Andrew Cuomo’s MTA Propaganda Should Scare the Bejeezus Out of You

The governor and his transit chief, Joe Lhota, spent Thursday abdicating responsibility for the transit system they control.

Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr
Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

NYC transit service is starting to earn comparisons to the bad old 1980s, and Governor Cuomo wants you to know one thing — it’s not his fault.

Yesterday, Cuomo and his MTA chief, Joe Lhota, came out with a coordinated message: Bill de Blasio should pay more into the MTA capital program.

That’s going to be one of the core recommendations in a report slated for release early next week, one of Lhota’s first major acts in his current stint as MTA chair. It’s also the same note Cuomo’s been sounding for years, but with some added legal sophistry about New York City’s ownership of the subways.

At a hastily convened press conference late in the afternoon, Lhota insisted, “This is not about politics.” But the only explanations for the presser that make sense are political.

Why hold an event that’s ostensibly about recommendations coming out in the next few days? Well, the governor’s poll numbers are dropping as a result of poor transit service, he’s getting battered in the press for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on light shows for the MTA’s bridges, and he needs to change the subject.

One way to change the subject would be to provide some basic assurances that the MTA, under Cuomo and Lhota’s stewardship, is moving quickly to identify how reliable service can be restored. A few sentences that delve a little deeper than “state of emergency” or “top-to-bottom review” could have done the trick.

But that wasn’t the message yesterday, and in the context of the MTA’s current crisis, that’s highly alarming.

The decline of transit service in NYC is, at most, tangentially related to the question of where revenue comes from. Identifying new revenue sources can help prevent future fare hikes by paying for needed improvements without piling on more debt. But the urgent, immediate challenge that Cuomo and Lhota have to address is not the fare. It’s slow service and the growing prevalence of severe delays.

Solving these problems requires taking a hard look at operations and project delivery — making the most of the MTA’s current service capacity while implementing repairs and capacity upgrades as fast and cost-efficiently as international peer transit agencies. In other words, the MTA needs to better manage the resources at its disposal, and that is fundamentally the responsibility of the governor and his chosen chief executive at the agency.

As more than one transit expert has observed recently, a bedrock condition for these reforms is the willingness to openly and honestly assess what’s broken at the MTA. And advocates were encouraged last week when Lhota said the MTA would be publishing a performance dashboard so the public could gauge the agency’s progress on service quality and other metrics.

Now Lhota is pivoting back to Cuomo’s favorite talking point about getting the city to pay more. The message is pure obfuscation, not an open and honest assessment of what has to change at the MTA.

For transit riders, and New York City broadly speaking, that’s a very bad omen. It suggests the governor doesn’t want to spend political capital to fix the transit system he controls. If the subways and buses don’t improve, that’s fine with him, as long as someone else takes the fall.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “It suggests the governor doesn’t want to spend political capital to fix the transit system he controls. If the subways and buses don’t improve, that’s fine with him, as long as someone else takes the fall.”

    Or, it suggest he knows that the only way to fix the problem involves massive sacrifice of other things, as a result of 25 years of future selling, with no benefits (and indeed increasingly worse service) for a decade or more before things turn around.

    On the timetable that is politically useful, this is unfixable. Cuomo (and Christie in NJ and Malloy in Connecticut) are left holding the bag for the sins of their generation. The MTA is the canary in the coal mine.

    When Heastie says “lets not talk about the past” it is because he knows that in the past they were ALL guilty. And because of all the deals, favors and privileges that are set in stone, they will continue to be guilty going forward. All that is left is to try to blame someone else. They are all just trying to hold long enough to blame everything on Trump.

    Sorry if I can’t contain my outrage, but it is far more frustrating to be tied to the tracks and see the train approaching for 25 years but unable to do anything about it. Than it is to step of the curve and be hit by a bus you never see. Everyone is acting like this came out of nowhere. Lots of people got past benefits related to these future consequences.

    And, again, not just at the MTA. Not hardly.

