Joe Lhota, the chairman of the MTA, released his $836 million “action plan” to fix the subways today, asking New York City to split the costs on fixing a deteriorating system it does not control, and probably never will. There were enough bright ideas bundled into Lhota’s rescue package — fixing signals and maintenance, adding workers, removing seats to fit more people on board, repositioning emergency response personnel for problematic tracks — that it would add up to a decent first step if Lhota didn’t insist on the city footing a bill for a problem that it didn’t cause and shouldn’t have to solve.
As anyone who has taken more than five seconds to study the facts of public transit in New York State understands, the subway system is controlled by the MTA, a state authority that answers directly to Cuomo. To recap: Cuomo appoints the chair and a plurality of board members, and he dictates just about every fiscal and policy decision the MTA makes. Lhota can’t sneeze without Cuomo’s permission.
Yet the games continue. Were Mayor Bill de Blasio a little more likable and a lot more interested (until very recently) in offering a vision for the city’s transportation infrastructure, he could easily occupy the moral high ground in this absurd fight with Cuomo, a man who will gleefully take credit for adding three stops, well over budget, to the Q line, and claim a few months later the subways really aren’t his business.
If de Blasio had the power to hire and fire the chairman of the MTA, or could decide, with the City Council, to slap tolls on bridges, holding him responsible for the deplorable state of the subways would make sense. If the MTA’s finances were the city’s responsibility — if the authority somehow defaulting on its debts would cripple the city’s budget alone — Cuomo’s crusade would have some grounding in reality. But it doesn’t, and no one should pretend it does.
Missing too from Lhota’s plan was a serious discussion of the revenue needed to repair and upgrade an eighty-year signaling network that is responsible for a bulk of the crippling, daily delays. Lhota doesn’t want to do any more fare hikes, which is fair enough. As the Riders Alliance and Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris — a rare Democrat willing to take the state government to task for this subway crisis — point out, there was no discussion today of any sustainable revenue stream to pay for the many billions that will ultimately be required to bring the subway system into the 21st century.
There are options. The Move NY plan would charge motorists to enter Manhattan and cross the East River bridges while lowering tolls elsewhere. Gianaris is pitching a three-year, temporary state income tax surcharge on millionaires living within the counties serviced by the MTA. He would add a second surcharge to city hotel taxes.
In some circles, these plans are seen as radical, but they are really just a start. What Cuomo and Lhota still don’t seem to understand is how severely a failing subway system hobbles the largest city in America, a city that is not guaranteed eternal economic supremacy. Why should people continue to move here and pay astronomical rents when the trains can’t get them to their jobs at a reasonable hour? Why should New York remain a dream for so many when it’s a nightmare underground?
For Cuomo, who thinks only in bare political outcomes, the reckoning is coming. His poll numbers are slipping as more New Yorkers come to realize their transit system is a creature of the state, an unwieldy matrix that Cuomo, always more enamored with the suburbs, wishes he could off-load on someone else. If he can’t fix this, voters won’t care that he passed same-sex marriage, hiked the minimum wage, or made public colleges tuition-free. They will only care that their subways are slow and rotten and crowded.
[Editor’s note: Initial reports had Lhota’s proposed spending hike at $845 million; subsequently, it was reported to be $836 million: $456 million for operating costs plus $380 million for capital repairs. This article has been updated to reflect that figure.]