Straphangers continue to be collateral damage from this ongoing feud between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Cuomo’s new appointee for MTA Chairman, Joe Lhota, has joined in this ongoing city-state squabble. Lhota was re-appointed after he abandoned the MTA the first time for a seriously failed mayoral run in 2013, against our current mayor, amidst this current transit crisis we are facing. He has recently proposed a multi-billion dollar capital project, which would occur in two phases.
Phase I of Lhota’s plan will cost $836, which will focus on repairing basic infrastructure that is needed for a rail system to be functional, while Phase II would cost an additional $8 billion that Lhota claims will bring our train system from the “19th century to the 21st Century” , but he is also proposing that the city finance half of this. Mayor de Blasio, however, has been adamant that this is not the city’s responsibility and that the city had already pledged an “unprecedented” $2.5 billion to the MTA’s $29 billion capital plan back in 2015.
The city continues to maintain that the MTA is a state agency. The majority of the MTA’s board members, after all, are appointed by the governor, and even the MTA board members appointed by the mayor need to be approved by the State Senate. Lhota, however, fired back and claimed that the state bailed the city out in 1981 because it was in a fiscal crisis and that the original intent in doing this was not to have the state continue to finance the subways, especially when the city now has a $4 billion surplus.
While many of the measures in Lhota’s plan do make sense, such as the repair and replacement of signals and additional track work, the problem is that the MTA has had the opportunity to make these repairs years ago but failed to do so. The MTA spent years squandering billions of dollars on unnecessary, bloated projects, such as the renovation of the Fulton Street station and the expansion of the Second Ave subway that could have costed much less.
Lhota had previously criticized de Blasio for his lack of lack of leadership and went as far as contrasting our current mayor with his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, whom he praised for getting the city to finance the expansion of the 7 Line that culminated with the new Far West Side station. The final cost of the 7 line expansion was $2.4 billion, or $2.1 billion per mile, which the city did cover most of the cost for, but the MTA still had to cover a portion of this cost, and that money could have been used to repair/replace signals and switches and support additional track maintenance work. Instead, it was used to finance a project that benefited very few, and the new Select Bus Services lines have demonstrated that they can provide the same type of service at a tiny fraction of the cost.
These are the types of projects that have brought the MTA to the state it is currently in, and Lhota and Cuomo now want our city to bail out the state and an agency that had mismanaged its funds for too long. This is like a landlord asking the tenant to pay for a leaky roof and a deteriorating plumbing system, when the landlord knew these problems needed to be taken care of years ago, but that landlord decided to spend money on remodeling the facade of the home, instead. It took years for our transit system to implode like this, and it will take years for the MTA to undo its repeated neglect of our vital and crucial system, and million dollar “genius grants” will not get us out of this mess.
Ultimately, we, as riders, are the ones left to suffer, as we continue to pay more for substandard, unreliable service. Furthermore, Albany has continued to ignore funding streams that could have been used to keep the system afloat. It started with Pataki eliminating the Commuter Tax for non-city residents, which led to former Governor Whitman demanding the same perk for New Jersey residents, and it continued as plan after plan were struck down, such as Congestion Pricing and the Ravitch Plan, which would have bailed out the MTA back in 2009. Meanwhile, Albany has continued to siphon off the MTA’s budget for years in order to balance its own budget, and Cuomo went as far as “eviscerating” a bill that was passed to protect these types of raids during his first year as governor.
This week the the mayor has proposed a plan that will tax the wealthiest New Yorkers to finance subway repairs, but thus also requires approval from the state legislature and governor. The governor is also looking to revisit some kind of congestion pricing plan to finance the MTA but has not given any specific details. Whatever plan the state decides to adopt, it is still not the responsibility of the city to cover the funds that Lhota is demanding the city cover immediately. Yes, the MTA needs a complete overhaul, but it is not up to the city to bail the MTA and the state for its own gross negligence. If anything, the city continues to suffer as a victim of a quasi-government agency that it has very little control over but is completely reliant upon.
Unfortunately, it seems as if Lhota is more interested in following our governor’s agenda, who has never made our transit system a priority, except when it comes to a photo op for a new, shiny station with Chuck Close paintings. It should also be noted that Lhota is endorsing Republican candidate, Nicole Malliotakis, for Mayor. The mayor’s office, on the other hand, had given a very positive statement about Lhota on the city’s official government Website.