  • JK

    NY State already collects $5.5B in dedicated taxes for the MTA — 90% paid by New York City taxpayers. NYC collects zero transit taxes. Who should pay for the MTA? The City? What? It’s said that the subway is the economic engine of NYC, and city is the economic engine of the state. Yet, currently, the governor is spending over $4B a year on “economic development” subsidies to businesses. Much of his handout goes to Fortune 500 corporations that are making record profits. Additionally, the governor’s NYC mega-projects are schemes costing billions that transit planners and independent analysts think are a total waste of money and that do nothing for transit riders, among them: Shuttle train to LaGuardia, new Penn Station Hall, $1b Javits Center expansion. It is obvious that there is something very wrong here, yet the governor — with the active support of the Trades Unions — has completely cowed people in power who dares say “the emperor has no clothes.”

  • Joe R.

    Count me as one who thinks the situation is absolutely, totally hopeless. You have the state of the system, which is more desperate by the day. And then you have institutional inertia in the way of fixing it. The subway WILL die, and NYC will die with it. I really don’t see any other outcome on the horizon. We’re drowning in debt service and obligations to past labor (sorry if I’m starting to sound like Larry Littlefield but the truth is the truth). Nothing short of defaulting on bonds, and cancelling pensions has a prayer of fixing this. The magnitude of money needed is just way beyond what NYC and NYS can come up with even in the most optimistic scenario. Get the feds to kick in $50 or $100 billion over the next decade and we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Barring that, it’s just hopeless.

    And on top of all this you have a governor touting megaprojects which are mostly not very useful to the region like the LaG renovation and shuttle, Tappan Zee Bridge, Moynihan Station, etc.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Thanks to the inherent reliability of electric metro systems, the subway won’t “die.” But it will be bad for a decade-plus, like it was last time. Not as bad, because when the TWU went on strike for the 20/50 pension they didn’t get it this time, but bad and increasingly expensive. Other services will require more taxes for less in service too, and newly hired public employees will continue to get screwed — if one doesn’t adjust for the amount of work they do in return.

    Thus, bicycles. Even if you can’t bike all the way, if your line is going to be shut down for an extended period, you can bike to a new one. This is the first time I ever biked four days in a row. I’ve got days off next week, but the week after I’m going for five — 90 miles. My 56th birthday and sore legs be damned.

    “Nothing short of defaulting on bonds, and cancelling pensions has a prayer of fixing this.”

    What NOBODY seems to realize is that’s how NYC and the MTA survived last time. Yes, there was no formal default. But from 1970 to 1980 the CPI increased 100 percent — and the value and burden of pre-existing debts and pensions fell by HALF. Even though many NY taxpayers were getting poorer relative to inflation too, the burden on them was decreased.

    This time there is a partial inflation adjustment for pensions, the MTA has floated floating rate debt, and the Fed is having trouble getting inflation up to its 2 percent goal, let alone 10 percent, in a global crisis of demand.

  • JudenChino

    As someone who is 100% unions, I got to say, how fucking shrewd of Cuomo to get them on his side. Cuomo + TWU = no cost controls and declining revenue to fund Cuomo’s upstate pet projects and his non-capacity adding vanity transit projects downstate. It’s a shit sandwich and EVERYBODY has to eat a part of it.

    I’m really pissed. I’m considered rich and I’m about to drop a Mil (and use up nearly all my savings — I’m getting a mortgage) on a tiny ass co-op so I can remain IN the city and not far from a subway train. I’d gladly leave the city for a giant house in the ‘burbs — but again, long ass train and then I’m at either Penn (disaster) or Grand Central (not a disaster but my wife and I work downtown and then there’d be the issue of wife and I not being able to back to, what would be Westchester, regularly at an early enough time to see our son). So I remain in the City, in which I’ll get pilloried for being a “gentrifier” notwithstanding I’m not white. But at least I can still bike in. But not everybody can.

