Home MTA Politics After ponying up half a billion for action plan, city asks for MTA accountability

After ponying up half a billion for action plan, city asks for MTA accountability

by Benjamin Kabak

The city and state have spent months sparring over the subway action plan. With the money in place, can the MTA deliver?

I haven’t burned too many pixels writing about the politics behind the funding for the subway action plan because it is frankly an embarrassing distraction from the real issues at hand. The $1 billion will not, as Aaron Gordon recently wrote for The Village Voice, actually fix the subway problems, and the Mayor and Governor have both come across as childish and petty leaders who can’t set aside superficial differences to attack a problem affecting both of their constituencies. The MTA needs real reform and leadership, not money for arrows that urge people to move into the middle of a subway car.

Ultimately, the MTA is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility. The state controls MTA appointees and the makeup of the MTA Board, and that message has started to sink in more and more these days. Still, after months of politicking and disputes over dollars that stretched back to last summer, Bill de Blasio agreed to add nearly half a billion dollars to the subway action plan. With a new City Council more sympathetic to Cuomo and keen to move beyond this debate, the mayor granted Cuomo his wish, and the full plan will be funded. We’ll see how quickly this improves commutes; so far, the subway action plan hasn’t resulted in any noticeable improvements in subway reliability.

The move to fund the plan came in late March, and in late April, after alarming headlines on the bottomless money pit that is the East Side Access, the mayor and new City Council speaker Corey Johnson realized they had just handed a massive check to an unaccountable organization. And so the two dashed off a letter to the MTA asking for accountability. Here’s their reasoning:

As elected leaders of the City of New York who are responsible for its fiscal health, we must ensure that precious taxpayer dollars are not diverted away from the subway crisis to other MTA priorities. The City pressed aggressively for a “Lock Box” as a condition of providing $418 million towards the SAP. Now that the Lock Box has been made explicit in State law, it must be put into practice by the MTA.

It is important that the MTA provide detailed information about each of the plan elements, including the scope of work being performed, how success is defined, and how progress is measured. Unfortunately, although the MTA began implementing the SAP last July, it has provided scant details to the public on its progress and the MTA’s own “major incidents” metric shows little improvement in service. City taxpayers deserve to know that they are getting a good return on their investment. The public is skeptical when it comes to work performed by the MTA, especially given recent public reports about prolonged delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns on MTA projects. For example, the East Side Access Project, which started with a budget of $4.3 billion and a completion date in 2009, will now require an additional billion dollars with a completion date in 2022 and an estimated price tag of $11 billion. The Enhanced Station Initiative, which started with a budget of $936 million to renovate 33 subway stations, will now require $846 million to renovate only 20 stations.

It is incumbent upon the MTA to prove that it can be an effective steward of this short-term emergency plan and that the revenues with which it has been entrusted are prudently invested to deliver results. To that end, we must have certainty that the Lock Box will be implemented and that the City’s contribution will actually be spent on projects that will improve subway service.

On its surface, the letter is fairly ordinary. It asks for monthly status reports on accountability and service improvement and a keen attention on signal upgrades. But it has details that shows the author of the letter has been paying attention. In parts, the city officials ask the MTA to restore all service that has been cut over the years and urge the agency to reassess signal timers, another recent headline. “While the safety of the system needs to remain paramount,” the letter says, “it has become clear that the balance between safety and service when it comes to the signal timers installed since the 1990s needs to be reevaluated. In light of that fact that in most parts of the system construction of new lines is unrealistic in the near term, we must do all we can to maximize the capacity of the system we have.”

I’m somewhat skeptical this letter will do much to move the needle. After all, the city has already ponied up the money, and the letter doesn’t attach actionable conditions to the dollars. The city similarly dropped the ball a few years when the mayor walked into Cuomo’s trap on capital plan funding and failed to ensure its contributions would go toward identifiable city improvements. But the MTA has expressed a willingness to adhere to the city’s requests. Joe Lhota, last week, in fact said the MTA embraced the call for transparency but didn’t respond to each of de Blasio and Johnson’s requests.

We’ll see what comes of it, but I think the closing paragraph of the letter hit the mark: “Failure is not an option and we firmly believe that a more transparent process can lead to better, more effective implementation. We are eager for everyone to put politics aside and support the important work of improving the commutes of millions of New Yorkers. Beyond the SAP, fixing the subway will require fundamentally changing the way the authority does business, including identifying non-City-tax-levy dollars to assist with funding improvements.”

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Pete April 29, 2018 - 11:00 pm

What if the city used eminent domain to seize the MTA? Just get it over with. Dissolve it, end the union and its crazy work rules, fire 80 percent of middle management, make Joe Lhota go away and start all over?

SEAN April 30, 2018 - 9:14 am

NYS would need to approve such a deal as the MTA is under state control as it has been since 1968 & I doubt Albany would be willing to give up a cash cow. That is unless the entire downstate region became it’s own state & then essentially you would have local control.

Tower18 May 1, 2018 - 10:13 am

I believe eminent domain cannot be used to seize property belonging to a higher level government entity. See also New Jersey Transit, Hoboken, and the proposed ferry terminal.

BrooklynBus April 30, 2018 - 7:44 am

It is interesting that you cite Aaron Gordon’s report when speaking of asking the MTA for accountability regarding the money being spent for the Subway Action Plan. But when I asked for accountability as to addressing the problems with SBS before spending billions on expanding it further, you just ignored my three part series in the Gotham Gazette . I would hope you would have at least read it instead of blindly supporting its expansion without even questioning why we should be spending millions on fare machines with a ten year life, only to scrap them in five. Little enforcement of bus lanes is only one of the many problems that are plaguing this program.

