Transit Advocates Ask Cuomo to Ride the Subway Like a Real New Yorker

Transit ridership is soaring, delays are way up, and the MTA has a $14 billion hole in its capital plan. MTA leadership is sounding the alarm, but Albany doesn’t seem to notice. With the clock ticking on the year’s legislative session, transit advocates are asking Governor Andrew Cuomo to hop out of his muscle car and ride the subway with them to experience the MTA’s needs first-hand.

If the governor experienced a typical New Yorker's transit commute, he might be more inclined to fund the MTA capital plan, advocates say. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr
If the governor experienced a typical New Yorker’s transit commute, he might be more inclined to fund the MTA capital plan, advocates say. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr

The governor has ridden the subway before, but it’s typically a choreographed affair with the press and public officials. His most recent ride, to reassure the public about terrorism preparedness last September, was only tangentially related to transit.

Advocates say it’s time the governor, who has yet to act on funding for the region’s transit investment plan, see a typical morning rush hour. Without a funding plan from Albany, straphangers will be saddled with massive fare increases to pay for debt-financed system upgrades.

“It defies comprehension that Governor Cuomo hasn’t taken up the issue of funding for our subways and buses,” Riders Alliance deputy director Nick Sifuentes said in a release. “The only reason we can think of is that he doesn’t have to deal with the dreadful rush hour commutes that average New Yorkers face every day.”

“New Yorkers are paying more for less and they hate that,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the Straphangers Campaign. “Don’t believe us? Join us on the subway and ask them how they feel about higher fares and poorer service.”

“New Yorkers are fed up with fare hikes, bad service, and overcrowded trains — we’ve been hearing from frustrated riders for months,” Sifuentes said. “It’s about time the governor does too.”

Riders Alliance has launched a petition asking Cuomo to ride the subway. The complete letter to Cuomo is below:

Dear Governor Cuomo:

We write to you after the Riders Alliance collected over 400 “subway horror stories” from New York transit riders, who weighed in with tales of broken-down trains, hours-long delays, and mass confusion on overcrowded platforms.

We would like to invite you to join us for a ride on the subway to see for yourself why so many New Yorkers have subway horror stories to share.

Ridership is at levels not seen in 65 years—more than in generations, New Yorkers are flocking to public transit, and are relying on our subways and buses to get to work, to get around town on weekends, and to access the myriad opportunities New York has to offer.

Specifically, we hope you will join us for a ride on the C train—on cars that are more than 50 years old, stopping at stations that have not been rehabbed in decades, or on the 7 train, which is over capacity daily and which was recently stuck in a tunnel after yet another equipment failure during the morning rush.

Unfortunately, even with record ridership and with clear demand for a new generation of capital investment, the MTA still faces a $15 billion gap in its next capital investment program. More riders than ever are looking to you for executive leadership—to implement new revenue sources and fill the MTA’s capital funding gap. The alternatives are unacceptable: further deterioration in service, rapid increases in fares, or both.

We hope to discuss the topic with you directly—in the most appropriate setting possible, which is on the trains that millions of New Yorkers rely on every day. We are willing to schedule a ride at a time of your convenience—though to get the full experience, we recommend approximately 8:30 a.m. on a weekday.

A central tenet of good politics is not to make promises you can’t keep. We promise that, if you join us for morning rush hour, you will not need to be further convinced of the vital importance of funding the MTA’s next 5-year capital investment plan. We look forward to discussing the matter with you in more detail.


John Raskin, Executive Director, Riders Alliance
Gene Russianoff, Senior Attorney, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign

  • Joe R.

    When are riders going to ask the $64 question, which is if ridership is at record levels, and fares corrected for inflation are twice what they were during WWII ( ), then why is there still a gaping hole in the budget? Exactly where is this money going? The MTA should be flush with money if not for the fact that it allowed itself to be milked dry by both contractors and labor unions.

  • ahwr

    Per unlinked trip the paid fare is $1.10-1.15 today. Less than the base fare in 1953. Did you get free transfers then the way you do now?

  • Joe R.

    During WWII most of the areas which weren’t within walking distance of subways were hardly developed, so few people paid double fares. When those areas later became developed, we neglected to provide them subway service. Double fare zones were an anomoly which never should have existed because there was no rhyme or reason to them. Some people with relatively short trips but no close direct subway connection were stuck with double fares. Others lucky enough to have their origin and destination near the subway might go 15 miles on one fare.