  • JudenChino

    You’re the perfect example of someone who could truly benefit form an e-bike or pedal assist bike. I almost moved near you (I was referring to the Park Slope hill previously — that’s why I didn’t want to move to Windsor Terrace; you go up the Slope then back down it) but my 35 year old legs didn’t want to take on additional hills. I wouldn’t mind a pedal assist myself as riding 5 days in a row does get tiring. But I only do 10 miles a day, not 18.

    Between your blog posts and commuting, you have quite the stamina for someone your age.

  • Joe R.

    For me at this point there’s little downside to remaining in the city unless crime really picks up. I’m living in a paid-for house (my mother technically owns it but she’s not going anywhere any time soon). I work at home. I have mid six figures in savings and investments. I’m dropping $5K to $10K in bitcoin soon and if it pans out like some are saying I could be a millionaire in less than a decade (worst case I could lose my investment but that won’t hurt me in the long run).

    Even on the tax front I’m not hurt much by staying in NYC. Once I stop working (which might be soon if my present consulting gig no longer needs me), I’ll mainly be taxed on either capital gains or cashing in IRAs. Both are under my control. I can cash in just enough each year to avoid taxes, or pay a very small amount.

    Unfortunately, your case is more typical. To stay in NYC most people have to pay a small fortune for a glorified walk-in closet. On top of that they have to pay state and local taxes. Whether it’s worth it or not I don’t know. If your job is in the city then avoiding a 1 or 2 hour each way commute by not living in the suburbs could make sense. I personally hate the suburbs anyway. No amount of money could get me to move to one. Pure wilderness, like Alaska, does have some appeal though. So if crime picks up and I leave NYC, Alaska here I come. The climate suits me better anyway. I’m hating hot, humid, NYC summers more and more.

    As for Cuomo, the subways and some of his pointless vanity projects might well be his undoing. The DNC might have to pick a new horse to ride in 2020. Or so I can hope. A President Cuomo to me could well be worse than President Trump.

  • Joe R.

    When I’m riding regularly (which isn’t lately) I can manage 100 mile weeks week in and week out and I’ll be 55 in November. That said, I’m also impressed with Larry’s stamina. The bike riding doubtless has something to do with it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I keep getting e-mails for the NYC Century, which involves people riding up to that distance in just one day.

    But I can’t afford bicycling for recreation, as I need to save my energy for transportation.

  • Joe R.

    Yeah, I keep getting those also. Never did 100 miles in one day. The most was 70. I’d like to try for 100+ miles in one day, but on my own terms. Unfortunately it’ll have to wait until I no longer need to care for my mother. As things stand now I can really only be out of the house for maybe an hour or two at a time.

    With the subways going the way they are, I agree about saving your energy for transportation. It will come in especially handy on those days when the subway has nuclear clusterf*cks.

  • c2check

    If NYC struggling somehow manages to get folks to move to cities that aren’t overcrowded and need investment (Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cincinnati, etc), that could be nice, at least…
    Wonder how long it will take employers to decide to bail after their labor force’s commute become [even more] untenable

  • Larry Littlefield

    The difference between now and the 1970s is that there aren’t many places to flee to. NJ? CT? Not for people, and not necessarily for employers either.

    http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20170721/news/634501/michigan-companies-cant-fill-jobs-because-too-many-people-cant-pass-a

    But at least some of those other places have what NYC did back in the 1970s. Cheap real estate and legacy assets, albeit deteriorating real estate and legacy assets.

  • qrt145
  • Joe R.

    One important thing to remember though is that moving is very costly and disruptive. Either you need to have offices in both places open simultaneously while moving or you need to shut down that part of the business while the move is taking place. On top of that, you invariably experience the loss of valuable staff. Either people don’t want to relocate, or they just can’t.

    In truth, employers could mitigate some of the problems poor subway performance has on their labor force’s reliability by letting anyone who can work at home do so. My guess is we’ll see more and more of this as the subway becomes increasingly unreliable. Until now, many employers have been resistant to the idea. I suspect it’ll gain traction as they get tired of having frazzled, late, unproductive employees.

  • JudenChino

    There’s a 55 mile option and they also are bringing back the Prospect Park starting location.

