CORO-NO SHOW: MTA Ditches City Council Hearing For Pandemic Prep

This is what showed up to testify. Photo: Dave Colon
This is what showed up to testify. Photo: Dave Colon

City Council members were sickened on Monday morning … by the MTA skipping a City Council budget hearing — and the bizarre no-show may have just put funding for the city’s share of the MTA capital plan at risk.

MTA officials said they could not attend a City Council Transportation Committee hearing because the agency is so focused on coronavirus that it could not prepare secondary officials to present to the council — but the committee’s chairman wasn’t buying it.

“The reason why those chairs are empty is because the MTA has refused to come,” outraged Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez said, pointing to an empty table at the start of the planned budget hearing.

Rodriguez added that he understood that the MTA has to urgently grapple with coronavirus preparation, but the agency refused to meet him halfway when he spoke to agency representatives on Friday.

“I told them I would understand if they said they couldn’t come on Monday because they are preparing for the state of emergency that we have in New York [but] what we got from the MTA is, ‘We will not come and testify'” at all.

Rodriguez said the agency left the door open to appear during the executive budget hearings held in May, but the apparent olive branch was not enough.

So as a result of the MTA no-show, City Council members spent the entire hearing teeing off on the transit agency. A frustrated Bob Holden, who recently tangled with the agency over a bus lane on Fresh Pond Road, said he was so fed up with the MTA that he now in favor of seizing the means of transportation.

“This is a slap in the face to this Council and the City of New York,” said Holden, of Queens. “It’s outrageous. This agency needs a turnaround, and I agree with the Speaker of the City Council that the City of New York should take control of our subways.” The comment was a reference to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s Big Apple Transit plan for a city takeover of the subways and buses.

The MTA no-show could be seen as just another intergovernmental squabble among many the city and transit agency have had, but the timing for this particular snub is awkward since the MTA is asking the city for $3 billion for the agency’s $51 billion 2020-2024 capital plan. Rodriguez mentioned that the MTA hadn’t yet secured most of the money for the capital plan, especially as the fate of congestion pricing is unknown at the moment while the city and state wait for federal approval for the congestion toll.

Both Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson have balked at the $3 billion ask, and one Council Member said that Monday’s snub meant that city shouldn’t give its share of the money to the plan.

“It’s shameful that they’re not here today,” said Council Member Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx. “Not a penny should be approved from this Council until they show up, because we have some serious questions regarding funding that they’re requesting.”

The MTA will still be sent a list of questions from the City Council, according to a representative for the legislative body. But Johnson also told Streetsblog that the agency has to show up if it wants access to money for the capital plan.

“The Council understands the need to focus on public health right now, but we still expect transparency and a real commitment to public dialogue from the MTA when it comes to asking for billions of dollars in city money for the Capital Plan,” Johnson said. “We will seek to continue that conversation in earnest even as we work together to handle coronavirus.”

For its part, the MTA said that it chose preparing for a public health emergency over showing up to the hearing because the agency felt it was a better use of its resources to focus on telling the public what it was doing to combat a global pandemic (one that has even infected the head of the Port Authority, Rick Cotton).

“The people that were going to appear at the City Council were mid-level financial people,” MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye said at a press conference after the council snub. “We didn’t think it made sense to send them when clearly the focus was going to be on the coronavirus situation. We’ve appeared frequently before the City Council in the past, we will appear going forward and our relationship with the city is a strong one and we expect to appear before them in the future.”

Agency spokesman Tim Minton added that the invitation to testify was sent by the Council too late for the MTA to brief its representatives on everything that might have come their way at a hearing.

“The questions at the ‘budget hearings’ tend to range from the subject of the hearing to the subject of personal anecdotes to the subject of prior hearings to the subject of what’s coming up as a future hearing, it’s wide-ranging,” said Minton, who on Saturday had a tense run-in with Rodriguez over station cleaning procedures. “And we’re good with that, but we need to prepare for it and we can’t properly prepare when we’re in the middle of a public health crisis.”

Transit advocates attempted to bring a measured response to the no-show situation. Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Council to the MTA, said she was disappointed with the agency for skipping the hearing with so much at stake in the capital plan. But she said that she was willing to take the MTA at its word that the agency would show up in front of the City Council in the near future.

“We understand that there’s a major health situation going on right now and hope that the MTA will appear, as they indicated they have, at the executive budget hearing session,” Daglian said.

But Daglian also testified that the city should pay the requested share of the capital plan because said that the MTA wouldn’t realize any revenue from congestion pricing until mid-2021 at the earliest.

“It’s not just the MTA that needs the money, it’s the everyday transit riders need the money. I understand the Council Members’ frustration, but it’s really critical that the funds come through to provide riders the 21st-century transit system they need,” Daglian told Streetsblog after her testimony.

More hearings are set for the future, and TransitCenter Communications Director Ben Fried said it would be wise for the agency not to skip them.

“They could be damned if they do damned if they don’t,” Fried said. “You never know with the City Council, some people will grandstand whether the MTA is there or not. But I think this makes it all the more important they show up at the next council hearing. In the long run, it’s not good to skip these hearings.”

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