Discovering, suddenly, that mass transit is an issue that can either save or ruin what appears to be an inevitable second term in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday he wants a 0.5 percent income tax hike on New Yorkers earning more than $500,000 a year to pay for critical upgrades to the MTA-run subways and fund reduced-fare MetroCards for low-income riders. Any income tax hike must be approved by the state legislature, and surely there are plenty of pundit eye rolls over the liberal big city mayor trying yet again to get the Republicans who control the state senate to back taxing the very people who generously fund their campaigns.
The political dimension to this is obvious enough. Republicans, and the Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, dislike de Blasio and will resent having to consider raising taxes. De Blasio can go back to his voters and tell them he put forth a plan, tried his hardest, and is getting stymied by hostile Albany once more. The mayor punches back against the governor, who has bullied him without end. He plays populist hero in an election year.
The subways are melting down. Delays are skyrocketing. The massive system’s century-old infrastructure is failing; a signaling network that predates World War II, at the pace the MTA is moving, won’t be upgraded for another forty years. No one quite knows how many billions of dollars will be needed to bring the system to a state of functionality. De Blasio should at least be commended for offering up one solution, even if he suggested just a few weeks ago the MTA has more than enough cash to solve its problems. (Reportedly, in the wake of de Blasio’s announcement, Cuomo is finally considering backing congestion pricing, something the mayor refused to do.)
Most recent media coverage has been focused on MTA chair Joe Lhota’s “rescue” plan, an $800 million package of upgrades that are well-intentioned, if profoundly small-bore in the face of such a mass transit catastrophe. For reasons that have no grounding in sound policy or reality, Lhota wants city taxpayers to cover half the cost of his plan. Never mind that all decisions about the subways are made with, at best, minimal input from the city, and that the MTA can raise subway fares and decide what stations to spring for WiFi upgrades on without any consent from the mayor. According to Lhota and Cuomo, de Blasio should find the money in the city budget because, well, just because.
The millions who use the subways every day and the experts who study transit know the crisis runs far deeper, and psychoanalyzing Cuomo’s eternal vendetta against de Blasio misses the point. The MTA was designed to be an authority independent of overt political influence, a technocracy that would make wise decisions with the interest of commuters and straphangers in mind. Instead, it functions as yet another state agency under the thumb of Cuomo and refuses to do the serious work of figuring out how much it will cost — and what sacrifices must be made — to install a computerized signaling system on all subway lines before we all literally die of old age.
Critics are right to worry about throwing more money at the MTA with another tax. Internal reforms are desperately needed. This is not a model bureaucracy, and a lot of cash has been wasted on costly projects like bringing the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal or extending a subway line three stops.
But as Dick Ravitch, the MTA chair credited with rescuing a crumbling subway system in the 1980s, recently argued, there are plenty of influential people who are not doing nearly enough to stave off such a fundamental threat to our city’s well-being. The city’s business class, which once took an interest in the subways and supported higher taxes to pay for upgrades decades ago, has not only been missing in action but actively resists raising new revenue for the MTA.
Kathryn Wylde, who ostensibly speaks for business leaders as the president of the Partnership for New York City, came out against de Blasio’s millionaires tax because “New York would be about even with California in imposing the highest income taxes in the country.” She raises the specter of rich people fleeing for greener pastures, ignoring the fact that the ludicrously wealthy have always loved stashing their cash in the biggest city in America, no matter how high our taxes go. No single modest tax to pay for MTA upgrades will force a mass exodus from the five boroughs. Deep down, somewhere, Wylde must know this.
If Cuomo deserves most of the blame for allowing the subways to rot, the union representing the transportation workers, as well as veteran lawmakers in the state legislature — Republicans and Democrats alike — can’t be allowed to escape scrutiny. John Samuelsen, the Transport Workers Union president, acts as little more than a well-compensated Cuomo mouthpiece at this point, blowing his union’s money on ads parroting the governor’s anti-de Blasio talking points. The union can bring up genuine criticisms of de Blasio’s mayoralty, but it’s unclear why a mayor with so little control over the subways should be the chief target of its ire — other than to curry favor with Cuomo, who pays its members’ salaries.
We know the suburban and upstate Republicans who run the state senate with the help of the Independent Democratic Conference couldn’t care less about the subways. What we’re also now learning is how little the Democrat-controlled assembly, filled mostly with New York City Democrats, seems to care. The assembly hasn’t held a single hearing in the last three years dedicated solely to subway service, according to a tally provided to the Voice by Reinvent Albany, a good government group.
The assembly can’t be bothered to return to Albany this summer for a special session on deteriorating subway service. Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz, the Bronx Democrat who chairs the committee that oversees the MTA, is touting a plan to reserve a share of state income tax revenues for the transit authority’s capital program, but couldn’t bring himself to say an unkind word about Cuomo in a recent interview with the Voice. If one thing has become apparent during this true summer of transportation hell, it’s that everyone must do a lot better.