On Thursday morning, the subways were snarled, again. But the subways are messed up every morning now. And many nights, too. As depressing as this new normal is, what’s worse is the failure of both the governor and the mayor to take any responsibility for what is happening to millions of their constituents every single day.
On Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo — who has relentlessly cut corners on the MTA’s budget, lied about it, and shown more interest in new bridges and toll plazas than anything that would actually help the majority of New York City residents get where they need to go — shoehorned some ideas about fixing the subways into a proposal for him to seize control of a wheezing Penn Station. After somehow conflating the issues of commuter rail tracks beneath Penn Station and the deterioration of subway service (which, transit advocates shouldn’t have to point out, have nothing to do with each other), Cuomo announced a new “Genius” award, for people who come up with ideas about how to speed up the installation of a new signal system in the subways.
The ideas generated by such a prize would most likely be met with indifference, however, because Cuomo has used this tactic before to kick the can down the road on difficult issues like technology and labor adjustments. His similar 2014 “MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission” was also convened to generate new ideas to speed up electronic signal installation, and was soundly ignored by Cuomo and the MTA board (which, he now admits, he controls). The new signals are really, really important, as they are universally agreed to be the root of the MTA’s deterioration, and yet there appears to be no urgency in getting them replaced within the next ten to twenty years.
That brings us to Wednesday, when the MTA board met to vote on a revised capital plan, in which the financial priorities of the MTA are married to promised pots of money. This would seem a perfect opportunity to throw more money behind the new signals, right? Not happening! Instead, the board showered money on several of Cuomo’s pet projects, including those new toll plazas, a third track for the Long Island Rail Road, and an extension of the Second Avenue Subway. In a more perfect world, each of those projects would be laudable. But in the current, decayed state of reality, where the subways are failing on an unprecedented level, the focus could be placed more on the subways. Instead, new funding for signal replacement remains unchanged, and even the staid New York Times, which has heaped praise upon Cuomo for his infrastructure priorities, couldn’t carry the governor’s water this time, writing an article laced with disbelief. To top it all off, the MTA has now committed to more debt spending, further allowing the governor to hold back promised funds and allowing its debt service to be borne on the backs of riders, who will now face fare increases every two years for worsening and worsening service.
i mean are you kidding me pic.twitter.com/iIZlmanJGn
— Stephen Miller (@miller_stephen) May 23, 2017
Cuomo has no interest in the pain of subway riders (they consist of neither the coveted Long Island voter nor the moneyed suburban commuter), so there’s no reason to believe he’ll use any political capital on a difficult project like signal replacement.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, has no interest in getting involved in what he views as the governor’s responsibility and has lost every single battle he’s picked with the Cuomo. The pissing match between the politicians has extended to the MTA before, with the two fighting over the city’s contribution to the MTA and who should pay for discounted MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. De Blasio, even though he lives and works off of two subway stops, take a car everywhere he goes, explaining it helps make him more “efficient.” (Unlike working New Yorkers, who are known for their frivolity.)
So how does this happen? How can everyone somehow avoid blame for worsening service and increasing fares and not be booted from office? How can the head of the subways admit that trains are being held in tunnels to stick to some arbitrary sense of train spacing that has nothing to do with safety?
Well, because the MTA was literally created to help both the mayor and the governor deflect any political blowback to rising fares. It’s working exactly as designed. Governor Cuomo is enjoying his highest approval rating in years. Mayor de Blasio is cruising to reelection. The subways are dying while the city and the state are in no danger of financial insecurity, and the people in charge simply don’t care. They don’t even ride the subway.
So what is to be done? Will some miracle fix the MTA? Will it be one of these “geniuses” the governor is soliciting? Will there be a magic bullet? Nope. A combination of money, political will (like closing lines for months at a time to speedily install the new signals), and someone willing to take responsibility for the MTA’s successes and failures will be what saves the subways. Probably East River tolls as well. Honestly, you don’t have to be a genius to fix what ails the MTA — you just have to be the governor.