    I used to occasionally do “Century Rides,” like the Ride to Montauk. Until I f’d up my back doing one (which lead to a permanent herniated disc — or rather, my back was kinda messed up but powering through that ride permanently messed it up). All because I didn’t get an MRI during the pre-Obamacare days as I had crappy health insurance at the time.

  • Vooch

    Dude,

    your sin will thank you for staying in the city.

  • Vooch

    why not sell the entire system to Blackrock ?

  • rao

    Hey, Elon Musk? Want to give a stodgy old agency and its entitled “workers” a run for their money? It might be slightly less complicated than interstate tunneling. Just act like every driver in the city and no one will ask if you have the proper permits …

  • JoshNY

    “It suggests the governor doesn’t want to spend political capital to fix the transit system he controls. If the subways and buses don’t improve, that’s fine with him, as long as someone else takes the fall.”

    Also suggesting this: everything else we’ve seen from Cuomo to date.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ve got a more balanced view of Cuomo, but no doubt he’s chosen to shortchange the MTA because it could be blamed on someone else.

    All his attention has been Upstate, and in the suburbs. The prior Upstate plan was to put everyone on the local government payroll, and have the state pay for it, using money sucked out of NYC. He’s tried to revive the private sector by shifting the tax burden downstate with special tax deals upstate, subsidies, etc. Hasn’t really worked.

    But meanwhile, he decided that something that was already screwed up — MTA finances — wasn’t his problem to fix. So he appointed people who would shut up and leave him alone, hoping to move on before it blew. Too bad. He’s going to end up as popular as Christie and Malloy. Same with DeBlasio assuming he wins.

  • Some Asshole

    De Blasio’s 2013 opponent and NYS rival bash him, but it’s not about politics.

    Sure.

    And I have an under budget Tappan Zee plan to show you.

  • Woodcider

    The MTA is a State agency and unless they plan on giving actual control to the City (which might be a boon to the Mayor’s office) then Cuomo needs to grow a pair before his presidential dreams die on the vine.

  • bolwerk

    I’m not sure you need a very balanced view of Cuomo. The dude doesn’t really hide his shenanigans very well.

    The irony to that is a major issue Upstate faces is it has really, really shitty transportation access for human capital purposes. I don’t know if they recognized the need, and yes it is a need, but prior governors going back to at least Pataki understood that proper rail service would be beneficial to Upstate. If Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rochester were German or French cities, even at the size they are now, they’d probably have decent light rail systems. Not to mention the fact that all those cities are close enough to NYC and each other to sustain proper HSR.

    For the purposes of freight, perhaps Upstate has an okay transportation network, but much of the use of that is selling Mexican and Southern U.S. goods to Quebec and Ontario.

  • patton78

    What about the biggest con of all…that the MTA is going to have to pay for The Moynihan Amtrak Train Hall in the Farley Post Office if the developers can’t make the money from commercial space…..and they still get to keep the air rights above the Post Office.

    That’s the only way he could get the loan from the Feds, without the MTA’s support of the developers can’t make the payments the bonds issued for the project would be considered junk and the wouldn’t get the loan…..that’s right ….think about that …..Amtrak is a Federal agency and they don’t even want to pay for it. While the subway crumbles

  • I’ve done 100 miles in a day on a few occasions, the most being 119 miles the first time I rode to Philadelphia. (I rode to Philly and back this past week; but, as a result of using the ferry from the World Financial Center to Jersey City instead of going over the George Washington Bridge, combined with a more direct route, the trip was only 94 miles.)

    The key to riding any long distance is pacing. If you ride at a comfortable pace, you can go more-or-less indefinitely. I go pretty slow, by typical bicyclists’ standards; I was passed several times on the ride to Philadelphia and on the ride home by men and women alike. But I just went at the pace that was comfortable for me, and I made the trip in about 11 and a half hours total elapsed time, about nine hours of riding time according to my odometer. (The clock stops whenever I stop, such as at red lights, and, of course, when I pause to get drinks.)

