Home MTA Politics An overview of the mayoral candidates on transit issues

An overview of the mayoral candidates on transit issues

by Benjamin Kabak
A simple question posed by The Times with some not-so-ambitious answers.

A simple question posed by The Times with some not-so-ambitious answers.

We’re hitting the home stretch of the silly part of the 2013 mayoral race. In two weeks, the first primaries will be over, and we’ll know if a run-off is in our future. The early stages of the race to succeed Mayor Bloomberg have not been particularly comforting for New Yorkers looking for a champion of progressive transit and transportation issues. Buses and ferries have dominating the discussion while a lackluster embrace of bike infrastructure, to say nothing of any truly transformative ideas, has marred the race.

In today’s papers, we have two issue summaries of the candidates’ various stances on transit and transportation, and you may wind up sighing in frustration after reading through these Q-and-A’s. Dan Rivoli in amNew York asked about MTA governance and funding, transit “ideas” and biking. He hit upon the key issues, and the candidates’ responses left something to be desired.

When it comes to MTA funding, Bill de Blasio, for instances, wants to “change the federal approach to mass transit funding and get the federal government much more deeply into the mass transit business again.” Bill Thompson wants to restore the commuter tax, and John Liu would have the city throw in an additional $100 million to the MTA’s capital budget — an amount equal to less than one half of one percent of the capital budget. Christine Quinn continues to bang the drum for mayoral control, but she doesn’t explain why. John Catsimatidis called for an MTA Inspector General, a position that has been in place since 1983, and everyone — Republicans and Democrats alike — has endorsed more Select Bus Service lanes.

In The Times today, Matt Flegenheimer conducted similar interviews with a focus on the question I posted above. The ideas for improving subway service reveal vague promises light on detail. De Blasio wants to “address outer borough subway service needs” while Liu and Quinn repeated their amNew York answers. Thompson wants to “reduce waiting times between trains and to accelerate the installation of countdown clocks across the system.” Joe Lhota discussed an city support for “an in-station recycling program…to keep platforms clean.” Catsimatidis again repeated his desires to build a monorail somewhere for some reason.

As I read through these answers, a few common threads emerged: First, everyone wants more, but no one wants to have the uncomfortable conversations about paying. We want more subway service, more bus service, more ferry service, more countdown clocks, more this, more that. But only fringe candidates with no real chances at winning have mentioned East River bridge tolls or congestion pricing as a revenue generator. (Thompson can talk himself blue in the face about the commuter tax, but that is a political hot potato he won’t pursue if elected.)

The second thread concerns ideas already in place. I’ve already dispatched with Quinn’s countdown clocks complaints, but she’s not the only one proposing something already in motion. De Blasio called for more Metro-North stops in the Bronx, which is the likely outcome of the Penn Station Access studies, and DOT and the MTA are working, albeit painfully slowly, on more Select Bus Services routes. It’s not a promise to call for something in the works.

If I truly believed the mayoral candidates would offer up something juicy during the campaign season, you could call me naive, but even for New York politicians, this is scraping the bottom of the transit barrel. No one wants to delve into the Midtown East rezoning, the Second Ave. Subway, the Triboro RX line or any discussions on funding. It’s far easier to give safe answers, but the city needs something more these days than safe answers.

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SEAN August 29, 2013 - 2:11 pm

If I truly believed the mayoral candidates would offer up something juicy during the campaign season, you could call me naive, but even for New York politicians, this is scraping the bottom of the transit barrel.

True, but what else would you expect with this group of lightweights? Transit makes the city & the entire region what it is, in a word livable. It semes everyone up for mayor is missing that point for the most part.

Bolwerk August 29, 2013 - 2:34 pm

What I find galling is how these debates never go past the level of opposing or at least un-complementary laundry lists. Subways only get discussed in terms of countdown and wifi gimmicks, transit expansion is reduced to clueless/expensive gimmicks like monorails or BRT, light rail isn’t even part of the discussion, SelectBus by itself is an inadequate improvement, the governor has a hard-on for muscle cars and highways, the bike lane people don’t look outside the scope of that pet issue, nobody talks about reconsidering land use, clowns are trying to turn transit assets into parks, and nobody acknowledges that the rules need to be changed so we can actually get anything better than a paint job built affordably.

Chris C August 29, 2013 - 2:40 pm

I don’t know enough about how the Board members of the MTA are appointed / approved but is there anything to stop the Mayor (who ever he / she is) from appointing themselves to the Board as one of the Mayors own picks?

Or the Governor appointing the Mayor as one of his?

Could the Mayor be the Chair of the Board (purely as Chair and not as as president (aka chief officer) as well as being Mayor?

Here in London we have a different model where the Chair of TFL is a non executive chair i.e. has no executive powers and the Mayor can choose to be the chair or appoint someone else. At times Boris Johnson has been the chair himself, then appoints a replacement then takes it back over. Of course here the role of chair and executive manager are totally separate and as part of our governance can’t be the same person.

