Transit Strife

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing a crisis and the man who can save it doesn’t seem to care.

Before Andrew Cuomo was sworn in as the 56th governor of New York State, before he won the general election by nearly 30 percentage points, even before the first gubernatorial debate cemented his standing as the only plausible candidate, an unlikely cadre of transportation professionals, good government advocates, environmentalists, labor unions and trade organizations was eagerly awaiting his arrival in Albany.

The group, which calls itself the Empire State Transportation Alliance, would meet every few weeks across from Grand Central Station at the headquarters of the General Contractors Association of New York. Though the cast rotated, the core involved groups like the Regional Plan Association, the Natural Resource Defense Council, Transportation Alternatives, Transport Workers Union Local 100, the New York League of Conservation Voters and the Straphangers Campaign. These are big players with decades of experience in Albany’s trenches, and they thought they had a bead on what the Governor was going to do about transit. It turns out many of them missed the mark.

“None of us expected the MTA’s funding crisis to disappear when Cuomo became governor, but we all expected he would take some serious steps to address it,” said Transportation Alternatives’ Deputy Director Noah Budnick.

A frequent attendee of the meetings who spoke with Reclaim on condition of anonymity agreed. “The conventional thinking was, ‘He’s Mario’s son, a New York City kid, a HUD chief, a Clinton appointee, a transparency junkie, a reformer.’ He was all of that, and we were coming off the accidental Governor, and I think a lot of us made some assumptions that hindsight has shown to be misguided,” he said.

Despite the Governor’s pedigree, since taking office at the start of the year Andrew Cuomo has lost two highly praised agency heads, seen the MTA’s bond rating fall, passed a budget that further battered sustainable transit in New York City and set commuter rail in the region back at least a decade. Worse, his dismissive approach to transit and planning diminishes issues that are essential to the state’s economic well-being. “If you fail to invest in the infrastructure of the city, the entire regional economy will suffer,” former Governor Eliot Spitzer told Reclaim. “This is something that anyone who studies regional economics should understand. It’s incumbent upon government to make that investment.”

To be fair, Governor Cuomo didn’t make this mess. He inherited it from generations of elected officials who have underfunded the MTA and borrowed against future revenue since its opening day, February 29, 1968. That’s when Governor Nelson Rockefeller, struggling to meet his legal requirement to balance the state budget, merged the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the commuter railroads to create the MTA, an entity that the Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi once called, “an unholy animal—borne of political opportunism, national ambition, secrecy, a total disregard for either the voting or investing public and a lack of any consideration for either municipal efficiency or fiscal sense.”

Maybe that’s a bit overblown, but you get his point. The MTA has always had two roles. The obvious one is to provide low-cost, high-quality mass transit to New York City and its suburbs, which it has gotten much better at in recent years. The other role is to help insulate the elected officials that control that authority’s budget from the public’s wrath, particularly when the cost or quality of service changes for the worse. That’s the role the Authority’s critics take aim at and the one that isn’t an easy job, even in the best of times.

And times are really tough right now. The MTA holds a total of $31 billion in debt. Payment on that borrowed money already consumes 16 percent of the annual operating budget and could hit 25 percent by 2014. Since the mid 1990s, the overall level of state and local payments to the MTA has remained essentially flat, according to New York City’s Independent Budget Office. What’s more, the economic downturn has significantly reduced tax revenue (some of which is dedicated to mass transit) across the board. Add to that skyrocketing pension benefits, notoriously tense labor relations, a recently established mobility tax that’s wildly unpopular with suburban voters, and a perennial pattern of crisis and resolution that does little more than lower expectations and stymie real change and you’ve got a pretty good feel for the transit landscape Governor Cuomo surveyed when he took the oath of office on January 1st.

One of the worst-kept secrets in Albany is that the Governor wants to be the President in 2016. That has talking heads and kingmakers from both sides of the political spectrum analyzing his every move. It also means Cuomo, who is a renowned political animal, is working twice as hard to make sure his every move matches up with the desired outcome.

In a Daily Beast column titled ‘Why Andrew Cuomo Will Run for President,’ Charlie Gasparino quotes a friend and former adviser to the Governor as saying, “I’ve known Andrew for a long time, and he’s definitely looking toward 2016, and we think he has a shot because he’s learned from the past. He saw what Clinton did and the shellacking that Obama took during the midterms, and he recognizes that if he’s going to be successful, he needs a different approach. You can’t do it as a liberal anymore.”

