It’s happening. Yet again the state is trying to cut the MTA budget, for it has just been revealed that Andrew Cuomo has proposed a $65 million cut representing 21% of the state’s total contribution to the transit system. The fact that he has proposed this when subway trains are both bursting at the seams and frustrating more and more transit riders every day may, to an outsider, seem shocking. But those who know the MTA know that this is only the latest event in a long history of ignoring transit riders, especially in New York City.
The fact that the MTA has problems is not a surprise. That is evident in how crowded and slow our subways and buses have become. What is a surprise, though, is that not only is the MTA trying to solve these problems at an extremely lackadaisical pace, but has also blown off some problems as non-important.
The MTA, particularly during Andrew Cuomo’s administration, has repeatedly blown off or dismissed legitimate complaints from riders, the most infamous cases being when he tossed aside complaints over terrible bus service by implying that bus riders should just take a subway and when he played a game of political chicken with Bill de Blasio over vital funding for the MTA Capital Plan.
If the state is this sharply ignoring complaints and messing with vital transit funding, clearly it’s time for a change. Reforms could be passed in Albany to better protect MTA funding or increase the voices of transit riders in MTA decision making, but there is a more radical solution that could also be put on the table: removing the state from the MTA decision making process entirely. In other words, giving the MTA to the city.
There are multiple reasons why this makes sense, with the biggest, by far, being the location of MTA ridership and the city’s representation on the MTA board.
If one were to look at the transit systems operated by the MTA, one would find that the only systems that go significant distances beyond the city’s boundaries are the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North. Outside of those systems, the subway network, bus network, and Staten Island Railway are entirely contained within the city. The only exceptions to this are a limited bus route from Staten Island to Bayonne and a few bus routes in Queens that extend into Nassau County.
This means that, by simple virtue of these systems being entirely contained to New York City, most of the MTA’s ridership comes from city residents.
In terms of representation, this matters enormously as the city only receives about a fifth of the seats on the MTA Board, with the rest being filled by the state and other non-city counties in the MTA system. Unsurprisingly, when you then do the math, it quickly starts to resemble the Electoral College in just how absurdly low the city’s power on the board is.
To go into specifics, while MTA non-commuter rail ridership (subway, bus, and the Staten Island Railway) represents 94% of total ridership, the four seats the city gets, when compared to the rest of the board, represents just 21% of the board’s voting power. If that doesn’t represent a slap in the face to the city, I don’t know what does. It’s the bureaucratic equivalent of your neighbor telling you where to go out for dinner. It not only robs the city of the power to make transit decisions that other members may not like, but also means that the city can be subject to service cuts without being able to adequately defend the transit users the cuts would affect most.
In short, having the state run transit systems contained to New York City just doesn’t make any sense. The state can essentially do whatever it wants to city transit riders without consulting the city those riders come from, which leads, more often than not, to transit decisions like fare hikes that are derided by New Yorkers.
The state may respond to this by saying that they are investing in the subway by buying new subway cars, extensively renovating stations, and buying new buses. While the state is certainly conducting these actions, and these actions do fulfill maintenance needs within the system, what they don’t get is that these actions don’t solve the MTA’s fundamental problems.
Yes, a shiny renovated station may be nice place to wait, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are still waiting a long time for a train that, more likely than not, will be overcrowded and delayed. Similarly, it won’t matter if the bus you are on is shiny and new if the route it’s on is long, slow, indirect, and plagued by traffic.
When these, as opposed to fixes that actually improve transit headways and crowding, are the state’s priorities, it’s time for change. When the state outright dismisses valid complaints about poor service, it’s time for change. And finally, when the person who runs the MTA is trying to slash funding at a time when it desperately needs it, it’s time for change, for maybe, just maybe, the city should be given its turn to run its own transit system without commands from the state.