When Bill de Blasio ran for mayor on a populist platform, he didn’t spend much time talking about transit. On one hand, that was by design. As the city has long ago ceded real control over MTA funding to the state, local politicians don’t feel the need to campaign on or do much to support the subway system. On the other hand, de Blasio wasn’t a subway guy. As a long-serving elected official, he drove everywhere. He didn’t — and still doesn’t — understand what the subways mean to the everyday lives of New Yorkers.
This political problem reared its head in early April when, with good intentions, de Blasio drove from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn in order to take a 20-minute subway ride designed to drum up support for federal transit funding. Yet, the Mayor took a lot of flak for his stunt because it was so blatantly just that. Instead of offering up more city money first and putting his money where his mouth was, de Blasio used a subway ride to earn some political points.
This week, the Mayor’s transit problem reared its head again in two distinct, but perhaps related, stories. First, on the day de Blasio’s team unveiled a budget that included a whopping $25 million increase in MTA capital funding — all the way up to $125 million — MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast made the case for even more funding. Relying on a recent Independent Budget Office study that garnered a lot of attention, Prendergast asked for at least $300 million annually and urged the city to contribute at least $1 billion to the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway.
Noting that “the role of the city’s mass transit system is historical and obvious,” Prendergast said today is “the right time for the City to acknowledge the need for significantly increased investment” in transit. “We believe the City must share in the cost of projects needed to ease current ridership growth and the system enhancements and expansion needed to address further growth,” the MTA chief wrote. “An example of such an investment — similar to the role played by the city in the extension of the 7 line to the west side — is the construction of the Second Avenue Subway line. We suggest the appropriate level of City investment in Second Avenue is a minimum of $1.0 billion over the five-year capital plan.”
In a subsequent exchange on Twitter between Adam Lisberg, the top MTA spokesman, and Amy Spitalnick, a top mayoral aide, Spitalnick accused the MTA of moving the goalposts. “We decided to fully meet MTA’s request. Our budget went to print. Then MTA moves the goal posts,” she said, defending the low amount. Of course, advocacy groups have called upon the city to fund at the $300 million level for months, but that again speaks to transit as a priority.
With this ongoing battle over funding as the backdrop, the Mayor on Monday “accidentally” sent an email to a Times reporter bemoaning a long subway wait. He supposedly left just 15 minutes to wait for an A or C train, travel from Canal St. to 34th St. and get somewhere on time. The Mayor, known for his tardiness, supposedly found himself waiting for over 20 minutes before dashing off the email in a huff. For what it’s worth, the mayor is always late, and there’s no record of a delay in the MTA’s text alert longs. That’s not a definitive listing of all subway problems, but New Yorkers have a long history of fudging MTA delays as excuses for tardiness. Just ask anyone who’s arrived at work 20 minutes late for an important meeting.
The Mayor’s optics problem is that in his email he noted that “we need a better system” regarding subway delay notifications and that it is “a fixable problem.” Of course it is, and all it requires is some political and economic support, but the mayor’s tardiness again pushed a real issue — transit funding — off the front pages. Meanwhile, local pols are trying to look everywhere but here for support, and the MTA may be a pawn in the ongoing de Blasio-Cuomo feud. But the truth is that populism and capitalism and economic growth in New York — from affordable housing to a vibrant and competitive job market — relies on the subway. The sooner our politicians digest this reality, the sooner we can move beyond petty tiffs and discuss real funding solutions.