In the current political parlance, that also means you can’t support mass transit. GOP governors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio have been beefing up their conservative bona fides by rejecting federal funds for high-speed rail, and right across the river, New Jersey’s Chief Executive made a name for himself by filling in a half-dug hole that was supposed to stretch to Penn Station and carry millions of train passengers each year. He even tried to keep the money that the US Department of Transportation gave the state for the long-awaited (and much-needed) trans-Hudson tunnel.

Andrew Cuomo hasn’t been quite so cutthroat, but he certainly hasn’t given mass transit the attention it warrants. A review of the Governor’s schedule shows that in nine months in office, he barely met with the outgoing MTA Chairman and Chief Executive Jay Walder or the Port Authority’s Executive Director Chris Ward, who also stepped down. These two men headed agencies with a combined annual operating budget of more than $20 billion and oversaw nearly 75,000 employees. It stands to reason that they’d be worth talking to.

The Governor has also cut from the MTA’s budget and iced plans for a transit corridor along the Tappan Zee Bridge. The cuts, which came in around $100 million, weren’t as severe as those implemented by his predecessor, or the ones that hit education and health care, but they came from a so-called “dedicated” funding stream, setting a dangerous precedent that a handful of the Empire State Transportation Alliance groups, including Transportation Alternatives, have been fighting with a piece of legislation called the Transit Lockbox Act. At publication time, the group was still waiting for the Governor to sign or veto the bill.

As for the Tappan Zee Bridge, decades of planning for a commuter rail and Bus Rapid Transit corridor that would ease congestion on either side of the span were recently undone when the Governor struck a deal with federal officials for a heretofore ignored roadway-only version of the project that would merely leave room for transit facilities to be built in the coming years. Although cost estimates for that iteration come in at more than $10 billion less than a rail-and-BRT equipped project, a BRT-with-room-for-rail version would only cost 20 percent more and start to achieve many of the regional land use and economic development goals of the pricier options. It would also ease congestion, help the Metropolitan region remain competitive, and send a message about the importance of sustainable transportation and progressive planning during challenging economic times.

Even more troubling is that while these hurdles are going up, the Governor is searching for ways to boost job numbers around the state. MTA construction and maintenance work not only creates and sustains thousands of jobs in the region − the last capital plan created 347,000 jobs over nine years − it also opens up job opportunities for millions of workers who might not be willing or able to travel to potential employers without transit. New York City households save roughly $19 billion on transportation costs every year because of access to mass transit, according to Joe Cortright of the Brookings Institution.

And this is only the beginning. Governor Cuomo has been in office for less than a year. Some advocates, like Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, find solace in that. He told Reclaim, “The jury is still out on Cuomo versus transit. He has done some things that I don’t agree with, but he’s also been very open, and he appointed Fernando Ferrer to the MTA’s board, which is a strong choice for riders.”

“The real test will come when he needs to find more money,” he said. “Will he look at congestion pricing? Will he find fair and progressive ways to raise revenue? I think he could still be a champion.”

Others aren’t quite so sure. An Albany insider, who requested to go unnamed, told Reclaim, “I think we’ve seen what we’re going to get. The Governor is not going to attack transit. He’ll pay just enough attention so that things don’t go wrong, but it’ll never be a centerpiece. That makes political sense for him.”

There are, however, a few MTA issues on the horizon that might force the Governor to take a real stand. The first is the Payroll Mobility Tax, a 0.34 percent levy on all payroll in the MTA region that was enacted by Governor Paterson and the legislature in 2009. It has drawn Republican ire ever since. If that ends up at the center of an old-school Albany horse trade, it’ll force the Governor to take a telling position. Similarly, the Capital Program Review Board, which oversees spending and construction for big-ticket items like the Second Avenue subway, is comprised of representatives from the State Legislature as well as the Governor’s office. Trouble there could easily bring Cuomo into the fray, as could negotiations with the Transport Workers Union or an accident that betrays the system’s declining state of good repair. The most promising space for change, however, remains the public realm.

If Governor Cuomo’s fiscal austerity and anti-transit policy is ultimately a play for popular support around the country, then it stands to reason that a shift left in the public’s sentiment might bring the Governor around to issues that will show he’s willing to fight for the vast majority of regular New Yorkers. Transportation Alternatives’ Rider Rebellion Campaign, a 50,000-strong grassroots effort to rally transit riders, has been making a case for better transportation, sustainable funding and an end to service cuts as a basic right. Recently, those tenets and the campaign’s Riders Bill of Rights were introduced in the State Assembly. Though the legislation likely won’t gain any meaningful traction, as a symbolic act it’s powerful and entirely in line with a wider left-leaning protest movement sweeping the country. New Yorkers and Americans are fed up with politics as usual and policies tailored for the wealthiest percentile. Perhaps that growing frustration will teach a political animal some new tricks.