Whose Job Is It to Fix the MTA? 3 Reasons to Point Your Finger at Cuomo

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Governor Cuomo on a rare subway ride with his appointee, MTA Chair Tom Prendergast. Photo: Marc A. Hermann MTA/New York City Transit via Flickr CC license 2.0

Comptroller Scott Stringer came out with a big report yesterday about how New York City contributes more to the MTA than you might think. Add up all the fares, tolls, dedicated taxes, and public funding that originate from the city, and it comes out to $10.1 billion per year.

With Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio tussling over who should pony up and cover the massive hole in the MTA’s five-year capital plan, the Stringer report was taken to be a news cycle win for team de Blasio. The thing is, there are much better reasons to point your finger at Cuomo instead of the mayor.

The share of MTA revenue coming from NYC is actually about what you would expect, since, as Stringer’s report also points out, the MTA spends $9.86 billion annually on services and infrastructure benefitting New York City residents. There’s still about $270 million that flows from city sources to the commuter railroads serving the suburbs — and that’s an imbalance that should get fixed — but in general, the MTA budget isn’t broken because New York City pays more than its fair share.

It’s broken because there’s a huge hole in the capital program and the one person who can really do something about it — Cuomo — is sitting on his hands. (If the core problem was too much revenue coming from NYC, then the Move NY toll reform plan wouldn’t be much of a fix, since most of the revenue would come from New York City drivers. But Move NY is, of course, a stupendous improvement over the status quo, because it attacks the capital plan deficit while unclogging the city’s crippling traffic jams and speeding up buses.)

So yeah, lay the blame for MTA rot on Cuomo. But blame him for the right reasons…

1. It’s His Agency

The MTA is chartered by the state of New York. The chair of the authority serves at Governor Cuomo’s pleasure. Any major MTA policy decision made in opposition to Cuomo’s wishes is pretty much unthinkable.

2. Cuomo Controls the Money

The mayor of New York cannot negotiate contracts with the MTA’s labor unions, reach backroom deals to slash dedicated MTA revenue streams, sneak backdoor MTA budget raids into the state budget, or direct MTA capital construction managers to build stuff more efficiently. The governor can.

Yes, the mayor can cajole the MTA into building major projects using funds controlled by the city, like Bloomberg did with the 7 train extension, but that doesn’t mean the mayor has substantive power over the agency’s capital spending. If the mayor could dictate how the agency invests in its infrastructure, this monster never would have happened…

3. East Side Access

East Side Access is the new LIRR terminal under construction beneath Grand Central, and it’s the most expensive and time-consuming expansion project in the MTA capital plan. According to the latest estimates, it will cost $10.8 billion and wrap up some time in 2023, at least $6.5 billion over budget and 14 years behind schedule.

The primary beneficiaries of this huge public expense will be commuters from the Long Island suburbs who’ll get to make more direct trips to the office and back. But on Long Island, not-in-my-backyard resistance is obstructing efforts to expand the capacity of the LIRR Main Line and rezone areas near stations for more compact development — limiting the benefits of East Side Access. All the while, the island’s state legislators are waging a non-stop campaign to slash the MTA’s dedicated taxes coming from their districts.

Deciding which MTA construction projects get in the pipeline is, to a large extent, a political process, with four appointees wielding veto power over the capital program. The governor, the Assembly speaker, the State Senate majority leader, and the mayor of New York each control one vote. All four have some leverage, but the governor, with his power to reward or punish the two legislative leaders by steering deals in the state capitol, has the most. The mayor, who’s not part of the three-men-in-a-room gang and has to beg Albany for even the most innocuous policy changes, has the least.

So who should be shouldering the responsibility for seeing this $10 billion LIRR station through to completion — the governor or the mayor?

The State Should Act First

Both the state and the city used to contribute much more to the MTA capital program than they do today. In the eighties, it was Governor Mario Cuomo who initiated a rapid pullback in direct funding. The state went from contributing 20 percent of the MTA capital budget in 1983 to zero in 1992.

The city pulled back too. Even with de Blasio’s recent commitment to budget $657 million for the $32 billion plan over five years, the city won’t come close to the 9 percent contribution it used to make.