    The number might be low because of monthly Metrocards and people who share them among family members. Maybe mom and dad had different shifts so they can use the same monthly Metrocard. And they can use that card on weekends, too. Even going with your number, ridership is higher today, so the MTA is taking in at least as much in inflation adjusted dollars as in 1953 when the system seemed to manage just fine.

    The hard fact is the cost of large construction projects and labor have both exceeded the rate of inflation. The entire IRT was built for less in inflation adjusted dollars ( ) than what the 2nd Avenue stubway is costing. And this is despite the fact we’re not relying largely on manual labor with pick axes.

    I have a running bet with a few people on when the MTA will go bankrupt, forcing shutdown of mass transit in NYC for good. I’m giving it ten more years. The MTA is hemorrhaging money like a drunk sailor but neither the state nor the feds seem interested in helping it. Maybe Governer Coma should try riding the subway to see for himself how people are paying more for less. Slower trains, more overcrowded trains, no plans in sight for subway expansion to parts of the city in need of it, capital projects which go years and billions of dollars over budget. WTF are the voters tolerating this nonsense?

  • ahwr

    I’m honestly skeptical of it

    Revenue/unlinked trips

    Double fare zones were an anomoly

    Subway transfers weren’t always free.

    which never should have existed

    If a long trip with a transfer or two from eastern Queens to Manhattan or Brooklyn has to cost the same as a short trip of just a couple stops then that short trip is going to be pricey.

    Double fare zones wouldn’t have existed.

    They existed long before low density housing tracts without the density to support a subway were thrown up in eastern Queens.

    MTA is taking in at least as much in inflation adjusted dollars as in 1953 when the system seemed to manage just fine.

    With significant public support and deferred maintenance. How’s the city and state contribution, and level of maintenance performed then compare to today?

    Cuomo told the MTA to cave in to the LIRR unions. He won’t help you deal with the cost of labor.

  • BBnet3000

    He’s the face of the reactionary New York City culture that considers car ownership to be a status symbol. He’s from Forest Hills and has never rode transit regularly. Yes, his Dad was the Governor, but only in America does that mean he’d never have rode a train at any time in his life when nobody even knew who he was.

  • Joe R.

    For practical reasons we never opted to have a fare based on distance. There are pros and cons to it but the hard fact is it would have been too cumbersome to implement prior to the Metrocard. In theory it could be done now with the Metrocard but there would only be public support for the idea if the end result was the price of short trips going way down, not the price of longer ones going up.

    10K per square mile, which is about what you achieve in NYC with only single family housing tracts, is still enough to support a subway. Besides, don’t you think if you built subways in less dense parts of the city, then rezoned near the stations, you would get dramatically higher density within a decade? Remember when the IRT was built the parts in the north Bronx were greenfields. They didn’t stay that way for long.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’d add that dedicated MTA revenues have soared, with real estate sales — and real estate transfer taxes — back at bubble levels, temporarily. This is the best of all possible worlds economically, given the new normal.

    “The MTA should be flush with money if not for the fact that it allowed itself to be milked dry by both contractors and labor unions.”

    And past riders, with their fare cuts, and other priorities to which general tax revenues (and even dedicated revenues) were diverted by both the city and the state.

    “New Yorkers are paying more for less and they hate that,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the Straphangers Campaign. “Don’t believe us? Join us on the subway and ask them how they feel about higher fares and poorer service.”

    They liked something for nothing much better, and from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s the Straphangers helped deliver it. As part of an “everybody wins” deal. We’re about to find out who loses.

    The answer to the $64,000 question is Generation Greed.

  • Joe R.

    I would probably look at the elimination of double fare zones as a one-time fare normalization rather than a fare cut, even if the end result was the same. It may have been a big mistake however having unlimited ride Metrocards. We should have just had a base fare, period. Or perhaps higher peak hour fares and lower off-peak fares to reflect the marginal costs of an extra rider during those times. In any case, there are all kinds of ways we could get more creative with the fare.

    As for the dedicated revenues, those never should have been diverted.

  • c2check

    I would venture to guess there’s a lot of maintenance to be done on a century-plus-old system, especially considering that much routine maintenance was probably deferred over the last few decades (while we invested in highways all over the place instead).

  • Joe R.

    I don’t doubt that but why aren’t we auditing how much it costs down to every piece of tile and every bit of rebar? From where I stand it seems like the MTA is getting shafted big time by contractors.

  • c2check

    So the real $64k question is why the hell is construction so damn expensive here (and yet so poor quality)

  • Joe R.

