Home MTA Politics The political problem with the MTA

The political problem with the MTA

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Older and Wiser March 1, 2010 - 1:48 am

It’s time to call the politicians’ bluff. Just like property taxes were the one revenue source newly elected Mayor Bloomberg had control over in 2001, re-pricing its product via fare hikes is apparently still a perogative of the MTA.

That being the case, and given Albany’s demand that the authority live within its means, the way out might be to price the product up to the level of non-deferrable expenditures. Watch how fast Albany would be forced to act if the electorate were to wake up to a three dollar base fare on May 1.

Rhywun March 1, 2010 - 2:15 am

Watch how fast Albany would be forced to act if the electorate were to wake up to a three dollar base fare on May 1.

I guess that’s meant to be apocalyptic, but frankly $3 doesn’t sound all that expensive. It could be a hardship for poor people but for anyone around or above the median income it would still be an incredible bargain. Let’s also remember that the base fare has to be higher than it needs to be because of the unusual nature of our single-fare arrangement over such a huge area.

Aaron March 1, 2010 - 11:45 pm

It’s hardly unusual. MBTA’s subways and busses are a standard fare (including suburban service as far away as Riverside, Quincy and Braintree), PATH, Philly’s SEPTA, Cleveland’s RTA, Chicago’s CTA (which extends into the suburbs), Baltimore’s Metro, even Los Angeles, – where you can take the Blue Line between two different cities (Los Angeles and Long Beach, a 25-mile trip) is a single fare (Los Angeles doesn’t issue transfers but the day passes are far cheaper there than they are in NYC by proportion – any round trip with a transfer warrants a day pass). The only jurisdictions with distance-based fares are San Francisco and Washington, and even BART is a single flat fare within the City and County of SF. MUNI is a single flat fare with transfers within the City and County, and due to geographic constraints, that’s what most trips are in SF. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I believe that most trips that terminate in the City also usually originate in SF, with the exception of BART, which is really a commuter rail that also provides local service along Market and 16th Streets in SF. In Canada, Montreal Metro and the Toronto TTC are also single base fares. To my knowledge, in America, only WMATA in DV/VA/MD has enacted truly distance-based fares for an urban metro/subway system, although in Portland and Vancouver use a Berlin-style fare zone system. Even Mexico City uses a single fare (and it’s a whopping $US 0.15! Obviously heavily subsidized).

To put it bluntly, you’re welcome to your own opinion, but not your own facts. You may disagree with MTA’s fare structure for NYCT service, but in America, it’s not unusual.

Rhywun March 2, 2010 - 3:52 am

I was thinking world-wide, not just America. And maybe I had buses in mind, as in my experience even in America bus service tends to be zone-based – my experience being limited to much smaller cities than NYC and where the system generally extends way beyond the city limits into the suburban and rural extremities of the region.

But OK, as for rail, your point is taken.

Alon Levy March 2, 2010 - 6:52 pm

Worldwide, the Paris Métro and Milan Metro are single-zone, and the Madrid Metro and Berlin U-Bahn are mostly single-zone. But Asian subways tend to have distance-based fare, without the concentric zones of London or any commuter rail.

Rhywun March 4, 2010 - 3:23 am

I think distance-based fares are a splendid idea, but impossible to achieve here due to the highly-successful “populist” politics practiced by every politician outside Manhattan.

Benjamin Kabak March 4, 2010 - 3:25 am

The socioeconomic demographics of New York City make distance-based fares undesirable. I think we’ve covered that in the past. I’ll have to check.

AF March 1, 2010 - 7:16 am

Ben, a couple of points on the history here. The nickel fare was a perfectly reasonable fare for most of its history. The IRT and BRT negotiated a fixed fare that was the same as the existing fare on other means of public transit up to that time because they got a monopoly in exchange (particularly the IRT). The fact that this worked out poorly for them in the long run was their poor decisionmaking and desire for a monopoly over city transit services. Through the 1920’s they made plenty of money, but after the onset of the Great Depression it became untenable, as the currency began to be devalued. Of course, during the Great Depression there was little desire to allow them to raise fares, and it already became clear that the city wanted control of the subways at that point, so maintaining the contractually required nickel fare was used to force them to give up control (of course, the private companies should never have had control in the first place).

By the late 1940’s, it is true that the nickel fare was ridiculously underpriced, but it also was ingrained for 75 years as the price of a transit ride, which is one of the reasons that the price was so sticky. Add in the declining ridership from the postwar high due to people getting cars and moving to the suburbs and you end up with a fiscal nightmare for the subways.

The merger with the MTA was largely about control of the bridge tolls, once Moses finally fell into disfavor, but that could not have happened until the 1960’s when Moses was largely unpopular. Through the 1950’s, Moses retained control because he was very popular and was more powerful than anyone in the City. This did not save the trains so much as give them a few years to milk the teat of the triborough bridge tolls, but then as the City and State collapsed in the 1970’s, so did the MTA.

Benjamin Kabak March 1, 2010 - 9:45 am

I wouldn’t really say that the nickel fare was “a perfectly reasonable fare for most of its history.” By the mid-1920s, these companies were barely making a profit — and that profit had declined markedly from 1904. The city, meanwhile, rarely saw the profit-sharing money that should have been due to it had fares tracked with inflation. It took the Great Depression to ruin these companies, and then it took years of the city’s taking on debt before someone could push for unification.

