Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has allowed the city’s massive subway system to break down under his watch. Underfunding and mismanaging the sprawling network, Cuomo prefers to ignore its deficiencies in favor of big ticket projects of relatively little consequence. With the state determining so much of what happens in New York City, it’s understandable that the mayor and other local politicians would want to throw up their hands and walk away.
But they can’t, because the subway is their problem too. If the MTA doesn’t speed up the installation of a computerized signal system to decrease delays — and continues to fall behind on much-needed maintenance — New York’s future as a world-class city is at risk. Mayor Bill de Blasio has shown little interest in using his bully pulpit to fight for the subways, opting for a ferry system that will serve fewer riders in one year than the subways do in a single day. The Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a dubiously funded streetcar proposal that will run through flood zones and not sufficiently link up with the subway system, is not a long-term solution.
Into this void should step a mayoral candidate to talk about transportation or even exploit what has been a glaring weakness on the parts of the Democratic mayor and governor. At a press conference on Monday, the Voice asked Paul Massey, the best-funded Republican candidate, about his vision for the subways and what exactly he would do to help suffering straphangers.
Massey, a real estate executive who has lived mostly in Larchmont, didn’t have any answers.
“Look, we’ve got a lot of problems in our mass transit system. We’ve got delays on the subway, we’ve got subways that aren’t managed properly,” he said. “We’ve got to look at all of our infrastructure.”
Promising to create “new transportation for people,” Massey didn’t offer specifics. “We’re rolling out our policy initiatives…we’ll roll out continued policy statements over the next month or two to include that. We have some fantastic ideas.”
Given that de Blasio is such a heavy favorite to win re-election this fall, the candidates on the Republican and Democratic side at least owe it to voters to craft detailed, alternative visions for the city that force the policy conversation to change. Overall, de Blasio has been a far more competent steward of the city than advertised and has real accomplishments to point to. But on transit, he has disappointed advocates and policy experts with a failure to comprehensively reckon with the transit chaos being laid at his doorstep.
Massey fancies himself a nonpartisan technocrat, but no self-respecting technocrat would show up to a press conference without a serious answer for perhaps the most fundamental New York issue. Most wealthy people and elite politicians don’t take the subway. They don’t know the indignity and frustration of paying higher fares to get somewhere more slowly than you did last year. They don’t know what it’s like to stand in a suffocating car at rush hour. They don’t know the real meaning of “train traffic ahead.”
Cuomo deserves to own the failures of the subway system. Its deterioration is his problem, since he’s been governor since 2011. If he runs for president in a few years, he should suffer defeat on the basis of the subway system alone. He has not done nearly enough to modernize and maintain the lifeblood of the state’s economic engine, New York City.
What Cuomo needs is a mayor to challenge him and become the advocate mass transit riders require. If Massey actually wants to be mayor, and isn’t running as a vanity project, he must sit down and figure out how he wants to be that advocate. Assuming Massey never gets near Gracie Mansion and de Blasio glides to re-election, very thorny questions will have to be addressed in the next four years. The city is reaching a breaking point. High taxes won’t drive people away, but a subway system that effectively stops working will. We aren’t there yet. But we’re closer than our mayor and governor think.