    Yes, starting with whoever maintains our streets. I came back from my ride last night with every joint hurting from being bumped around so much. The streets are worse than I ever remember them.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I’ve heard people say it would cost less to get rid of the fare altogether than to continue to spend money maintaining turnstyles, paying cops to catch fare evaders, etc.”
    Not true.

  • Larry Littlefield

    What the advocates are saying is the music has stopped, and Andrew Cuomo is the one with the hot potato, poised to take the blame either for the collapse of the transit system or the sacrifices needed it prevent it after the 20 year debt party. Thus they want him to be seen on the subway.

    What Cuomo is doing is refusing to touch the potato, or acknowledge its existence. Thus he refuses to be associated with mass transit, except for forcing the MTA to accept a continuation of the LIRR sinecures.

    The incentive for all of the guilty is to do nothing, and hope to get to Florida and the grave before anything gets really bad. Although the MSM HAS, in fact, covered this issue for 20 years, I’d say it is guilty too, because it failed to fairly identify the guilty parties — everyone who benefitted from the “everybody wins” deal. And disseminated the “two sets of books” myth that allowed the winners to rationalize what they were doing.

    In fact everyone who went along with that fable is guilty. Including some of the advocates of past transit riders (against todays’ and tomorrow’s transit riders).

  • Bolwerk

    Looks like a couple of million dollars a year in capital expenses. Applied labor would be things like computer repair people and collecting cash, probably paying Cubic to replace worn out units. What could that be each year, tens of millions? On nearly $3B in revenue in the subway alone.

    Guessing generously, collection costs for the subway are probably not even 2%. The policing may even be profitable for the TA, since they get at least some of fines.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I keep saying it. The multi-employer pension fund crisis.

    The same situation as for transit workers themselves — past retroactive pension increases and underfunding.

    But with regard to the unionized construction pension plans, the MTA may be charged for underfunding on past private construction jobs too.

    The remaining contractors in those plans are facing soaring pension costs that no private company will agree to pay. They are looking for a patsy. With lot so our pols in their corner.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t know about unlinked trips metric here. They could be anything. Get on the L at Third Ave., transfer to the 6, and get off at 23rd and you made two unlinked trips.

    You also consumed less subway than someone who got on the L at Eighth Eve. and left the system at Dekalb Ave. on the same line.

  • Bolwerk

    Cuomo is a New Jerseyan, not a New Yorker.

  • ahwr

    Most of those transfers were not free.

  • Joe R.

    Not only that but arguably the trains are going to running anyway, empty or full. Same thing with many buses. The elimination of double fare zones may have resulted in a lot more lines running near capacity.

    Also, the fact that someone may have lived in a double fare zone which was eliminated doesn’t mean the MTA ended up with more money for two reasons. One, I used to walk to/from the subway nearly all the time back when double fares were in effect. I certainly wasn’t the only one. The shorter the bus ride was, the more likely people would opt to walk rather than pay a second fare. Two, when double fares are paid by a significant percentage of riders you’re a lot more constrained raising fares. A $2.75 base fare wouldn’t fly with double fare zones. That would mean some people, many making $5 an hour or less, would be stuck paying $55 a week just to get to work ( $66 if they had to work 1/2 a day on Saturday like I used to). I could make a good case that there’s a maximum grand total which can be squeezed out of riders regardless of the fare structure. In the fare revenue per unlinked trip is really only $1.15 then maybe this makes the case for something like a $1.50 base fare to ride the system from anywhere to anywhere else but you get no discounts, no unlimited cards, etc. I’d love to see some numbers here but I have a gut feeling the unlimited cards are costing the MTA a small fortune.

    There was also that line item “Demand Response”. Based on the numbers, I’m assuming that’s paratransit. That’s over 5% of the operating budget to serve less than 0.2% of the ridership. The MTA should either get a waiver from the feds here, or the feds should pay the entire cost of the paratransit program.

  • Joe R.

    I wouldn’t be so sure about that. You remember the Citytime scandal? It wouldn’t surprise me if the MTA pays the Metrocard system programmers some ridiculous sum. If there’s any constant in the universe, it’s that government agencies and quasi-public entities (MTA, PA) pay $10 for something everyone else pays $1 for.

    As for fines, a judge can fine a defendant but the hard part is collecting. Remember many of the people caught evading fares are low-level criminals. It’s not like they have paychecks you can garnish or bank accounts. If we lock them up for non-payment of fines it costs the city big time.