If the city and state both returned to the level of support in the 1980s that began to lift the transit system out of its downward spiral, the MTA would be much less reliant on debt, and straphangers would be much better off. For all the reasons listed above, though, the governor should be pressured to make the first move.

The MTA is not the mayor’s agency, and New York needs to know it has a good-faith partner in Albany before sticking its neck out. So far, Andrew Cuomo hasn’t shown any reason to believe that he’s a governor you can trust on transit.

  • Komanoff

    Great post, Ben, and thanks for the nice shout-out to the Move NY plan.

    You’re right that a majority of the net new toll revenues from the plan will come from residents of the five boroughs; I estimate 62%. Another 21% will come from residents of the seven MTA counties outside NYC, plus 13% from NJ residents. The remaining 4% is from residents of CT, PA, etc.

  • Brendan A. MacWade

    I’m beyond sick and tired of having to pay Albany and receive very little in return. It’s time to secede. District of Gotham! Who’s with me?

  • Joe R.

    It’s a great idea for NYC to be independent of both the state and federal governments. Unfortunately, since NYC is a cash cow for both it’s highly unlikely to happen. By some estimates NYC accounts for 15% of national GDP.

    Another big problem I see with NYC seceding is the tendency of city leaders to be authoritarian, big government, big tax types. The federal constitution has probably stopped these people from going further than they wanted to. In the absence of such protection, it’s not hard seeing NYC ending up as a police state akin to North Korea but with tax rates higher than France. Get some people in charge who actually value individual freedom and initiative first. If we do that, then I think an independent NYC would be very successful.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Nonetheless, there is a better reason to blame Stinger — and Jim Brennan and Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos and Joe Bruno. And, most of all, George Pataki.

    The are responsible for the 2000 retroactive pension increase, and the 1995 retroactive pension “incentive.” And funding the MTA capital plans, starting in 1995, with debt. And the fare cuts, which some people approved of. And the toll freezes and removals, which some people approved of.

    The question is, who is stuck imposing what sacrifices on those coming after to make up for what Generation Greed has done? Cuomo says “not me.” DeBlasio says “not me.” And Chris Christie says “not me.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/29/nyregion/new-jersey-faces-a-transportation-funding-crisis-with-no-clear-solution.html?_r=0

    They just want it to go away to the benefit of their own careers.

    What I blame Cuomo for most is failure to take on the mafia on the LIRR. But Stringer? Where is all this money going? To MTA shareholders? NO. To his supporters. Scott Stringer, why are you and your crowd doing this to us?

    “In the eighties, it was Governor Mario Cuomo who initiated a rapid pullback in direct funding. The state went from contributing 20 percent of the MTA capital budget in 1983 to zero in 1992.” And the city cut off funding as part of the deal. That was wrong, but that was a fiscal crisis like none faced since.

    I blame the legislature and subsequent Mayors and Governors more, who kept the borrowing going in good times and bad.

  • walks bikes drives

    Just have to say… Love the photo. When was the last time any of you rode a subway that was that empty, where half the car was taken up by you, your friend, and a half dozen staffers.

  • Bolwerk

    That’s silly. Get free elections. NYC has authoritarianism, but not so much as most of the USA. What we have in unusually great abundance is corruption and institutional intractability, and it’s letting the authoritarianism creep in because from without because we’re impotent to vote it away.

    At least the “big government” people create situations where one arm of the state acts as a counterweight to another, not to mention the state itself acting as a counterweight to corporate kleptocracy. The situation we have now, where the police do almost anything they want and prosecutors, judges, executives, and legislatures all say nothing? That’s “small government” in action, as so-called conservatives mean it.

  • Joe R.

    True “small government” conservatives wouldn’t even allow a police department to exist, at least not on the scale of what exists today, on the theory citizens are responsible for their own safety. Come to think of it, for most of its existence there weren’t police forces per se in the US. You had the town marshal, hired mercenaries, maybe some vigilantes thrown in for good measure. If things got really bad you called in the local militia, or even the US army, but they weren’t around on a daily basis to deal with “normal” crimes. The mostly armed citzenry provided a counterweight to any official abuse of power. Can’t say it worked any worse than something like the NYPD does now. At least if the town marshal or his hired guns got too corrupt they would typically get taken out.

