Bill de Blasio and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority

In 1953, the old NYC Board of Transportation passed control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets, to the newly created New York City Transit Authority. Under late Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was created. The Governor appointed four board members. The Mayor also appointed four and the rest by suburban county Executives. No one elected official controlled a majority of the votes. As a result, elected officials have historically taken credit when the MTA or any operating subsidiary such as New York City Transit would do a good job.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio. (Photo by Getty Images)

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio. (Photo by Getty Images)

When operational problems occurred or fare increases were needed, everyone said, “Don’t blame me, I’m only a minority within the board.” Decade after decade, NYC Mayors, Comptrollers, Public Advocates, City Council Presidents, Borough Presidents and City Council members would all sing the same sad song: If only we had majority control of the Board, things would be different.

All have long forgotten that buried within the 1953 master agreement between the City of New York and New York City Transit is an escape clause. NYC has the legal right at any time to take back control of its assets, which includes the subway and most of the bus system as well. Actions speak louder than words. If Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio feels he could do a better job running the nation’s largest subway and bus system, will he step up to the plate now and regain control of his destiny?

Mr. de Blasio’s recent announcement concerning his “transportation agenda,” when he said, “The federal government since the Ronald Reagan era has retreated from its investment in mass transportation,” may indicate his lack of understanding concerning the history of transportation funding. On a bipartisan basis under past Republican Presidents George Bush and George W. Bush, along with Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, all have consistently supported billions of dollars of assistance from Washington for the MTA. They have been supported by a majority bipartisan coalition of both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. 

They represent both urban, old suburb and new suburb districts whose constituents utilize and benefit by federal investment in public transportation. Billions more have been provided by Washington as a result of 9/11 and the ARRA (American Reinvestment and Recovery Act). Billions more are on the way from Uncle Sam as a result of Hurricane Sandy. The federal government faces a $17 trillion and growing national debt accompanied by an on-going budget crises. It is unrealistic for Mr. de Blasio to assume that Washington has any more money. Uncle Sam, unlike both New York City and New York State, has done more than its fair share to help in good times and bad.

For decades, under numerous past MTA Five Year Capital Plans, both the City and State collectively cut billions of their own respective financial contributions. They repeatedly had the MTA refinance or borrow funds to acquire scarce capital funding formerly made up by hard cash from both City Hall and Albany. This has resulted in long term MTA debt doubling from $15 billion to over $32 billion during this time frame. More money has to be spent on debt service payments. This has resulted in billions of fewer dollars available for both operating and capital improvements for safety, state of good repair and system expansion capital projects and programs. While Washington has consistently provided billions, it is both City Hall and Albany that have retreated from properly financing the MTA Capital Program since the 1980’s.

Mr. de Blasio has fellow Democrats NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James and a future NYC Council Speaker, along with 48 of 51 NYC Council members. Starting with the upcoming July 1, 2014 municipal budget, will they work with him to support increasing NYC’s capital funding to the MTA? The same holds true for supporting increasing funding to the New York City Department of Transportation Staten Island Ferry System and other private ferry operators. 

Mr. de Blasio has fellow Democrats Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, along with 99 members of the State Assembly. Fifty-nine are based in NYC. There are 16 more from Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Putnam, Rockland and Dutchess counties, giving Silver a working majority. State Senate minority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has 20 of 22 members from NYC. There are two more members lead by Senator Jeffrey Klein of the “Independent Democratic Caucus from NYC. Add two other NYC-based and 12 Long Island-Hudson Valley suburban Republican State Senators led by GOP Senate leader Dean Skelos, and there is a working majority coalition within the MTA service area.

Asking suburban-based members of the State Legislature—be they Assembly members or State Senators, Democrats or Republicans—to support any non NYC resident paying a commuter tax has historically been and will continue to be doomed to failure. This will continue with all having to face voters in 2014. Asking them all to support increasing funding to the MTA would benefit constituents of NYC based public officials who ride New York City Transit bus and subway. It would also benefit suburban based office holders whose constituents ride either the Long Island Rail Road or Metro North Rail Road.  This could build a winning majority coalition in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Will  Mr. de Blasio attempt to build bridges on mutual issues of interest with suburban residents that could benefit everyone? Will he challenge Albany to increase its contribution to the next 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program by billions more? 

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently refused to sign off on legislation creating a “lock box” to protect state budget allocations to the MTA. In the past, funds have periodically been reprogrammed from the MTA to non transit budget activities when the state faced budget difficulties. Will Mr. de Blasio lobby the Governor to change his position and sign this valuable piece of legislation, which would insure a more secure state funding stream for the MTA?  

It will be interesting to see who Mr. de Blasio appoints to fill the four NYC-based MTA board seats, along with the next NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner. Millions of daily transportation riders who are taxpayers and voters  await the news.

Larry Penner writes regularly for The Queens Courier.