  • Joe R.

    Explain one thing to me—how can you retroactively increase pensions? That seems like it would be a financial disaster. A employer can only pay for a pension if the future costs are known well in advance, giving the employer a chance to invest the necessary funds. Now if you change the rules in the middle of the game, the employer is suddenly stuck with more obligations even though the invested assets based on the old obligations are insufficient. That alone seems like a basis for voided these retroactive pension increases. Why would anyone have signed on?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Because they can.

    In case you haven’t noticed we have a national disaster for state and local government, for two reasons. Retroactive pension increases for public employees. And taxpayer underfunding of the pensions that were promised to begin with.

    The distribution of the guilt varies from place to place, but we are the place where the unions and their past and older members are the most guilty, and taxpayers the least guilty. With this union perhaps the most guilty of all.

    The whole thing is under Omertà, because everyone was in on it.

  • ahwr

    Re transfers before/after metrocard the MTA either gets less money for the same service or the same money for more service. One person doesn’t mean an extra bus, but the extra fare or not from them is negligible. Both are only relevant in the aggregate.

    Some of the transfers to get the average fare per unlinked trip down to $1.10-1.15 were always free, some have been free since before the metrocard was introduced. Average fare per non student non employee swipe was $1.42-1.88 depending on fare type, $1.65 overall, in 2012. Per linked trip it was $1.80-2.16, $1.96 overall. A $1.50 base fare with transfers would be a 23.5% cut over 2012 revenue, would be even worse now.

    Yes demand response is paratransit, and it costs every large transit system dearly.

    Check any other city you want. Why should NYC get a waiver and leave the city’s handicapped without mobility?

    A much more realistic way to push some of the cost off the MTA is to mandate all taxis be accessible. The city only let the cabs run for a few years, give them until 2020 and it will all be covered by new purchases. Maybe as part of a deal to let cabs stay on the road a little longer, so the cab companies will see some savings to go with the new unfunded mandate. Then offer vouchers, let people pay for a cab with a city issued credit card, only charge them for a metrocard swipe, MTA covers the difference. It will be easy enough to know the origin and destination, so you’ll know if the trip was eligible for the subsidized cab fare.

    High level ‘platforms’ on sidewalks so buses don’t have to kneel, elevators at all subway stations etc…would help a lot too.

  • ahwr

    Larry, could you recommend any books on the state/local debt bubble? I like your site, but sometimes it’s nice to read something organized into a book.

  • Bolwerk

    I guess you can go to and see what relevant employees make. But even if they’re overpaid, it’s going to be a drop in the bucket. Generally speaking, a government job means a paycut over the private sector.

    Contractor malfeasance maybe another story. Programmers probably fall under the capital costs, but the total collection costs capital item was easy to find: it was about $4M in 2012. No idea if that fluctuates year to year (some capital items do). The MTA doesn’t seem to be mishandling this, certainly not egregiously.

  • Bolwerk

    There have always been free transfers. It doesn’t make much of a difference though; ridership habits have probably changed, and comparing an unlinked trip today with an unlinked trip then is not very edifying without a lot more information.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Most of those books have yet to be written. But there is one that deals specifically with the TWU and the 20/50 pension strike.

    As far as I know the only person who has linked debts (as at the MTA) retroactive pension increases (as for NYC teachers) and other public policies with a broader value system is me.

    I am in the process of rolling out and attempting to summarize data from the 2012 Census of Governments. One of the biggest project will be a ranking of states (with NYC and the rest of the state separately) based on “sold out futures” — past infrastructure investment, past debt, current pension underfunding, current and past pension contributions.

    The last time I did that, based on the 2007 Census of Governments, the worst were (in order) Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, NYC (if a separate state), Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky and New Jersey. The only reason NYC did not rank worse was high infrastructure investment. That is now coming to an end.

  • HamTech87

    Please ask him to ride a bus, too! Or try riding a Westchester County Bee-Line Bus after rush hour.

  • Joe R.

    I skimmed over the material you linked to, and also saved the post on my hard drive in case it or you disappear. Seriously, this has the makings of a major scandal. Legislatures have no business making pension deals, particularly ones they know they can’t afford. Small wonder NYC spends more per capita on public schools than just about anywhere else with little to show for it. This info needs to get out there. I’m not sure what can be done at this point to fix it but people need to know. I’m still hoping there’s some sort of loophole where the entire UFT contract can be voided because the process which drafted it was so corrupt and unethical.

