As the MTA has spent the last few years careening from one financial crisis to another, it has become abundantly clear that Albany isn’t going to help the New York Metropolitan Area’s transit network stay solvent. As our state representatives have refused to acknowledge the vital role public transportation plays in the region’s — and indeed the state’s — economy, our legislatures have offered half-hearted measures with faulty economic bases while ignoring comprehensive solutions with economic, environmental and social rationales. It has been an utter derogation of responsibility.
In one sense, then, state officials are simply fulfilling the prophecy of the MTA. Politicians originally created the state authority and the New York City Transit Authority, its city-based precursor, to avoid direct voter ire over transit authority problems and, in particular, fare hikes. Prior to the founding of the NYCTA, the mayor and the city’s Board of Estimate had to propose and vote on all matters relating to transit funding, and when it become fiscally necessary but politically infeasible to issue a fare hike, a political stalemate set in.
The authorities were supposed to insulte transit from politics and allow the policy and financial experts to run the show. Arguably, the opposite has happened. Although experts of varying degrees have found themselves in positions of power and influence at the MTA, the politicians can now use the authority as a whipping boy and scapegoat for their own lack of leadership on issues of transit funding. It is one giant mess.
Now and then, political commentators propose to restore more control over the New York City-centric transportation network to the powers-that-be in the Big Apple. Why should a state-established authority have so much power over the subways and buses when those are vital parts of an inherently local transit network? To that end, Chris Smith in this week’s New York magazine makes the case for more city control over the MTA:
As long as the state is divesting, the mayor should make a bold play for the transit system. Bloomberg proposed a city takeover in his first campaign, only to become the latest in a long line of mayors who complain about their powerlessness to improve subway and bus service. Here’s a real chance to do something more than politically convenient carping. Certainly the city could never handle the $8 billion transit budget on its own. Yet Bloomberg should find a creative way to leverage the state’s weakness into a bigger city presence in MTA decision-making.
In exchange for increasing the city’s contribution to MTA funding, Bloomberg could get more seats on its board, or a say in naming the MTA’s chief; then the city could help shape the long-term financial plan the MTA badly needs. That might not be the most monumental of mayoral legacies. But it comes down to what he’s always staked his career on: competence. And this city is going nowhere if we depend on Albany to keep the trains running on time.
On its surface, Smith’s proposal seems sound enough, but if we delve a little deeper, it runs into two substantial problems. The first involves the nature of the MTA and what it would mean for the various subagencies if the city were to exert more control. Because of the need to find a funding mechanism for both intracity transportation and commute rail in the late 1960s, the MTA includes the subway and bus system that operates solely within the five boroughs and also an extensive commuter rail network that brings riders to and from points north and east of the city to work. Allowing the city more control over the MTA as a whole would create regional conflict between New York City and those districts that rely on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North because the city would obviously look to shore up the subways and buses over commuter rail.
On the other hand, giving more of a preference to the five boroughs might not be that bad from a practical stand point. As it is now, more than 90 percent of all non-Bridge and Tunnel MTA rides originate and terminate within the five boroughs on a bus or subway, and Metro-North and LIRR ridership accounts for just three percent each of the remainder. The funding, as the MTA presents it, isn’t nearly as equally distributed with commuter rail earning more than their fare share of the dollars based on a per rider basis. Maybe the city should have more control to better reflect the division of ridership and the relative importance of each subagency.
The second problem is one of dollars. As New York State has no money, the city doesn’t either. It can’t just issue a blank check to the MTA and expect board seats and more power in return because the money to back that check isn’t there right now. The city could, as it tried to do two years ago, institute a congestion pricing scheme or bridge toll plan that would funnel dedicated revenue to the MTA, but without home rule authorization from Albany, that money — and that MTA funding plan — won’t materialize no matter who has the control over the transportation authority.
My arguments here are a rather simplified version of a paper I’m currently writing for a class, and the debate over control of the MTA seems to be evergreen in the annals of New York State and City politics. In all likelihood, the mayor should have more control over the authority, but wouldn’t that just open the door for Albany to further abrogate their MTA funding responsibilities? A possible solution may involve slicing and dicing the MTA to restore the New York City Transit Authority as a stand-alone entity, but even that isn’t a perfect solution as the state could easily take away any funding whatsoever for an agency that operates only within the borders of New York City. The Doomsday Clock, meanwhile, continues to tick.