“I don’t believe in taking sides,” Letitia James, the New York City Public Advocate, said this afternoon. “This is not a political discussion on ‘Whose side are you on?’ This is really about accountability, it’s about where the money has been spent.”
James was responding to a simple question from the Voice: Should New York City’s government, which does not control the subway system, have to pay for half of the MTA’s $800-some-odd million “rescue” plan for the subways?
“We should not be taking sides,” James continued, elected officials to the right and left of her. “We should put politics aside. We should focus on what is in the best interest of New Yorkers.”
And so it went outside the City Hall R stop, where a group of politicians, including James and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, had arrived to announce that they would spend a full day riding the subway. The apparent brainchild of Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the body’s transportation committee, the tour will last 24 hours, from August 3 to August 4, and allow politicians and transit advocates to hear directly from riders about the sorry state of the subway system. People on the subway will presumably recount the catastrophic delays the catastrophic delays and derailments they’ve been screaming about on Twitter. This will be called the “Riders Respond Transit Tour,” something of a table-setter for an MTA oversight hearing the City Council is planning for August 8.
What really defined the press conference, however, was how a class of city councilmembers, state assembly members, and leading city Democrats failed to hold Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appoints the MTA chair and controls much of what the state authority does and does not do, accountable for the subway crisis. It was a careful verbal dance, naming problems without naming names, as if the MTA were controlled by an amorphous, wholly invisible being. One could imagine space aliens laying waste to Manhattan and these elected officials blaming bad weather or the Department of Transportation’s misguided road-paving policies for the immolation of the city.
James maintained that the MTA needs to find dedicated revenue streams to pay for the billions in infrastructure upgrades — the signaling network predates World War II — that will be required to make the massive subway system functional again. She pointed out that the state government has a nasty habit of raiding transportation funds to pay for other things. “We also need to look at this notion, this word that’s only talked about in Albany, called the ‘lockbox,’ ” she said. “Who has the key to that lockbox? Who opened that lockbox?”
To answer James’s question, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has that key. Designed as an independent authority, the MTA functions as the opposite. It has evolved into another Cuomo subsidiary.
If this glorified photo op amounted to an exercise in accountability, the governor and his MTA chairs — Joe Lhota and his predecessor, Tom Prendergast, despite their reputations, have been virtually indistinguishable — would have been lambasted uniformly by the city’s political class long ago. What James fails to understand is that her job, and the job of virtually any politician anywhere, is to take a side. You represent people. You advocate. As the city’s elected ombudsperson, this is one of her sole reasons for existing — to call people out when they are wrong, to use a bully pulpit on behalf of New Yorkers. If she can’t do that, why is she there?
Like James, Stringer, the city comptroller, has been content to do Cuomo’s bidding and urge Mayor Bill de Blasio to use city funds to pay for half of the MTA rescue package rolled out last week. Since New York City cannot decide where a subway line gets built, how high the fare should be, when a station can get Wi-Fi or countdown clocks — or really anything at all — there isn’t a transit expert alive who has backed up Cuomo’s rationale in public. Never mind that Stringer himself has argued city residents, through taxes and tolls, already send the MTA an “invisible fare” of $1,560 per household each year.
“We’re gonna solve this crisis. It’s going to take both the city and the state,” Stringer told the Voice, insisting he wants the state to sign a memorandum of understanding that would stipulate which projects the city money is going toward. “You can be mad at Cuomo, and the other people can be mad at de Blasio, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing if we don’t bring them together and solve the biggest subway crisis we’ve had since the 1980s.”
Only one politician was entirely unwilling to play the game of false equivalency, and ready to lay the blame on the state. Councilman Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, said Lhota should be “embarrassed” for blindly following Cuomo’s lead. He seemed plenty aware he was saying what others were too afraid to say.
“The primary responsibility lies with Governor Cuomo. I will continue to say that because it is a fact, because it is true,” Williams said. “The governor can’t come into New York City, go and invite the mayor or city representatives when you’re on the Second Avenue Subway, take pictures and be prideful for what you’ve done there, and then shirk responsibility when it comes to the destruction of the rest of the subway system.”