When Governor Andrew Cuomo and his handpicked MTA chair Joe Lhota presented their subway action plan last summer after a transit season that should live in New York infamy, they decreed that $836 million for upgrades would do the trick — and that New York City should foot half the bill. Mayor Bill de Blasio refused, contending (correctly) that the state government controls the MTA and should adequately fund the subway system it runs.
Into this eternal tug-of-war this week stepped the Independent Democratic Conference, the group of Democrats in the state senate who have, with Cuomo’s acquiescence, helped keep Republicans in the majority for a half-decade. The IDC offered its own suggestion to fund subway upgrades: diverting city sales tax revenue to pay for the subway action plan.
“This shared financing immediately infuses the MTA with desperately needed cash to fix broken signals and tracks,” IDC leader Jeff Klein said in a statement. “The state already stepped up with its share, and the city, whose residents use the system daily, must share in the responsibility for maintaining it.”
What’s galling here is not simply that this proposal was advanced by the IDC — I’m a frequent critic of its GOP alliance — but that it reinforces the fiction dreamed up by Cuomo and Lhota last summer that though the MTA, a state authority, is responsible for funding the subway system and deciding what does and doesn’t get built, funding it is now somehow the city’s problem. The mayor of New York, who appoints several members to the MTA board and contributes to the capital plan but otherwise has a negligible amount of power over what the state-appointed MTA chair actually does, has not controlled the subways since the authority was created in the late 1960s to, among other things, topple Robert Moses.
City residents already pay more than their fair share to the MTA: By the estimates of the city comptroller’s office, taxes and tolls from New York City flood the MTA with more than $10 billion annually. There is no good reason to divert valuable sales tax revenue that must feed a massive municipal budget — one already endangered by federal cuts — to the MTA.
The IDC’s proposal belongs to a noxious genre of arguments that have been given new life by a particularly egregious editorial in the New York Times this week. The editorial is a shame because the Times — particularly its dogged investigative reporter Brian Rosenthal — has helped expose just how remarkably inept, bloated, and quasi-corrupt the MTA bureaucracy remains, spending far more on capital projects than any other transportation agency in the world. How can city residents be sure their sales tax revenue won’t be used to overpay yet another contractor or consultant cozy with MTA machers?
Rather than take a cue from its own reporting, the Times editorial laments that de Blasio feuds too much with Cuomo, who has so much power over the MTA he once unilaterally shut the entire subway system down during a snowstorm. The Times, bizarrely, argues de Blasio’s representatives to the MTA board shouldn’t have blocked a billion-dollar initiative to prettify the stations and little else — even though it wouldn’t have installed elevators or upgraded a century-old signal network to improve service.
Most importantly, we must remember there is no historical precedent for what Cuomo and Lhota are doing. They have concocted a reality that never existed — and shouldn’t. As Richard Ravitch, the last great MTA chairman, recently pointed out, nobody has ever suggested the city pick up the capital costs of the subway system. No governor or state lawmaker dared demand it because it was so ludicrous. The subway was the MTA’s responsibility alone. This was not a debate.
De Blasio is guilty of lacking a serious vision for urban transportation in the 21st century. He obsesses over ferries that will carry about as many passengers in one year as the subways do in a day. His proposed Brooklyn-to-Queens streetcar has no viable funding mechanism and appears to be little more than a giveaway to his favorite developers. His Department of Transportation has failed to improve and expand bus service in any meaningful way. He has yet to come up with a substantial solution for curbing congestion in his city.
None of this, though, means that city money should be robbed to pay for a meager subway rescue plan that the MTA can and should easily fund on its own. It doesn’t mean Cuomo and Lhota get to pretend the subway system isn’t their problem. It doesn’t mean editorial boards should validate a narrative that had no merit or traction before Lhota, at one extraordinary press conference, decided to rewrite history. We all deserve much better.