Everyone seems to agree that the MTA’s new rescue plan, proposed by New York City Transit Authority President Andy Byford and dubbed Fast Forward, makes a lot of sense. The proposal—which calls for new technology, improved infrastructure, station upgrades, and redesigned bus routes—has been well received across the board. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his support for the plan, Cynthia Nixon repackaged it as her own, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said he likes it—if the city doesn’t have to pay for it. And judging by the favorable coverage it has received, the media seems to like it as well.
For the sake of argument, let’s be optimistic and say that Albany provides the necessary funding to implement the rescue plan—a whopping $19 billion—and Byford delivers on his promises. Even if all this happened, the essential structural issue behind the problem would fester unaddressed. Unless we change either who controls the MTA or human nature itself, the mismanagement and lack of investment that resulted in the transit system’s current dilapidated state will continue to plague it.
New York City has virtually no say over its own mass transit system. Instead, the MTA is almost completely controlled by the governor, who has little political incentive to consistently invest in its maintenance and upkeep. That doesn’t make sense, you’re thinking. New York’s last three governors have been Democrats, and the state’s future is looking even more blue. Democrats receive huge numbers of votes from New York City. And since New York City residents care a lot about the subways and buses, keeping them happy should be political priority number one, right?
In theory, yes, but most governors have done and will continue to do exactly what Cuomo did: assume they can win a Democratic primary against anyone and that most New York City voters will never vote for a Republican. These politicians transfer money needed for the city’s mass transit to pork projects in the suburbs and upstate instead, where Democrats have to fight harder for votes. Since the vast majority of politicians operate this way, consistently acting only in their self-interest, the city will get screwed by the state unless it manages its own mass transit system.
This is why any solution to fixing the subways has to include the city taking control of its transit. The mayor and City Council have no political motivation to divert money needed for mass local transit to the suburbs or upstate. Instead, they are incentivized to properly fund the MTA to keep voters happy. This isn’t a debate about whether New York City or New York State is more trustworthy; it’s a question of how to align the motivations of politicians with the needs of their constituents.
Is de Blasio competent enough to run the subways? Probably not, based on his track record on homelessness, schools, and half a dozen other issues. But he, like any good politician, always acts in his own best political self-interest, which, in this case, happens to align with the city’s interests. Even if de Blasio fails to attain control of the city’s subways, floating the idea is an important first step. Former New York City Mike Bloomberg won control of the city’s schools from Albany, but only after Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani agitated for the same thing for years. Additionally, Bloomberg was too ahead of his time when he proposed congestion pricing in 2007, but he laid the groundwork for it to finally—hopefully—happen next year.
All of the 2021 mayoral candidates should be ready to make city control of the subways their top campaign issue. If any of them lack the gumption to fight for our subways, they have no business being mayor. We can’t afford anything less.
Bradley Tusk is the founder and CEO of Tusk Holdings, the parent company of Tusk Strategies, Tusk Ventures, Kronos Archives, the Ivory Gaming Group and Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies.