De Blasio Should Drive a Hard Bargain With Cuomo on Transit, Not Cede to All His Demands

The last time the mayor worked out a deal with the governor, things didn't turn out well for transit riders.

Only the man on the right is in charge of the subways. Photo: NY Governor's Office/Flickr
Only the man on the right is in charge of the subways. Photo: NY Governor's Office/Flickr

MTA chief Joe Lhota delivered his emergency plan to improve subway service yesterday, and on the question of revenue, he spoke with Governor Cuomo’s voice. The $836 million price tag for immediate operational and capital improvements should be split between the state and the city, he said.

When Mayor de Blasio refused to go along, the opinion writers at the New York Times and the Daily News had their angle: The governor and the mayor have to put aside their differences for the sake of transit riders.

Cuomo couldn’t have asked the editorial pages to deliver a message more advantageous to him. The governor’s poll numbers are falling as rapidly as subway reliability, and anything that deflects public pressure from him to de Blasio gives Cuomo more space to avoid making the politically uncomfortable decisions needed to turn around the transit system.

Given the governor’s influence over MTA operations, procurement, and budgeting, this is not good for the “beleaguered subway riders” the Times purports to speak for.

If you think transit riders would be well-served by de Blasio meekly going along with Cuomo’s demands, look at what happened the last time the two struck a bargain on transit.

At the end of 2015, Cuomo and de Blasio reached an agreement to fill an $11 billion gap in the MTA’s five-year capital program, with City Hall chipping in $2.5 billion and the state covering $8.3 billion. The deal was supposed to prevent the MTA from borrowing that $11 billion — debt that would eventually have to be paid back in the form of higher fares. It represented a significant increase in both state and city support compared to the previous capital program.

There was one problem. While the city committed to using general fund revenue to pay its share, the state weaseled out of specifying where its support would come from. A few months later, Cuomo’s executive budget included no new funding for the MTA, and then a few months after that, Albany raised the MTA’s debt ceiling by $14 billion. The governor had brazenly trampled his deal with de Blasio to hold down debt service and keep fare hikes in check.

It wasn’t as if Cuomo had no options. The governor’s 2016 budget directed $3.4 billion in state support to roads and bridges. His economic development initiatives waste piles of money on boondoggles like a $564 million expansion of the Van Wyck and frills like a nine-figure choreographed bridge light show. Maintaining the New York City transit system is exponentially more important than these Cuomo projects, but in a typical year receives less from the state’s general fund.

Cuomo reneged on his deal with de Blasio not because his hand was forced, but because he could get away with it.

Only now is Cuomo starting to receive feedback from the political system that he needs to make transit a priority — no thanks to NYC’s representatives in Albany, who’ve provided no meaningful check on the governor. Cuomo only feels prodded to do something because transit service has gotten so bad, and so many millions of his constituents experience the awfulness of it every day, that it can’t be ignored.

The plan that Lhota outlined yesterday, with its focus on fixing signals and staffing up to prevent severe delays, seems like a good start. But it’s a sign of how far expectations have fallen that this hasty short-term rescue package is being held up as proof of Cuomo’s willingness to tackle the MTA’s problems. Peer cities like London and Paris are expanding transit capacity at a clip that puts New York to shame, and we’re supposed to be grateful that Cuomo is trying to meet minimum standards of service reliability?

If we want a transit system that provides great service to a large and growing city, we need to hold the governor to a higher standard.

Cuomo should be ordering his deputies to get the cost of capital improvements under control and to implement advocates’ recommendations to speed up buses as rapidly as possible. He should be out there rallying state lawmakers to enact toll reform, which would immediately improve bus service by reducing gridlock, while raising revenue that can be plowed back into the transit system. And he should immediately transfer state resources from projects like the bridge light shows, the Van Wyck expansion, and the LaGuardia AirTrain to the MTA turnaround effort.

The mayor should demand to see tangible progress on these fronts as a condition for contributing city funds. Otherwise, Cuomo can pull another bait-and-switch, staving off the collapse of service and buying a year or two of good will with transit riders (or at least less anger), without addressing the underlying structural problems at the MTA.

De Blasio’s transit policies are far from perfect. He has his own boondoggles, like the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar, and he should be doing more to prioritize bus service on our streets. But on subway issues, he’s finally speaking up and trying to drive a hard bargain with the man who controls the MTA.

That’s exactly what he should be doing, and scolding him for it isn’t doing transit riders any favors.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Only now is the governor starting to receive feedback from the political system that he needs to make transit a priority — and no thanks to NYC’s representatives in Albany, who’ve provided no meaningful check on the governor.”

    On the contrary, they would provide a check on the Governor if he actually wanted to spend more on transit and less on more politically powerful priorities, or tried to insist on more bang for the buck.

    “Cuomo only feels prodded to do something because the state of transit service has gotten so bad, and so many millions of his constituents experience the awfulness of it every day, that it can’t be ignored.”

    Like global warming, what was great about the MTA in the past is that the awfulness was guaranteed not to be experienced until it was too late to do anything about it. Nobody is going to wave a magic wand and make 20-plus years of debt, the 2000 pension increase, and now ever many years of secret deferred maintenance go away. Note that the price of these policies, and even that they existed, was never really announced to the public.

    It would take at least several years to turn this around. At that’s with Ravitch/Gunn/Kiley type people in charge.

  • JudenChino

    And he should immediately transfer state resources from projects like the bridge light shows, the Van Wyck expansion, and the LaGuardia AirTrain to the MTA turnaround effort.

    It’s too late though, right? Jesus, $300M+ for some fucking bridge lights, while the subways crumble. Talk about some Nero shit.

  • Larry Littlefield

    What people don’t get is there is a difference between one time expenditures and ongoing expenditures.

    It make sense to borrow for one-time expenditures with ongoing benefits and the potential to grow the economy, such as the LIRR third track, East Side Access, and the Second Avenue Subway. Though not double what these things ought to cost.

    The MTA is being killed by borrowing for ongoing normal replacement, which is basically maintenance, and flat operating costs, somehow defined as “reimbursable.” That is simply a theft by Generation Greed.

    Demanding that DeBlasio and Cuomo wave a magic want and make the past 25 years go away doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. The future has been stolen across the board. Gradually, a few people are willing to say so.

    For example, I came across this from the guy who cut the pay of new auto workers to $15 per hour in the GM bankruptcy so the company could still pay most of the vastly richer pensions of the vastly richer members of his generation who bankrupted it.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/opinion/sunday/were-making-life-too-hard-for-millennials.html?_r=0

    Then Generation Greed went out and elected Trump.

  • Fool

    Agreeable editorial. It is amazing how poor the journalism of the reputable outlets has been.

    Also disband the MTA.

  • Maggie

    Maybe I missed this in the press, but I wish that Lhota had been pressed hard on why, exactly, the estimate of $8 billion to fix, stabilize, and modernize the subway “scares” him.

    We are sending at least $10 billion on East Side Access, to send an estimated 200,000 riders a day to a new GCT cavern. Does that scare Lhota? Say the ridership climbs 50%, to be generous: that’s $33,333 per daily LIRR rider that the MTA will spend. Is that number “scary” too?

    Why is it scary to say that 6 million NYC subway riders a day may have $1333 in spending to fix a system that literally makes this city’s economy run, is routinely thrown into utter chaos, is not ADA-accessible, and is beginning to drag NYC into global laughingstock territory? What part of a modern subway did Lhota or Cuomo mean to imply that subway riders don’t deserve?

  • JudenChino

    The demographic most opposed to UBI and Single-Payer are the ones who are actually receiving SS and Medicare Part A.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Only after defaulting on its debts.

    The MTA already has plenty of revenue to pay for its future capital needs, and operating needs, and retirement benefits being earned each day by those working today. Or could with some reasonable increases in productivity and less ripoffs by contractors.

    But all those revenues are being sucked into the past.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “What part of a modern subway did Lhota or Cuomo mean to imply that subway riders don’t deserve?”

    All I want is a subway system that is as clean, safe, reliable and as uncrowded as 10 or 15 years ago.

    With as much speed and service at 60 years ago.

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