target two vulnerable groups — students and the disabled — with the bulk of their cuts.

The truth is that yesterday’s announcement was the first in an intricate six-month political game the MTA will now play with the city and state. On Monday, the MTA Board’s Finance Committee approved these service cuts with an eye toward closing a $383-million budget gap. Tomorrow, the full MTA Board, under a legal mandate to pass a balanced budget before the end of the 2009 calendar year, will listen to MTA CFO Gary Dellaverson’s proposal and will debate it. The mayor’s appointees to the MTA Board probably won’t approve it, but in the end, the Board will pass this plan.

From there, everything slows down. The bulk of the cuts — those involving subway and bus service — will not be implemented until mid year. Right now, June 2010 is the target date for the elimination of the W and Z as well as the cut backs to buses. After that, the student Metrocard program will be reduced from a free ride to a half-price scheme in September with a full elimination of the subsidies the following year.

Those representing the MTA are well aware that these cuts are far from certain. “If this budget were to get passed, it’s nothing but a plan,” Jeffrey A. Kay, one of Bloomberg’s MTA Board appointees, said to The Times. “There are many, many other steps and changes that will be made before things get implemented.”

Despite Kay’s seemingly optimistic approach, Jay Walder, MTA CEO and Chairman, was more pessimistic. Outside of a politically unpalatable fare hike, the cuts are all the MTA can do to fulfill its legal budgetary obligations. “I don’t want to leave you with the sense that this isn’t very real,” he said. “There are few other ways to look at balancing a budget hole of the magnitude that it is right now.”

Still, there is an element of politics here, and Michael Grynbaum of The Times explored that today:

There appeared to be a bit of political brinkmanship at play. Leaders at the transportation authority were quick to point out that the [Student MetroCard] program used to be fully financed by the city and state, which have reduced or limited their contributions in recent years. An authority spokesman, Jeremy Soffin, said that it was uncommon for transit systems to shoulder the costs of student travel.

Charles Brecher, research director at the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal monitor, said that while cutting student discounts underscored the pressures facing the authority, it could also be used as an effective negotiating tool.

“It helps create the notion that other parties share some of the responsibility,” he said. “It’s not just a general holding out of the cup. It says, ‘If you, the city, would increase your share, we wouldn’t have to do this.’”

I disagree with Brecher here in one sense. It isn’t about creating the notion of shared responsibility; rather, it is about educating the public about the city’s and state’s neglect of their responsibilities toward the MTA. It is politics because the politicians are the one who can deliver. The politicians are the one who told the MTA not to institute drastic fare hikes and service cuts last year because Albany would deliver an appropriate bailout package, and the politicians are the ones who refuse to implement an East River Bridge tolling plan or congestion pricing scheme that would equitably fund transit.

In the end, these cuts are simply on the table. It will be six months until they go into effect, and that gives New Yorkers six months to urge their representatives to find solutions for the MTA’s funding problems — problems which Albany created. Six months seems to be a good amount of time, but it’s not. If ever there were a time to pressure New York’s politicians, it is now. The city’s transit network depends on it.

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E. Aron December 15, 2009 - 7:18 am

While I understand and agree with your point that the public needs to be educated about the role of the city and state in not properly funding the MTA, I’m not sure that they can succeed at that. I watched roughly 15 minutes of NY1 last night during which they had a segment about the service cuts, and every single caller was apoplectic about the MTA – the MTA – cutting service. Not once did anyone mention their disdain for the city or state in not funding the MTA properly, and not once did any of the reporters mention the role that the city and state play in funding the MTA.

I guess this falls under the fact that one needs to look a bit further into the headline, “MTA to cut service,” but those who do look further into it are the minority, I think.

Scott E December 15, 2009 - 8:41 am

E. Aron, you are absolutely right. The MTA rarely goes on the offensive, and when it does, it does so weakly. Perhaps they’re afraid to bite the hand that feeds (or taunts) them.

I’d love to see Gene Russianoff, or any other transit advocate, interviewed on TV news directly naming the Fare Hike Four: Carl Kruger, Ruben Diaz, Sr., Pedro Espada, Jr., and Hiram Monserrate, and reminding the public that these elected officials are, in a large part, responsible for the current state. Point fingers at the Governor and Mayor who fail to make their contributions as well. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

The media will eat this kind of drama up. The public will direct their rage properly, and the politicians might be shamed into doing the right thing.,

Marc Shepherd December 15, 2009 - 8:42 am

I think you are right that the public is fundamentally uneducable. Transit has been inadquately funded since the Depression, when a government-mandated five-cent fare put the IRT and the BMT into bankruptcy, and launched a death spiral of under-investment from which the system has still not recovered. If folks don’t get it after 60 or 70 years, then they are never going to get it.

But Ben is right that there are some canny politics going on here. It will be awfully tough for any politician to sit still with transit aid for students on the chopping block. If any service cut is going to spur the legislature to action, this one will.

rhywun December 15, 2009 - 10:47 pm

I agree, and I’ve been calling for “serious” cuts for a long time, not just the so-called “doomsday” cuts which in the end aren’t that serious after all and which don’t cover even 1/10 of the deficit. I’m perversely glad that the MTA is finally forced to draw up a budget that is requires real, drastic cuts–because now the public and especially our “leaders” finally have to live up to reality.

pb December 15, 2009 - 8:41 am

I remember when Albany put the package for the MTA earlier this year they were warned and cautiously said that when it comes time at the end of the year they would look at a more reliable source of income for the MTA. I haven’t even heard any talk of this? Malcom Smith and the leaders up there were so playing around and we get the end of the stick.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines December 15, 2009 - 9:34 am

[…] MTA Finance Committee Approves Massive Cuts; Albany Still MIA (NYT, Post, News, SAS) […]

SEAN December 15, 2009 - 11:24 am

If nessessary there is one more card to play for the MTA. That would be a complete shutdown of ALL subway & bus services unless Albany comes up with senceable funding structures that would include East River bridge tolls, congestion pricing & cashless tolls on Northern & Southern State Parkways, LIE, NY throughway, NE Throughway BQE & the other interstates running through Westchester,
Putnam & Dutchess Counties.

If Albany says NO, then the MTA has to be willing to shut everything down. Polititions realize if the MTA is not opperating they could be thrown out of office. That should be enough insentive to act. The key is the willingness to follow through with such an action.

Marc Shepherd December 15, 2009 - 2:25 pm

Your weird suggestion breaks down because the MTA is in no position to issue an all-or-nothing ultimatim. The MTA is the legislature’s creation, and the legislature can make it do whatever it wants. The legislature could put in new management that shares their views, much faster than the voters could fire the legislature.

Indeed, it is notable that in Jay Walder’s Senate confirmation hearing, he specifically stated that he will not be pursuing congestion pricing, even though in London, where he worked previously, they had done precisely that. Whatever his private feelings may be, Walder recognized that CP is currently a non-starter in New York.

Of course, it’s doubtful that NY voters actually realize that the legislature is to blame. After all, the legislature has been fouling up transit for decades, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt them at the ballot box.

Nick December 15, 2009 - 4:46 pm

I’m actually in support of the student MetroCard cut. As a state we already have the #2 spending per student in the US and the results of pouring thi money in are lackluster. I already subsidize this through my state income tax. If it should come to a fare increase or the student MetroCard, I say time to pay.

It may seem harsh, but it’s time to start cleaning up everywhere!

Drilling down on the politics of student MetroCard cuts :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog December 16, 2009 - 4:03 pm

[…] even before the vote — politicians were already slamming the agency for doing so. In a way, as I said yesterday, proposing cuts to the student transit discount was designed to get the attention of politicians, […]


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