Bolwerk August 29, 2013 - 2:51 pm

Thanks to Robert Moses, who famously held several city and state civil service titles at once, this is probably impossible. In fact, I think NYS doesn’t allow holding more than one public office under any circumstances, though some U.S. states do.

In any case, MTA territory extends well outside the city, so it might not be fair for the mayor to wield executive authority.

Chris C August 29, 2013 - 7:05 pm

ah right I see the Robert Moses point (coincidentally I’m up to the Moses episode DVD of the ‘New York’ documentary series)

Perhaps that’s why there should be a separation of the chair role from the executive i.e. day to day management role which is the model we have here in the UK.

There are very few if any (if there are I can’t think of any), public authorities where the board chair also wields executive authority here in the UK.

Bolwerk August 30, 2013 - 12:49 am

That seems broadly in line with differences in American and British corporate governance in general.

I think the MTA just isn’t exactly analogous to TfL in mission though. The MTA is a conglomeration of loosely connected public benefit corporations, with NYCTA being more analogous to TfL. You’ll note the inclusion of other agencies like Robert Moses’ former Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

I don’t know if that chairman/CEO distinction is so operative here, but TfL definitely seems to have more direct local input than NYCTA. The MTA is answerable to the state legislature, but in practice they don’t seem to bother it much. Meanwhile, the executive is in theory an independent political appointee, but in practice seems to serve mostly at the pleasure of the governor.

Henry August 30, 2013 - 9:38 am

I was under the impression that TfL acted more as a quasi-regulator that contracted out its day-to-day operations to private companies, but that’s the British transport system in general. At the same time, however, they probably have a lot more control over things that we have issues in New York (such as ridiculously high costs, relatively poor customer satisfaction, etc.) due to the fact that they can cancel or not extend contracts with unfavorable companies.

Chris C August 30, 2013 - 8:25 pm

The under ground (the tube) is operated ‘in house’ by TFL but buses, the DLR and the Over Ground services are all contracted out but with some pretty rigorous contracts such as frequency of services and routes.

Fares for all parts of the system are set by TFL (and complaints that they are too high abound) and there are also customer service issues but what do people expect when you have a large complex system with multiple services that can fail at any time. And failure is more often due to things outside the control of the service. A friend of mine is a bus driver and the vast causes of the delays on his route are caused by (a) passengers themselves or (b) traffic congestion and other vehicles.

Berk32 August 29, 2013 - 5:22 pm

i dont think the mayor gets to actually appoint anyone – just “recommend”

Larry Littlefield August 29, 2013 - 3:00 pm

If no one is providing any proposals, it is because the press isn’t asking the tough questions.

“In response to the deep early 1990s recession, which was much worse of the city and state than either of the recessions since, the city and state cut off general tax funding for the MTA Capital Plan. And despite two booms in the years since, along with the current recovery, that money was never restored. The MTA was forced to borrow instead.”

“Will you restore what had been the city’s share of the MTA Capital Plan, along with enough additional money to cover the debt service on the money the MTA was forced to borrow for 20 years? If so, what tax increases and service cuts will you propose to come up with the money? If not, what do you think will happen to the next MTA Capital Plan?”

And as a follow up, beat the hell out of them about the past retroactive pension increases they closed their eyes to that are now also sucking up money (including the elimination of the 3 percent employee contribution under a Giuliani deal when Lhota was budget director).

SEAN August 29, 2013 - 6:59 pm

Your suggesting that the press do what they are charted to do – ask the hard questions? Come on! They are going to spend more time on the most pressing issue at the moment wich is “Torking.”

Mark L August 29, 2013 - 6:05 pm

Are any of the candidates on the record for supporting or opposing congestion pricing during the 2008 debate over the plan?

BruceNY August 29, 2013 - 6:56 pm

The fact that there has been an Inspector General for the MTA since the ’80’s which few people even know about would seem to indicate what an ineffective money wasting position this really is. Now let’s add one to the NYPD too.

Benjamin Kabak August 29, 2013 - 7:02 pm

I’d actually say that’s more a problem with the way the media chooses to cover the MTA IG (or doesn’t). I’ve read the IG reports; they’re boring and a little “inside baseball.” But on the other hand, they serve their purpose and have allowed improvements. The IG also serves as an outlet for employees to make anonymous complaints concerning work conditions or other problems that may arise. I’m not sure it’s analogous to the proposed NYPD IG.

All that said, a mayoral candidate proposing one in his platform should know there’s already an MTA IG.

Alex C August 29, 2013 - 7:18 pm

If only one of these candidates could use a few brain cells, they would realize that they could actually make sane, yet progressive calls for transit improvement by pushing for the Triboro RX line, reactivation of the abandoned portion of the Rockaway Beach branch ROW, and phase 2 of SAS. Unfortunately, they all drive everywhere and consider public transit to be for the poors, so they don’t bother to think about it for more than a split second.

Tower18 August 30, 2013 - 10:00 am

It’s not surprising that nobody wants to commit to any grand plans, because they know with 100% certainty that they won’t be able to deliver on them, and likely won’t be able to deliver on even the smallest.


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