I think making the argument that the fare was “ingrained for 75 years as the price of a transit ride” is exactly the conceptual problem we have today. Just because something has happened for a long time doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Fares should never have been only a nickel in the 1920s, let alone the 1940s.

bob March 1, 2010 - 12:12 pm

Worth keeping in mind is that the decades preceeding the construction of the subway were (as I understand it) primarily DEFLATIONARY. (Think the free silver movement, WJ Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech.) In that environment a fixed fare seems like a pretty good deal to the operator. Once thing went inflationary with WW1, getting worse in the 30s as the US detached itself from the gold standard, things got painful.

I heard somewhere (not sure of the source) that shielding the politicians from the problems of mass transit (not just the subway, keep in mind the LIRR was a mess too by the 1960s) was an intentional goal in the creation of the MTA. It makes sense to me.

Sounds like an interesting paper Ben. Will you post it when finished?

Benjamin Kabak March 1, 2010 - 12:15 pm

Will you post it when finished?

Probably. I’ll have to see how well I do with it 🙂

David Robertson March 1, 2010 - 12:42 pm


Will be the grade definitely. Do not worry about how well you will do – in my view you have done great, well thought and mind blasting – unless your lawyer/professor is from Staten Island or Long Island who always thinks the world revolves around them and wants to secede from NYC.

Alon Levy March 2, 2010 - 6:56 pm

Um, the 1930s were deflationary, too. Losing the gold standard simply meant they were less deflationary after 1933 than before.

Russell Warshay March 1, 2010 - 12:17 pm

The nickel fare was perfectly reasonable until inflation took its toll beginning in 1916. The decades between the Civil War and the contracts between NYC and the IRT and BMT were years of low deflation. From 1916 to 1920, the average annualized inflation rate was over 17%.

Source: http://www.measuringworth.com/.....result.php

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines March 1, 2010 - 8:31 am

[…] Ben Kabak: MTA Board Hearings "a Legally Mandated Charade" […]

Marc Shepherd March 1, 2010 - 10:38 am

I think AF is wrong on a number of fronts, besides those Ben mentioned.

Why shouldn’t the subways have been built and operated by private companies? At the time they were built, most surface rail was privately owned (freight rail still is). So are most shipping companies and airlines. The only reason passenger rail, including subways, became a government function is because government policy killed the industry.

It is true that Moses’ unpopularity in the 1960s gave Rockefeller the opening he needed to create the MTA. But the other critical point is that Rockefeller saw that Moses had gone too far in his preference for roads over rails. The time had come to plow the toll surplus into the transit system, instead of investing it in more bridges and tunnels, as Moses had done.

Bridges and Tunnels feed a large surplus into the subways today, as they have always done. It isn’t enough to cure all of the subways’ ills, but they’d be in far worse shape without it.

SEAN March 1, 2010 - 11:35 am

That being the case then, to keep fares at a reasonable level tolls on the bridges must be raised at far higher percentages then transit. Or just raise bridge tolls & I mean really raise the tolls.

Marc Shepherd March 1, 2010 - 11:44 am

The question of the “reasonable” balance between roads and rails has been debated for decades. Twice in recent years, the legislature had the chance to shift the balance in transit’s favor. Congestion pricing was first; the proposal to toll the East River bridges was second. Both times, transit lost.

I would note that the revenue from these proposals would not have gone towards lowering fares, but towards the currently under-funded capital program.

pete March 3, 2010 - 6:56 am

The MTA was created to put bridge tolls into public transit. Gas taxes, mortgage taxes, phone bill, natural gas bill taxes, etc already feed the MTA. Each of these subsidy streams was supposed to be the panacea that fixed the MTA finances once and for all. Why would congestion or bridge tolls be any different this time around? Did anyone seriously believe all the new MTA things promised if congestion pricing was enacted?

Rhywun March 2, 2010 - 4:02 am

Except that’s not politically feasible. The majority of drivers already resent, fairly or not, funding transit with their tolls – which is why congestion pricing is doomed, too.

Benjamin Kabak March 2, 2010 - 11:58 am

Congestion pricing is doomed because our politicians are a bunchless of spineless cowards. The majority of New Yorkers are happy to accept East River bridge tolls or congestion pricing and even more are happy to accept it if the money is dedicated to the MTA. The drivers are an annoyingly loud vocal minority, but they’re not why congestion pricing is doomed.

Rhywun March 4, 2010 - 3:29 am

The majority of New Yorkers are happy to accept East River bridge tolls or congestion pricing

Can you back that up (I ask sincerely)? Are there any polls on it? I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to these issues at the time, but my suspicion is that all car owners (which would obviously include every politician) would oppose such a scheme, while many non-car-owners would oppose it on the basis that they aspire to BE car-owners some day.

Benjamin Kabak March 4, 2010 - 3:35 am

I have to semi-correct myself. 60 percent of New Yorkers support congestion pricing if the revenue goes to the MTA while only 25 percent support East River Bridge tolls. We should be able to get one of the two plans passed.

You overstate car ownership rates too. The majority — a slim one at that — of New Yorkers are not car owners. And most people who don’t own a car in New York City aren’t aspiring to do so. It’s a major cost and a major hassle to own a vehicle in the city.

paulb March 1, 2010 - 11:59 am

I think Older and Wiser gets it. There’s no way that the demands that citizens and politicians place on NYT can possibly be met: low fares, strong union, lots of well-paid low-skill jobs, excellent maintenance, high service levels everywhere, low-polluting buses, free rides for students. It’s a shame that the Kheel plan could never get a real hearing. Would a $3 fare be a helpful shock to the system?

Unnecessarily unto the public hearing breach :: Second Ave. Sagas July 13, 2010 - 1:46 am

[…] often jump to the front of the line to get in their shots and go home. That’s what happened in March when the authority heard from the public on the planned slate of service […]


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