Thursday morning was a big one for Mayor Bill de Blasio. He had his security detail drive him from Gracie Mansion all the way back to the Y on 9th St. near 6th Ave. in Park Slope because, apparently, the Mayor of New York City can’t find a gym on the Upper East Side. Then, he took the subway for 20 minutes from 4th Ave. and 9th St. all the way to City Hall as a way to put public pressure on Congress to pass a comprehensive federal transportation bill. It reeked of inauthenticity while drawing apathy and derision from New Yorkers and exposes a big divide between the Mayor’s words and his actions.
On its own, APTA’s #StandUp4Transportation day was a worthwhile initiative. Federal funds for transit initiatives serve a wide range of public good in the United States (and help sustain job growth as well), and it’s not a sure thing that the current Congress is going to pass a bill that will encourage and support local transit investment. To hear from local politicians and constituents will only help move Congress in the right direction.
But for de Blasio, the mayor of the city with the largest transit network and greatest use of transit in the nation, the approach was all wrong. Setting aside the fact that the mayor drives 10 miles to his gym, he came across as far too excited about a subway ride that’s routine for millions. He tweeted about it last night, Vined it this morning, and posed with Chuck Schumer a little later. It was a Big Day, drawing Times headlines, as the two rode the R train. (Meanwhile, millions of us take the train twice a day to and from work, and we all have to Stand Up 4 Transportation because the MTA can’t run enough trains to meet demand and allow for some available seats during rush hour. But I digress.)
In addition to his super exciting ride on the Sub-way, de Blasio penned a piece in amNew York yesterday. Again, it’s on the right track, but there’s a big “but” and I’ll get to that shortly. In urging Congress to act, he said, “We are making it clear that failure to invest in our subways, buses, roads and bridges is nothing less than failure to invest in our country’s future…As every commuter knows, if you are standing still, you are falling behind — and in terms of maintaining and building our transportation infrastructure, we are standing still… Without a strong federal partner, maintaining existing infrastructure and preparing for the future will be virtually impossible.”
The mayor isn’t wrong with his words, but he’s wrong with his actions. His current budget so far commits a $40 million a year to the MTA’s $6 billion per year capital plan — down from $100 million under Bloomberg. The Mayor claims he will up that amount when the budget is finalized and that $40 million is just a placeholder. Still, the city’s contributions are laughably low, and even at $100 million, the contributions wouldn’t nearly sufficient. As a recent IBO study found, had city contributions kept pace with inflation over the past 33 years, NYC would be contributing $363 million to the MTA’s capital budget — a still low amount but moving in the right direction.
Meanwhile, on the operations side, the picture is equally dismaying. The Student MetroCards, for example, run the MTA over $240 million a year. They are a way for the city to foist its obligations to provide transportation for its public school students onto the backs of the MTA and its riders, and even after a massive fight five years ago, the city’s contributions are still only $45 million — the same they’ve been since the late 1990s. Simply put, de Blasio’s New York isn’t doing its job funding transit operations or transit’s capital plans.
Ultimately, the problem with Thursday’s stunt is how it fooled no one. It came across as inauthentic because it was. De Blasio didn’t take the 4 train back uptown to Gracie Mansion, and come next week, he’ll drive back to the Park Slope Y for his daily workouts. In a city that relies so heavily on its subways to remain viable and prosperous, standing up for transit starts at home and shouldn’t just be a one-time event when the cameras are rolling. That, though, is what it’s become for de Blasio, Schumer and countless other New York politicians. At least they took the train yesterday — which is more than anyone can say for our governor.