Scroller April 30, 2018 - 10:17 am

Someone’s bitter

Larry Littlefield April 30, 2018 - 9:20 am

Here is the question that needs to be asked, though no NY politician will ask it.

When the Times asked me about fiscal issues, I went to MTA budget documents to show how soaring pension and debt costs had caused NYCT to reduce headcount. Instead, I found no significant decrease in headcount despite deep cuts in service and scheduled maintenance. WHAT?

What the Times reported is that the MTA put the positions in the budget but then intentionally kept them unfilled, to save money. Sounds like fraud to me.

So I just finished a compilation of Census Bureau data on state and local government employment for March 2006 and March 2016.


“New York City local government transit” = NYCT. All other transit agencies in the state are classified as state government.

The MTA reported to the U.S. Census Bureau that NYCT had 47,026 full time equivalent employees (full time plus part time converted to full time based on hours worked) in March 2006. And 49,057 in March 2016.

The data is supposed to be actual employment and payroll, not budgeted employment and payroll. What is going on? Is that real? Then why the service and maintenance cuts? Did agency employees stop doing their jobs, even as their total compensation (including the cost of their retroactively enriched pensions) simply stop doing their jobs?


We’ve been scammed, and I’m no longer sure exactly what the scam is.

BrooklynBus April 30, 2018 - 12:33 pm

And don’t forget that when the MTA pleads poverty every two years and insists there is no alternative to raising the fare while refusing to consider eliminating double fares for those who need three buses or a bus to a train and another bus, what is the first thing they do? They give out promotions and merit increases to their overpaid managers. How much of the fare increase does that eat up? We don’t even have any assurances from the MTA that if congestion pricing is approved that they will end the biennial fare increases.

Larry Littlefield April 30, 2018 - 3:42 pm

Another thing that hasn’t been reported: if NYCT farepayers had paid as much per unlinked trip during the 1995 to 2014 period as they did in FY 2015, the MTA would have had $6.7 billion more in revenue and $6.7 billion less in debt.

The fare per unlinked trip is still lower than it was 25 years ago. Not so costs.

BrooklynBus April 30, 2018 - 5:02 pm

But it’s not fair to charge per unlinked trip or two fares for a three bus trip when you don’t charge per unlinked subway trip. A high base fare discourages short trips and unfairly forces those taking short trips to subsidize those making long trips. Why should you be able to ride from Tottenville to Pelham Bay Park or from Van Cortlandt Park to Far Rockaway for one fare but have to pay two fares for a short trip if you need three buses? We need a time-based fare system not a vehicle based fare system.

SEAN April 30, 2018 - 6:38 pm

Or do what TriMet is doing & that is… cap the max fare per day & all rides after are free. In this case it’s 2-rides or $5. Another thing that can be done is OCTA’s zero transfer policy in witch if a transfer is needed, you buy a day pass as two one ways & all rides after are free.



BrooklynBus May 1, 2018 - 9:13 am

That is something they will never do here. If you remember the old fare plans of the 1970s and 80s, they were always overpriced so they should fail. The Night in the Town, the Shoppers Special, even the Culture Loop. Fares were never capped at two rides. It was always about four and you would break even at three. The Culture Loop started at 90 cents. I believe the normal fare then was 30 or 35 cents. They gave this big fear that you will make a round trip for one fare as if that is the worst thing that can happen when with some ingenuity it is quite possible to do anyway. Why shouldn’t someone be able to make a short round trip in an hour for one fare?

SEAN May 1, 2018 - 8:55 pm

London’s Oyster card does the same thing as TriMet’sHop, so there’s no reason why it cant happen here. But, but,but this is New York is not an excuse & I’m putting that line of thought to bed before anyone unearths it.

Larry Littlefield May 1, 2018 - 9:47 am

How many three bus trips are there, for those who don’t have unlimited ride cards?

“A high base fare discourages short trips and unfairly forces those taking short trips to subsidize those making long trips.”

If you can take a subway one way and a bus the other way, in less than two hours, you only pay one fare.

A time based system might make sense, but only if you accept even more of this.

BrooklynBus May 1, 2018 - 3:49 pm

About half have unlimited cards. Students especially those who have classes three days a week do not have unlimited cards. It’s not only three bus trips, but a bus to a train to a bus also. I dont expect there are too many doing this especially if you can ride fifteen minutes longer on two buses rather than take a bus to a train to a bus. This also causes the MTA to operate unneeded bus service because of this trying to save a fare.

The double fare problem used to be much worse when there were no or limited bus transfers. SBS is also making the problem worse. It’s about time double fares were ended altogether unlesss maybe igpf you are traveling for 25 miles. You shouldn’t have to pay two fares to travel five miles or less just because the bus system was t designed to serve your trip. You are already penalized by have no to wait for three vehicles.

You either want to encourage transit use or you don’t care and it’s only a slogan asking people to take mass transit.

T-bo May 2, 2018 - 8:01 pm

Little appreciated gambit!

Larry Littlefield May 3, 2018 - 7:17 pm

Well known gambit. It’s not that you have to figure it out. It’s just if you decide to take the subway one way and the bus another, it just happens, and then “aha.”

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