January 30, 2019

Can Albany Fix the MTA? History Doesn’t Repeat, but It Might Well Rhyme

By Nicholas Dagen Bloom

[In his forthcoming book, How States Shaped Postwar America: State Government and Urban Power, Dr. Bloom reviews the enduring impact of Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s decision in the mid-1960s to have State government take responsibility for managing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Here's an excerpt.]   

The re-emerging problems of today’s MTA have their roots in the same stresses and strains that were on full display in the 1960s. Priority has been placed on big-ticket items given to suburban commuters such as East Side Access ($11 billion at minimum)… to bring Long Island Rail Road passengers directly to Grand Central. Penn Station, which is overwhelmed by a daily flood of LIRR, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak passengers, is also benefitting from a State-designed expansion program under the post office next door. Wealthy East Side residents and developers have also benefited from the first phase of the Second Avenue project ($4.45 billion)….

Investment in the subway’s hundreds of other miles of lines, hundreds of dreary stations, and ancient control systems have not kept pace with demand. The city’s bus service is in steep decline due to poor service and competition from private ride-sharing and shuttle-bus service. Personnel costs absorb most of the MTA’s enormous annual budgets. Service reached such a low point that Governor Andrew Cuomo was forced to focus on the system’s problems in 2017-18.

What reporters and Governor Cuomo discovered, and the riding public already knew, would be all too familiar to Rockefeller and [key Rockefeller aide and first MTA chair William] Ronan. State, Federal, and City government since the 1990s have forced the MTA to subsist on a mix of debt, legacy funding sources such as TBTA [Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority] tolls, miserly Federal grants, and rising fares rather than robust State funds or regional taxes.

It is still hard to convince upstate legislators, and even many representatives from downstate suburbs, that transit is a financial priority for them – especially given what they hear about the comparatively booming downstate economy and inflated MTA labor and construction contracts. Debt and fare box revenues solve the political problem of maintaining the State’s hand in mass transit, but have a fatal flaw. The accumulated $34 billion in MTA debt for capital projects now consumes approximately one-fifth of annual revenues just for debt service. Bond holders and contractors get rich, and fares rise, without buying much better service.

Governor Cuomo, because of Rockefeller’s decision to assume management, is nevertheless forced to confront the needs of all transit riders. At the time of this writing, the governor has succeeded in funding a Subway Action Plan with a mix of State subsidies, City funds (only agreed to by Mayor Bill de Blasio under duress), and fees on taxis and Uber service below 96th Street. Congestion charges on vehicles entering Manhattan that might have yielded sustained funds were resisted, however, by outer-borough car commuters, their State legislators, and the mayor, illustrating the persistence of fraught transit politics stretching back decades.

[In the 1960s] New York State saved America’s most extensive system of mass transit, but service quality has fluctuated widely, depending upon variables such as regional politics, management, and the economic context. New York State’s mixed record on transit is widely shared….State governments had the latent power but lacked the unified political will to create and sustain regional transportation systems that would be competitive in quality or time with the much more deeply subsidized road network. Americans may complain about poor transit service, especially when they can no longer drive for reasons of age or health, but not enough of them depend upon it to make a crucial difference in public policy. We get what we pay for, and most Americans do not pay much to support rail or bus lines.

Photo By: Alex Rivera (The Bronxer)

Nicholas Dagen Bloom is a professor at the New York Institute of Technology-Columbus Circle who teaches courses in American history, planning history, and global urbanism. Reprinted with permission from How States Shaped Postwar America: State Government and Urban Power, by Nicholas Dagen Bloom, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. The book will be published in April. Copies may be ordered now by going to the link below.