With recent polls giving Bill de Blasio a fifty-point lead over GOP challenger and former MTA head Joe Lhota in the race for mayor, New York voters haven’t seen a particularly robust discussion of the issues, and even with a pair of debates looming, I don’t expect much of substance to emerge. Lhota faces too big a polling gap and recognition issues while de Blasio has nothing to gain from being out front of any policy debates. That said, the two candidates offered up some vague details on their funding plans for the MTA.
The city’s relationship with the transit agency has been a rough ground lately. City-based politicians seem to agree that the five boroughs should have more of a say on the MTA Board. Currently only four of the 12 seats are appointed by the Mayor, but the Governor has appointed city residents as well. Yet, city politicians aren’t keen on acknowledging that with great power comes great funding responsibility, and discussions surrounding city contributions to the MTA budget often result in a lot of stammering and attempts at changing the subject.
The mayoral race has been no different. No candidates are proposing congestion pricing or East River tolling, and while de Blasio has spoken about protecting the MTA payroll mobility tax as an important source of revenue, Lhota has suggested divorcing bridge and tunnel toll revenues from subway funding schemes. By and large, these positions have ranged from non-controversial to non-starters. Still, this week, we’ve seen divergent viewpoints from both candidates.
On Monday, Pete Donohue wrote about how Lhota would increase city contributions to the MTA’s budget. Lhota wouldn’t provide a specific figure or identify where the money would come from, but he noted that the city should be more involved in the MTA’s capital program. “I do believe the mayor and City Council should start participating in a significant way in the capital plan,” Lhota said. “We need to participate more.”
De Blasio, meanwhile, said that he doesn’t believe the city is fiscally healthy enough to up its MTA contributions. “I think there are some things we can do that are meaningful, like help expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, and there’s a contribution the city can make to that through capital funding,” the mayoral frontrunner said in a radio interview today. “But in terms of the core of our budget, no, we’re not in the position to do that right now.”
Since de Blasio is likely to win in November, his comments aren’t the most encouraging, but it’s all likely to be a load of nothing. Neither candidate has put out a transit plan comparable to that developed by Mayor Bloomberg four years ago, but mostly that just means neither will underdeliver when it proves impossible implement, say, free crosstown buses as Bloomberg once proposed. Still, resignation before the election won’t translate into action after, and the city’s strange economic relationship with its own subway system won’t change much from today’s awkward status quo.