Capital Crimes: Transit Experts Cry Foul Over Mayor’s Non-Contribution To MTA Capital Plan

The mayor in his natural habitat: a taxpayer-funded SUV.
The mayor in his natural habitat: a taxpayer-funded SUV.

Transit experts are slamming the mayor for his refusal to fund the city’s share of the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital program — and for his decision to disengage from the program’s planning — calling it a missed opportunity by a mayor who should know better.

The outrage has been building for several weeks since the mayor released a 2021 budget that did not include any city funds for the $51-billion major renovation package released last year by the MTA, which sought just $3 billion from the city.

“I think $3 billion over five years is a fair ask,” said Jaqi Cohen, the campaign director of the Straphangers Campaign, pointing out that the city has always provided some funding for MTA rebuilding plans, including $2.3 billion for the 2015-2019 capital program.

Not all of the projects in the last capital plan are completed yet, and the mayor suggested he doesn’t trust the MTA with any more money until the agency spends what it has already been given.

“In the 20 years almost that I’ve been in public service, I’ve not had a New Yorker come up to me and say, ‘Gee, the MTA is so well run, gee, the MTA is my model for efficient, modern organization; gee, I wish I could be like the MTA.'”

But such comments get to the heart of why the mayor is so widely criticized for his stance — he has been too disengaged to ensure that his constituents get the transit they deserve. For instance:

  • De Blasio still hasn’t nominees to replace two of his four MTA Board positions. Polly Trottenberg left the board over the summer and Veronica Vanterpool left in December.
  • The mayor still hasn’t named his nominee to the Traffic Mobility Review Board, which was created to establish the guidelines for, including the price of, congestion tolling that is supposed to begin in less than a year.
  • The mayor was completely absent from the Capital Program Review Board approval process for the MTA’s major renovation plan. The panel provided de Blasio with his main opportunity to speak up if he had a problem with the direction of the capital plan.

And that’s a key abrogation by the mayor, advocates said. Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins were poised to participate, but the mayor was not, allowing the capital plan to lapse into approval on Dec. 31, 2019.

Cohen noted that the mayor’s absence was part of a pattern of behavior he’s displayed with mass transit, one that’s been in place ever since the mayor finally convinced the public that the governor runs the trains instead of him (beyond somehow becoming the public face of the governor’s idea to hire 500 MTA police and increase policing on the subways in general).

“The mayor can certainly do more on transit and he can be more of a presence in Albany and be a better advocate on bus and subway and paratransit service. It’d be great to see him be more vocal in his demands, prioritize better MTA service and champion filling those [board] seats,” Cohen said.

The mayor’s refusal to join the CPRB was a major blown opportunity to direct the plan, , especially since the mayor made a focus on “service-oriented priority projects” one of his requirements for a substantial contribution to the capital plan, said Second Avenue Sagas Publisher Ben Kabak.

“The CPRB would have been a great opportunity for [de Blasio] to say, ‘We’re coming to the table, we’re approving this plan, but here’s what the city wants to see,'” Kabak said.

Had the mayor participated in the CPRB, Kabak suggested he could have followed the lead of previous mayors like Ed Koch and Mike Bloomberg, who directed the city’s capital contribution to specific areas like new subway cars and the 7 train extension respectively.

“Pick something like the Utica Avenue subway, another extension of the Second Avenue subway, something that’s concrete that the city can point to and say ‘This is our contribution to the capital plan,'” Kabak said. “Instead, it just seems to now be a pissing contest over a few billion dollars.”

The current standoff mirrors the fight that the mayor had with the MTA over funding the 2015-2019 capital plan, and once again involves an argument over what the city owes to an authority that already gets so much of its money from the five boroughs.

The mayor at least has a skeptical ally in city leadership. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told reporters last week that he also wasn’t prepared to fork over cash to the MTA.

“The MTA needs to answer more questions,” said Johnson, whose comments may be entangled in his larger goal of getting city control of the subway and bus systems. “We had them [testify] before us in November, but we haven’t gotten all the answers we need. I want to understand what exactly they’re going to do with that money in a very specific way, and we’re still waiting for those answers.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer also suggested that the city’s contribution should hinge on negotiations over what exactly the money will go to.

“We need to push for real answers during the budget process to make sure our contribution is going to improve the MTA in ways that are identifiable before we cut a check for any amount, whether it’s $3 billion or $300 billion, and the state needs to step up to the plate as well,” he said.

But the pissing contest over $3 billion also seems like small potatoes with the money coming into the city, especially considering that $3 billion is less than the city has been asked to spend before. The city contributed 15 percent of the MTA’s capital spending in 1989, but that share steadily declined over time, falling as low as less than two percent in 2007, and settling in between 6 and 8 percent of the agency’s capital spending between 2009 and 2013.

The $3 billion is just 5.8 percent of the $51-billion 2020-2024 plan.

And, by far, the biggest chunk of the capital plan, $40 billion, or 80 percent, will be spent on New York City buses or subways. And 80 percent of predicted congestion pricing revenue is slated for the NYCT’s coffers. So it’s somewhat self-defeating for the mayor to fight funding a capital plan that does so much for the actual city of New York, said Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.

“The city has a major interest in ensuring that the capital program is fully constituted fully funded most forward,” Daglian said, after noting what the city stands to gain from the plan, like upgraded signals, new trains, new buses and a huge expansion in accessible subway stations.

Kabak, Cohen and Daglian all criticized the MTA for holding accessibility work hostage in the fight over the city’s share of the funding. But the mayor’s refusal to give any money to the capital program is its own threat according to Daglian.

“We understand that that the city wants more details on the capital plan, and we think that there should be more details on integral aspects of the plan like when projects will start and finish. But withholding funds holds the nearly 9 million daily total system riders hostage because of a disagreement,” Daglian said.

Naturally, City Hall says the mayor is completely checked in on transit issues.

“We have provided input on numerous occasions about the capital plan to the MTA, including presenting conditions to safeguard taxpayers dollars and raising questions about project timelines and cash flows,” spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie told Politico when the outlet broke the story of de Blasio’s refusal to participate in the capital review panel. “We will continue to work with stakeholders on next steps so that riders get the most for their money.”

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