As Gov.Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio feud over who has to cough up the cash to fix the city’s crumbling subway system, Council members grilled representatives from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on how they plan to use the funding they are requesting for the emergency subway turnaround plan.
MTA Chairman Joe Lhota’s plan includes an $836 million short-term renewal project: signal and track maintenance, car reliability, system safety and cleanliness and customer communications. He proposed that the city and the state split the cost. The $8 billion second phase consists of long-term improvements, including better subway cars, a new signal system and more modern communications technology.
The chairman said the MTA will have to invest $456 million — which the mayor says Cuomo has diverted from MTA operating funds since 2011 — in operating costs right away and make a $380 million capital investment.
Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said the city has provided the MTA with $1 billon for operating costs in 2017, including reduced fares, Access-A-Ride, MTA bus company liens and commuter rail station maintenance; $2.5 billion toward the most recent capital plan; and $613 million on subway-related expenses including debt service and transit police expenses.
She also said that the city has contributed $3.6 billion in taxes from city residents and businesses, or about two-third of the state’s $5.4 billion annual operating contribution to the MTA; and $5.2 billion that New York City residents pay each year in fares and tolls.
“Now I know the mayor has taken a position on the MTA’s request for funding, but let me remind everyone that the Council must approve any additional city spending,” Mark-Viverito said. “And before we can consider investing any additional money, we need to know what we’re going to be paying for. We want a complete breakdown of how the MTA plans to spend and invest this money.”
She told reporters she was not pleased with Lhota’s absence at the meeting and that the Council will make a set of recommendations after reviewing the testimony and consulting with the de Blasio administration.
Veronique Hakim, the MTA’s managing director, said that the MTA is “confronting the challenge aggressively and realistically.”
“This reality-based recovery program of essential repair work is truly an investment in the city’s future and we are asking for your help to ensure that it is funded jointly between the city and the state as Chairman Lhota proposed,” Hakim said.”
“To make it seem like the governor is being so magnanimous and that the city is rejecting its responsibility, I’m not gonna sit here and accept that,” she said.
Public Advocate Letitia James said finger-pointing is a “waste of time,” but said the state budget has more money for roads and bridges than for the MTA. She also called for more transparency about how MTA is using funds.
“No more raids, no more sweeps, no more diversions, no more excuses for funds that were supposed to go to the MTA,” James said. “And just to be clear, these raids didn’t start in 2011.”
She also touted proposals such as a commuter tax, a “strong” MTA payroll tax, a gas tax and two de Blasio proposals: a tax on wealthy New Yorkers to fund subway repairs and reduced, and the mansion tax, a tax on sales of properties worth $2 million.
Hakim noted that the capital program is currently at $32.5 billion, which she said is the “largest in MTA history.” She said that the state has committed more than $8 billion in funding, along with more than $2.5 billion committed by the city.
James pointed to Hakim’s assertion in February 2017—before this summer—that the MTA’s financial plan is “able to maintain itself based on this budget without any further service cuts or fare or toll increases.” Hakim said the agency has to respond to “this emergency situation we find ourselves in.”
“They (customers) want more, they want faster, they want it better and we want to respond to that,” she said.
Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, chairman of the Council’s Committee on Transportation, touted raising money through state bonds, moving to a “smart and productive” tolling system into the central business district, the millionaires tax and setting aside a small percentage of state income taxes.
But he also noted that they have seen capital projects go “comically over budget” and “decades past delivery time” and that they have to prioritize the projects that are “most essential to the core functions of the system,” including new train cars and new signals.
“Changes such as relying less on generic, automated announcements are a good first step toward rebuilding trust and confidence among riders. But we of course expect a lot more,” Rodriguez said. “The MTA needs to rethink established ways of doing things in very area, from track, signal and car maintenance, to incident response and customer communication.”
Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams accused Lhota of frequently “carrying the governor’s water” all over TV, blasting his absence. He said he is not against the city providing additional money but called for honesty about who controls the MTA — the MTA is a state-run agency and thus under Cuomo’s authority — and then lead a “joint discussion.”
“That’s the responsible thing to do,” Williams said.
When he asked Hakim and the other MTA representatives who controls the MTA, Hakim —who said Lhota has a conflict — stated that she reports to Lhota and the MTA CEO, the board and the nearly 8 million customers, 6 million of whom are subway riders. Lhota is still working as senior vice president, vice dean and chief of staff at NYU Langone Medical Center.
“I think this conversation has been very comprehensive and provides a lot of information,” she said, in response to criticism of Lhota’s absence.
Queens Councilman Rory Lancman, who frequently critiques de Blasio and called on the mayor to take up the governor’s offer of splitting the cost of the subway turnaround plan, said that he wants the city to invest in its subways and exert maximum influence over the MTA.
“The mayor has four appointees to this board and I know this might be an uncomfortable question but this is a hearing to ask uncomfortable questions,” Lancman said. “Those four appointees weren’t all finally appointed and confirmed until last June.”
Yesterday, de Blasio unveiled the millionaires tax. But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan announced his opposition to the plan, while Lhota and Cuomo said that it does not address the immediate problems plaguing the subway system.
At the end of June, Cuomo said the state will contribute an additional $1 billion to the MTA capital plan, declared a state of emergency and asked Lhota to develop a reorganization plan for the MTA by July 31.
He asserted that the state contributes $8.3 billion to the MTA capital plan, while the city commits $2.5 billion and that the state gives out $5 billion to the annual operating fund, compared to $1.8 billion by the city.
De Blasio said the $5 billion state contribution includes $4.7 billion in dedicated taxes for MTA riders from the MTA region. He also called on Cuomo to shift more than $200 million for the MTA bridges light show.