The first thing on my platform is that the next M.T.A. chief need not be a train buff. He or she—or me specifically, since I’m hereby throwing my name out there—has to appreciate the economic essentiality of the authority, which moves the equivalent of New Jersey’s population (8.5 million, give or take) every weekday. But this is not a Lionel set; this is dollars and nonsense.
The next chief should know more about transit financing, particularly the warren navigated in simply keeping the four-pronged monster afloat. As it stands now, it’s a ready-made punch line, with the nation’s largest transit system held hostage to a dysfunctional Albany.
The way it works at present, as this newspaper explained in a 2009 profile of then-new, now-outgoing chief Jay Walder, the organization basically runs on debt (sound familiar?). Instead of giving the M.T.A. enough long-term income sources to sustain itself over time—on fares, tolls and taxes—the state has settled upon a system in which funding for repairs and new construction, like the Second Avenue Subway and the No. 7 line extension, runs dry every five years or so (i.e., barring a prostitution scandal, every gubernatorial administration or so). What happens then is that whoever is in charge of the M.T.A. must go to Albany—to whomever is in charge there—and plead for a new tax; or go to the public to eventually borrow from the state’s general fund.
Barring these scenarios, it’s the familiar fare hikes and service cuts—including the epochal ones from the spring of 2010 that wiped out the W and V subway lines, along with 18 bus routes, and upped the commuting times for millions of New Yorkers who pay into the system through both taxes and fares.
Financing-wise, the M.T.A. is a crapshoot, much like relying on the G on the weekend: it’s there; there are signs for it—even schedules, if you look hard enough—but it doesn’t work well because what undergirds it is unreliable. Abandon hope, all ye who swipe here.
Thus the run of grim statistics, showing a system with a $900 million gap in its operating budget; a $9 billion shortfall in its construction plans; and a $2.1 billion-plus budget deficit for good measure (plus, fresh plans to borrow another $7 billion), and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow …
When we all have to take the N or the 1 or the 4, 5, 6, a line that carries more people daily than the subways of Chicago, L.A. and Boston put together, such dollar signs mean little (one bad commute is a tragedy, a million is a statistic). They’re not tangible to the everyday commuter, as the misery of the trips to and fro seem to trump all.
So restructuring the financial funding situation would be the first criterion for any M.T.A. head. And that means taking some of the year-to-year decision making away from Albany and creating a five-year animal for the operating budget. Therefore, less borrowing and fewer drastic measures like fare hikes (three in three years now) and deep service cuts. Nothing really changes otherwise.
With such a financial funding restructuring that divorces the authority from Albany power plays, there should be a focus on fresh revenues that don’t come from commuters. Enough! Especially with the hikes in monthlies. Laudably, Mr. Walder and the Bloomberg administration in recent years pushed congestion pricing—charging drivers to use central business districts like we charge train and bus riders. It didn’t take, amid bizarre opposition where cars were lofted to First Amendment-level rights. But I would resurrect it. Look to London (not right now, but in general, when it comes to transit). We debate bike lanes for BroBos while Western Europe innovates (and China and Japan build the fastest trains on earth).
And if congestion pricing won’t take, I would propose a tourist tax of some sort, a surcharge levied through the Port Authority (master of airports, the bus terminals and most bridges) for stopping by but not paying in.
Finally, financially speaking, the new M.T.A. chief needs an understanding of the vast real estate holdings of the authority, which include train yards, rights of way and buildings (big ones, too—Grand Central Station, anyone?). Work the commercial real estate industry for prospective buyers—Canadian pension funds are pretty ravenous these days—and sell off all nonessential properties.