Throughout this week, MTA Board members and division heads will sit through a series of public hearings on the Authority’s latest proposed service cuts. Generally, a vocal minority of bus riders, paratransit users and student groups will browbeat the board members over cuts that will decimate bus riders, pare down Access-a-Ride and eliminate free student travel on New York City Transit’s buses and subways. Most people will heap tons of blame upon the shoulders of MTA Board members who have few avenues other than service cuts and fare hikes, and some of the city’s elected representatives — those same representatives who won’t fund the MTA — will dare to speak out against the authority.
In a certain sense, these public hearings are a legally mandated charade. No matter how many people step up to the microphone to yell at the MTA Board and to urge the authority to save Student MetroCards — a program for which the MTA shouldn’t be carrying the bulk of the funding burden anyway — the MTA Board probably won’t listen. Maybe a few bus routes will get spared; maybe some of the cuts will be shuffled; but in the end, the Authority has to solve a $751 million budget deficit without raising the fares. That the Authority scheduled two hearings per night for four days this week tells me all I need to know about how the Board plans to respond.
None of this, however, is really the fault of the MTA Board members. It is the fault of New York’s elected representatives who continue to absolve themselves of any responsibility to a public transit that moves over seven million New Yorkers a day. It is the fault of residents and voters who are unwilling to educate themselves on public transit issues and listen to politicians who, through the MTA, isolate themselves for making proper and tough decisions on public transit. And it may even be the fault of those who formed the MTA in the first place and tried to isolate it from the political process.
Over this past weekend, I spent much of it working on a big paper I have to write for law school. The paper is going to focus on some theories of local government law and the way MTA funding highlights the tensions between urban and suburban transit interests. The first section of the paper explores the events that led up to the creation of the MTA, and it is a tale that has its origins in the founding of the subway. Without going too much in depth, the New York City Transit Authority was established in the mid-1950s after the subways had become so highly politicized that no one wanted to take responsibility for ensuring adequate funding levels through fare revenue.
The origins of this problem rest in the early 1900s when the city forced those who contracted to build and operate the subways to agree to a fare cap of sorts. Only through mutual agreement could the IRT and later the BRT raise the fare from a nickel, and even though these companies saw their profits turn to deficits, city officials and a whole slew of mayors knew that allowing a fare hike was the equivalent to political suicide. Even after Fiorello H. LaGuardia oversaw unification and improved the efficiencies of the subway system, the fares remained a nickel until 1948 when the city simply could not afford to shoulder the operating deficits.
By 1953, city leaders knew they had to remove responsibility for subway funding from the direct control of politicians and sought to establish a public authority that would, ideally, operate as efficiently as Robert Moses’ Triborough Bridge Authority. The NYCTA, though, was a conceptual disaster. It couldn’t raise revenue through means other than a fare hike, and it was, as Clifton Hood described in his book 722 Miles, largely unanswerable to the public. It become a bureaucratic scapegoat as municipal leaders failed to acknowledge the subways as a public good and, as Hood writes, failed to “overcome the deep-seated opposition to public investment in rapid transit.” Removed from the sphere of politics, no one took responsibility for the NYCTA.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because history is repeating itself. The MTA has become a far more transparent organization than ever before. It has laid its books open for all to see and has tried to reason with politicians. But a deep aversion to higher taxes and more user fees as well as the easy ability to scapegoat the MTA leads politicians to slam rather than help the authority. Sitting here today, it’s easy to see how we haven’t learned from history, and maybe the MTA — or the NYCTA — is an experiment in government that never really had a chance. It isn’t a failed one per se, but as the MTA tries to solve a massive deficit by cutting services the city needs, I have to wonder when, if ever, our politicians will wake up to reality.