    I wish NYC could have free elections but it’s a one party system. When Democrats typically get upwards of 90% of the vote in most districts, something is seriously amiss. Not that I have any great love for today’s brand of Republican, but I would like some serious opposition which might be socially liberal but fiscally conservative, and support the right to bear arms as well. That would provide a great counterweight to police abuse of power. Go too far, and the cop might find a hole in his/her head. Police should fear the citizens they serve, not the other way around.

  • Kevin Love

    It’s Wilson Fisk!

  • Bolwerk

    I agree that in theory conservatives find state power suspect. Maybe some do. In practice, those who call themselves conservatives are not conservatives. They’re textbook liberals. They’re the ones who have no problem ignoring tradition and existing institutions to impose dogmatic change from without. The conservatives are the de Blasios of the world who basically trust existing institutions and think most authority means well.

    I don’t really get the hangup on labels at this point in American political discourse. At best, they’re misleading. So-called fiscal conservatives without failure bollox finances. The liberals cling to 70-year-old institutions and 50-year-old legal interpretations. Social conservatives are just…kinda fascist.

    And yes, you’re probably right. Probably the only way to stop the sheer madness of more Eric Garner incidents is for oinkers like Pantaleo to fear being rent limb from limb when they violate people’s rights. Sad but true. They don’t have empathy for other human beings, but they know being hit hurt. Even most veteran activists don’t understand that’s how fucking sick the police state truly is.

  • Joe R.

    Funny you mentioned labels. Yes, “fiscal conservative” these days usually means someone who supports cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy, but not big ticket items like military spending. End result is $18 trillion in debt and counting. To me fiscal conservative means someone in favor of cutting wasteful spending (but NOT necessary spending like infrastructure), and then only reducing taxes if it can be done without deficit spending. However, if need be a true fiscal conservative will raise taxes rather than go into prolonged deficit spending. Neither party at this stage is even remotely fiscally conservative.

    The current police state is taking us well on the way to realizing some of my worst nightmares of a dystopian future. All we need is for some future adminstration to enact a bunch of horrible, restrictive laws which the police will only be all too happy to enforce because oppressing people is what many seem to enjoy.

  • Brendan A. MacWade

    I would totally give-up two senators for true financial independence. The senators are bozos, anyway.

  • Nathanael

    Hey, don’t leave us in upstate hanging. We barely managed to prevent them from fracking all of our organic farmland and completely destroying it forever, as happened in Pennsylvania. The upstate cities — Syracuse / Rochester / Buffalo / Binghamton — get treated very badly by Albany too.

    The problem in Albany is gross corruption; malapportionment, gerrymandering, bribery, etc…. we have to fix this, period. _The Albany Project_ has been trying to campaign about this…

  • Bolwerk

    Self-acclaimed fiscal conservatives are usually distinguished by being ideologically neoliberal with heavy doses of right-wing sanctimony. Their MO is to preach apocalyptic doom with regard to deficits and borrowing. Not because they understand cause and effect, but because they think the universe gives a shit about whether we borrow or not. Or because it’s a convenient excuse to dismantle trappings of the social safety net.

    Either way, the irony if their own general irresponsibility is what caused us to put so much on the credit card in the first place.

    Side note: they also tend to be hostile to good transit because it’s “too expensive.” Some of them are benevolent enough to think maybe they can deign to let us have a new bus service now and then.

  • Joe R.

    That’s really the problem with conservatives these days of any stripe—to them raising taxes is always off the table, even when taxes on the upper class are at levels not seen since the 1920s (and we all know what happened next). So you cut everything under the sun because it’s “too expensive”, but then you end up spending more in the long run when the sh*t inevitably hits the fan, only you spend it on police, jails, the military, the courts, etc.

    Conservatives are also hostile to bikes which is something I find really puzzling. What can be more true to the conservative image of self-reliance than getting along under your own power, on infrastructure which costs a fraction of that for any other mode? I guess the problem is today’s conservatives think something is worthless if big corporations can’t make lots of money off it. That certainly explains the bias towards private automobiles.

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