    This past week was one of my best weeks ever; and I was greatly helped by the beautiful weather. I had the two days of 94 miles on the trip down to Philly and the trip back home; and I also had three days of riding in Philly during which I averaged about 50 miles per day. The best news is that I am on course for 1000 miles in July for the fifth consecutive year.

    I am a few years younger than the two of you, approaching my 52nd birthday. But I hope to be able to keep this sort of thing up for quite some time, barring any major injuries.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “What about the biggest con of all…that the MTA is going to have to pay for The Moynihan Amtrak Train Hall in the Farley Post Office if the developers can’t make the money from commercial space…..and they still get to keep the air rights above the Post Office.”

    I think the 2000 retroactive pension increase and the funding of the 2000 to 2004 capital plans are in the ballpark, but there are plenty of cons competing for the prize of biggest of all.

  • Joe R.

    I’m a bit envious of you at this point. Taking care of my mother, lately I just haven’t had the energy to ride much. Add in a back problem and other things to the list. Less than 100 miles this year. 🙁 The only light at the end of the tunnel is the fact my work duties are slowing down. I know once I get back into a rhythm I’ll be OK. Just start out slow, maybe 50 miles a week, then work back up to 100 or so.

    I do the same thing as you on longer rides, which is to reduce my pace a bit. I once did 60 miles in one shot. It took 4 hours. That’s a few mph under the pace I could manage at the time for shorter rides. The bike obviously makes a difference. You would probably be 3 or 4 mph faster on a good road bike with the same effort, although it might not be as comfortable.

    Yeah, once I get back into it I hope to be doing riding for a long time. It’s one of the few things in life I enjoy these days, which makes not riding much all the sadder.

    Never did 1000 miles in a month. My best was 724 miles in July 1985. My best month in relatively recent years was 562 miles in September 2012.

  • c2check

    Sure it it. But I think it’s necessary in the long run. If NYC (and other large cities) keep growing at the rate they are, we’ll eventually get to a point where these cities become too expensive to live and work in, not even to mention transportation, construction or renovations, food transport, sanitation, etc.

    We (the govt and people with money) need to start investing in smaller, more affordable cities’ social and physical infrastructure now so they are more viable places for relocating, and pressure is taken off of already-large, often already-overburdened cities.

    For working from home, it depends on what exactly you’re doing. Knowledge workers, maybe. Though part of my office works remotely, but at least I personally find it hurts how well we can collaborate on some projects. But service and industrial workers will not be able to telecommute.

    I also think it could hurt us socially if we all just work from our own homes most of the time (though many might work from coworking spaces). Plus there’s the whole issue of angry voters in the areas from which the jobs have disappeared…

  • Joe R.

    From a purely personal standpoint I wouldn’t mind if 1 or 2 million people from NYC relocated elsewhere. Traffic in my area has gotten ridiculous, to the point I have to ride at 10 PM or later if I want to have a pleasant ride.

    As for working from home, it’s obviously not for everyone but any job which can be done from home really should be. I’ve personally found working at home massively increases your productivity. You no longer have distractions like meetings or phone calls or gossip by the water cooler. You no longer have to deal with office politics. You just do your work and that’s it. Moreover, you can do it on whatever schedule suits you. The big problem with putting everyone in the same place at the same time, besides the issue of spending unpaid time physically getting there, is the fact everyone has different internal clocks. Typical business hours never suited me. I remember being three times as productive in the afternoons as in the mornings. And then the physical environment might not suit you. It might be too hot or too cold. Or you might have to deal with the poor sanitary habits of fellow works. With the level of connectivity we have nowadays, I’ve found I can collaborate just as well remotely, even on high-level projects. True there’s some social isolation, but in the end work places aren’t for socialization. You can always see people when you’re not working.

    I really think telecommuting has a huge amount of untapped potential. If we gave employers incentives to use it more, it could effectively eliminate much of the crowding on mass transit. It could also free up large amounts of office space which could be repurposed into housing.