Straphanger’s Dilemma: Eliot Spitzer’s Entry Into Comptroller Race Means Two Great Transit Candidates

Scott Stringer is one of very few politicians to talk about the MTA's cost problem... (Photo: MTA/Patrick J. Cashin)

Scott Stringer is one of very few politicians to talk about New York’s transit construction cost problem… (Photo: MTA/Patrick J. Cashin)

New York City voters who care about transit have two excellent choices on the ballot come November—but unfortunately, neither of them is running for mayor. Eliot Spitzer’s last-minute entry into the race upends Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s easy slide into the city comptroller’s office, and makes the choice for straphanger voters especially difficult.

On the one hand, Scott Stringer has demonstrated an understanding, almost uniquely among New York City politicians, of the tremendous and globally unprecedented costs that the city pays to build new transit infrastructure. While Christine Quinn looks at the high cost of digging subways and throws up her hands and suggests we paint bus lanes instead, Mr. Stringer seems to understand that these costs are not something we necessarily have to live with.

“We need to get to the bottom of why the price tags for MTA projects are so astronomical compared to projects in other developed nations,” he said in a speech delivered back when Joe Lhota was still fresh at the MTA. “The first phase of the Second Avenue Subway is costing $2.7 billion per mile of new tunnel” he said, with talking points clearly cribbed (dare we say, plagiarized?—ah well, we’ll take it!) from blogger Alon Levy. “In comparison, London built the Jubilee subway line—a 9.9-mile route that crosses the Thames River four times—at a cost of $700 million per mile. Similar projects in Paris, Berlin and Tokyo cost between $370 million to $450 million per mile.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Spitzer, the son of a real estate developer, is no slouch either when it comes to transit. Astute Observer readers who read our May cover story will recall that Eliot Spitzer was the only one of four New York governors since the 9/11 attacks to pay close attention to the skyrocketing costs at the World Trade Center site, and especially the Santiago Calatrava-designed PATH subway station.

PATH WTC

…while Eliot Spitzer is one of a very few politicians to try to do anything about it.

“The best way to explain the cost of downtown was the opportunity cost,” Mr. Spitzer told The Observer back in May. “What was not done because you had to do that? Do you do Calatrava, or do you do the rebuild of Penn Station? That’s the way I forced us to think about it.”

Mr. Spitzer’s prostitution scandal broke before he and his Port Authority pick, Anthony Shorris, could do anything about it, and the Transportation Hub and other cost overruns at the World Trade Center site eventually did exactly what Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Shorris feared they would: they forced the Port to cut back on other projects, like a LaGuardia renovation and a new bus garage for the West Side.

Meanwhile, back among the major candidates for the mayor’s office, Joe Lhota is the only would-be mayor to even suggest expanding the subway system. (He wants to extend the R train over from Bay Ridge to Staten Island, a proposal that may leave anyone who’s ever sat on that painfully local train scratching their head.) The city has apparently become so afraid of new transit projects that not even in a mayor’s race, where pie-in-the-sky ideas like free universal pre-K and single-payer city health insurance are routinely floated, will candidates suggest serious new ones.

The comptroller has no control over the state-run MTA. But the city has recently started giving money directly to transit—city taxpayers are on the hook for interest payments on the 7 train extension to Hudson Yards now that office buildings are going up more slowly than anticipated—and the comptroller’s office would be in a good position to act as a watchdog over spiraling transit costs.

“I’m not in any way passing judgment on Scott by getting into the race,” Mr. Spitzer told Politicker late last night. “The process of democracy is competitive, and it permits the public to choose among candidates, sometimes all of whom are superbly qualified.”