    I also don’t know why teachers (or cops for that matter), need a 25/55 pension plan. Neither job is physically burdensome such that your body is shot by age 55. In fact, other than track worker none of the jobs at the MTA fall into that category, either. 70 should be the earliest age anyone with a non-physically demanding job can collect a pension, 75 or 80 if you have a non-physical job. Sure, it’s great for the teacher who essentially get a 30 to 40 year vacation at taxpayer expense but it stinks for everyone else. People like my brother and sister often tell me they don’t think they’ll ever be able to retire, and here we have teachers going out at 55, which is an age where you usually start to reach the pinnacle of your career, with at least 10 to 15 good years left.

    You also have the makings of a good movie there. That might be the best way to tell the story.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The cops are 20 and out.

    After former school commissioner Klein wrote an op-ed in the WSJ complaining about teacher pensions, I goaded Crain’s into asking about the deal that went down before he left. His response was this:

    “The mayor repeatedly raised the pension issue throughout his tenure but didn’t get the needed support in Albany,” Klein told the Insider. “Anyway, my point about pensions is that the defined benefit structure is unsustainable, whether someone works until 62 or 55.”

    Now of course that isn’t true, for reasons that were immediately obvious to you and to any fair minded observer. If workers only get the pensions they were promised when they were hired, and taxpayers put in enough money based on reasonably conservative assumptions, pension benefits may be fair or unfair in their cost, but they are not unsustainable. It is the retroactive increases that are devastating.

    The 2008 UFT deal was merely the most recent big one, and for me the last straw. But there were others in 2000, 1995 — and back in the 1960s, helping to devastate the schools and transit system to begin with. And the last transit strike was the TWU’s attempt to get a 20/50 pension. There are more pension deals under consideration right now, along with proposals to exempt public pensioners (already exempt from state and local income taxes) from property taxes.

    And what is the giveback when SHTF? Screw future hires, who are then less qualified and motivated. In Illinois, they passed a pension “reform” for teachers that has new teachers contributing MORE THAN 100 percent of the cost of their pensions, and not getting Social Security.

    The on-the-books debts and infrastructure underfunding are on top of that. And federal senior benefits, which is all most will be getting, are ending up the same way.

    You could right a book just on the NYC, New Jersey and NY State teacher pension fund. One disaster mostly blamed on the union (NYC), one blamed mostly on past taxpayers (NJ), and one that isn’t a disaster — yet (NYS, which covers teachers in the rest of the state).

  • Joe R.

    And don’t forget on the federal level you have the impending disaster which is deficit spending mostly due to repeated tax cuts on the wealthy (with the Republicans considering eliminating the estate tax as we speak).

    I didn’t know about any deals to exempt public pensioners from property tax. While my mom would love it, we can certainly afford the $4500 a year. In the interests of full disclosure, my late father worked for NYC, my mom for the MTA and the TBTA. She never worked long enough at the MTA to get a pension. She’s getting a small pension (about $400 a month) from the TBTA and she’s getting my dad’s pension, but only because he opted to take a smaller amount with the provision his wife would get the pension after he passed. Even so, that’s only another $1200 a month. Moreover, neither of them got a dime until age 62. In any case, yes, it’s the retroactive increases which are the killers. There were none in the case of my parents.

    I remember the TWU’s attempt to get a 20/50 pension. Glad it didn’t go through but who knows next time?

  • Larry Littlefield

    The proposed deal concerns the big tax breaks for poor seniors under the STAR program. Obviously those with pensions, Social Security and other income do not qualify.

    As a matter of “fairness,” since pension income does not count as income when tallying up income for purposes of state and local income taxes, the proposal is to have it not count as income when determining if one is a “poor” senior either.

    “With the Republicans attempting to eliminate the estate tax.”

    This is the way I put that. The so-called Greatest Generation wanted to build a better world for its children. The richest members of Generation Greed want to ensure a decent future for their own children, and only their own children, in a world they have diminished. Thus the desperation to get rid of the estate tax.

  • Joe R.

    Oh, I see. For the purposes of qualifying for STAR a retired teacher with a 50K pension will be considered “poor”. Your moniker for and description of the Baby Boom generation is very apt indeed.

  • Joe Enoch

    What he is, is a pampered rich kid who’s never had to rely on anything other than a driver to take him wherever he wants.

  • Joe Enoch

    He needs to hop on the 4,5,6 in the morning and then attempt to transfer at 59th st. He might start to understand why the 2nd ave subway is so desperately needed.