Saving the NYC Subways will Require Money and Political Courage

by |May 29, 2018
steve cohen

Steve Cohen is a professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and director of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Andy Byford, the relatively new head of New York City Transit, is just what the doctor ordered for our ailing mass transit system. He is focused on the basics: productive relations with contractors and unions, effective management of station upkeep, rebuilding the ancient subway signals, redesigning our bus service, and developing a long-term capital plan to rebuild the system. As we learned from an awful set of emails released last week, our mayor is a narrow, insecure and often petty politician. Our governor may be smart enough to keep his inner thoughts off the internet, but he is constantly calibrating his views to the mood swings of public opinion. Despite our “leaders’” tendency to see the world through the lens of their own political self-interest, New York needs both of them to support Byford’s $20 billion plan to save our mass transit system. Both need to prove they are capable of placing public service above political gain. Playtime is over, fellas; it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Neither the governor nor the mayor have endorsed the new transit plan and its large budget. The governor, who deserves credit for recruiting Byford, seems intent on substituting his judgment of what should be done for the seasoned professional he has hired. The governor would like to use new cutting edge wireless technology for subway signals; Byford is willing to settle for a less advanced, but a modern and proven system. It’s an election year and the governor is facing a high profile primary challenger, so every move he makes seems influenced by election politics. He’s not quite sure he wants to endorse an expensive and disruptive plan to save the subways—at least not before the primary and the election. While Cuomo contemplates, de Blasio issued City Hall’s all-purpose response to any request for mass transit money. According to the report filed by New York Times reporter Emma G. Fitzsimmons:

Eric Phillips, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said the city was not willing to help pay for Mr. Byford’s plan. He said the authority should use its existing resources and the state should approve a new revenue source, like the millionaire’s tax that Mr. de Blasio has proposed.”

Fitzsimmons also reported a tepid response from the Governor:

“Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo, said the governor’s office would review the plan. She reiterated the governor’s support for using new technology as part of the signal upgrades.”

Welcome to New York, Andy Byford. Political gamesmanship and MTA mismanagement is what has led to the collapse of our mass transit system. The mayor seems content to blame the governor for the decrepit and mismanaged system, and the governor wants to somehow dodge the political blame for the system’s problems during his campaign for reelection. Moreover, the governor’s image as a “hands-on” manager leads him to push for a solution to the signal problem that may still be a decade away. It’s all beyond pathetic.

Both the mayor and the governor know that the transit system requires a new revenue stream. Cuomo dipped his toe in the water to test a congestion fee, and de Blasio continues to argue for a millionaire’s tax. Like the dysfunctional fools in Congress, the idea of compromise seems to elude them. Unlike Washington, where the impact of ideology and intransigence is often indirect and difficult to follow, New York City’s gridlocked streets and deteriorating subways are easily observable facts. The two guys responsible for the mess are the mayor and the governor. They have a responsibility to the working people of New York City to swallow their political pride, negotiate, and solve this problem. Anything less is political malpractice. Both are long time politicos, and they may dislike each other but they once worked together. It is time to do what is right and put aside politics for the sake of good governance.

New York City is growing in population. Unlike the late 1970s and early 1980s when we rebuilt the system the last time, the city is booming. Construction cranes are everywhere. And the growth is not limited to Manhattan, but it is concentrated in places that have subway service. The city and state should sit down together, along with key stakeholders such as developers, unions, and community groups, and develop a way to tax the city’s new economic energy to pay for some of the costs of a growing mass transit system. Congestion fees, real estate surcharges, enhanced air rights, income taxes, sales taxes: everything should be on the table along with a commitment to fully fund the system’s needs. The modernization of the system is not going to be cheap, but its funding is a necessity for the city and far from optional.

The city’s subway system is like a human circulatory system, delivering blood to key organs. Its deterioration threatens the city’s economic, cultural and social life. Its revival, along with a modernized water, energy, and waste system, helps ensure the long-term sustainability of the city. It is hard to believe that a mayor of New York City could look away from this issue and simply point to the governor and say: “it’s his problem.” It’s equally hard to believe that people in New York will simply sit back and let the system collapse.

Governor Cuomo has taken some significant steps to help address the issue: Appointing Joe Lhota to chair the MTA put a professional manager in charge of the show. Recruiting Andy Byford to be the new head of New York City Transit put a well-respected, experienced mass transit pro in charge of the toughest part of the operation. The $800 million rapid repair fund was another piece of Cuomo leadership, and getting the city to pay half of that funding was an act of political craftsmanship. But all of that was the easy stuff. The more difficult task lies ahead. It requires the kind of leadership New York City has enjoyed at many critical times during its history: Dewitt Clinton’s Erie Canal, Fiorello LaGuardia’s partnership with FDR during the Great Depression, Ed Koch during the fiscal crisis, David Dinkins’ anti-crime “Safe Streets Safe City” initiative, Rudy Giuliani during 9-11 and the difficult days that followed (the other Rudy, remember him?), Mike Bloomberg in the decade after 9-11 when today’s New York City was reborn. And sometimes the city’s mayors worked together with New York’s governors to provide the vital leadership and support that enabled the city to continue its progress. Without Governor Hugh Carey, New York City would have gone broke. Without Governor Mario Cuomo’s ultimate agreement, the new funding for police and youth programs sought by Dinkins would have not been permitted by the state legislature; where would we be today with 10,000 fewer cops?

While the city’s near-bankruptcy required creation of a state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the MTA is not a state-wide agency. Its work is all in the New York City metro region and its impact on New York City is massive. Although the governor controls the MTA, the city is a key partner with significant representation on its board. The state’s management of the city’s transit system is constrained by the politics of upstate versus downstate. This is a distinction often ignored by city residents, but the mayor must understand that though New York City’s rich and poor are a tale of two cities, New York state’s geography of wealth and poverty has created a tale of two states. Upstate is a poor struggling industrial region in decline; downstate is a rich and thriving metropolis anchored by New York City. The governor is responsible for both states. Upstate’s economic crisis constrains Cuomo’s flexibility, but it should not constrain his leadership or search for compromise.

The governor must take private, concrete steps to open up a true dialogue with the mayor on mass transit funding. The mayor must put aside his competition with the governor and begin to negotiate. The personal and political must be set aside in order to serve the public interest. Both leaders have a responsibility to the public and it is long past time to meet it.

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