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The blame game
When things go wrong in New York City, it’s become second nature to blame Mayor Bill de Blasio, whether or not it’s actually his fault. This is especially true when it comes to public transportation, and the mayor has little to do with its issues, past or present.
The person you should be angry at is Gov. Andrew Cuomo – but you didn’t hear that from me! – since he has far more control than the mayor over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is charged with running and overseeing the city’s public transportation system, including several bridges and tunnels.
“If you like something happening in our subways or don’t like it, you talk to the governor,” de Blasio told The New York Times in 2017, after receiving heaps of criticism over subway delays. “He’s in charge and he should just own up to it and take this responsibility seriously.”
Over the years, Cuomo has made conflicting remarks about how much control he has over the MTA, but over the years he has become much more involved. Perhaps you remember when the governor prevented the L train line from being shut down completely for 15 months to repair a tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn in January 2019. Or, when Cuomo said in December 2019 that 500 new state police officers would begin patrolling the subways to crack down on crime.
The MTA technically is a public benefit corporation, not a state agency, even though it falls under state control. It’s run by a board of 21 members (six of whom don’t vote), who determine the authority’s budget and come up with new business strategies. Cuomo nominates six voting members to the board, including the board’s chair and CEO, while de Blasio only nominates four board members.
The governor has taken the unique approach of appointing board members who work for him or once worked for him, such as state Budget Director Robert Mujica, state Department of Financial Services Superintendent Linda Lacewell and former Secretary to the Governor Lawrence Schwartz. Cuomo’s authority to appoint the board’s chair also makes it highly unlikely that the board would ever go against his recommendations. The governor is also in charge of the state budget and that gives him even more say over the authority’s operations, which rely on the state for financial support.
By the numbers
- 5,927: The number of New York City Transit and MTA buses, as of 2019
- 6,684: The number of subway cars in the city’s transportation fleet, as of 2019
- Less than 500,000: The estimated average number of daily weekday riders during a two-week period in late March 2020
- 5.5 million: The average number of people riding the subway per day during the work week prior to 2020
From stagecoaches to commuter rails
How the MTA came to be
Long before the MTA, in 1827 there was Accomodation, a 12-seat stagecoach that became the city’s first public transportation route. Nearly 80 years later, in 1904, the city’s first official subway system, Interborough Rapid Transit, was created. Over the years it expanded to include Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit and the Independent Rapid Transit Railroad. (Fun fact: The subway’s numbered lines were once the Interborough Rapid Transit lines and the lettered lines are the old Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit and Independent Rapid Transit Railroad lines.)
In 1953, the state Legislature created the New York City Transit Authority to operate the city’s combined subway system – the same year that subway tokens were introduced. The new transportation authority also oversaw the city’s buses and trolleys.
In 1968, the authority was then transformed into the MTA, which was created by the state, under the pretense that allowing the state to control the authority would keep subway fares low and preserve the 20 cent fare at the time. But as anyone who has ridden the subway in recent years knows, the fare has become significantly more expensive since then.
Who is in charge of the MTA?
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo: While the governor isn’t actually a part of the authority, he does have significant control over how much money the authority receives from the state and he’s able to make major board appointments, which means he has a lot of say in how the authority operates.
- Pat Foye: As the MTA chairman and CEO, Foye is responsible for overseeing the agency’s daily operations – and it will probably come as no surprise to learn that he once worked for Cuomo as deputy secretary for economic development.
- Sarah Feinberg: After beloved New York City Transit President Andy Byford (aka “Train Daddy”) stepped down from his role at the beginning of 2020, Feinberg was appointed as theinterim transit president and has remained in that role since. Her adopted duties include managing the New York City Transit’s vast workforce, in addition to the daily operations of the city’s subways, buses, paratransit services and the Staten Island Railway.
- Mayor Bill de Blasio: He nominates four MTA board members but as I previously mentioned Cuomo is able to nominate six members, including the chair and CEO, so the guv has a much greater influence over the board than Hizzoner. I feel for you, pal.
The coronavirus impact
Facing the deficit
The MTA has been facing crushing financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Subway and commuter rail ridership is still down about 70%-75% from a year ago, and bus ridership has been cut in half. Most city residents have been avoiding public transportation due to fears of contracting the coronavirus, and because some workers are able to work from home.
Many people have turned to cars and other modes of transportation, despite the MTA routinely cleaning its fleet of trains and buses. However, public health experts have said that the time and money spent on cleaning may be unnecessary “hygiene theater.”
The pandemic has also been particularly rough for MTA workers. It’s estimated that 126 MTA employees died from COVID-19 in 2020. At the onset of the public health crisis, many workers were not provided with personal protective equipment like masks. Some left their families to quarantine in an attempt to protect them from contracting the virus as they were unable to work from home like some city residents. MTA workers were also on the front lines of enforcing masks on buses, and several drivers were assaulted when they asked riders to put on a mask.
On the financial side, the authority is facing an anticipated $3.2 billion deficit this year, despite receiving about $4 billion in emergency federal aid. The MTA has said that it may need to make significant cuts in the future, including to its service and workforce and may have to raise fares once again – if only they knew in 1968 what we know now. Transportation experts have argued that the MTA overspends in many departments and would do well to reexamine its finances before introducing any major cuts.
Foye has said that federal aid has been very important for the agency during the pandemic, but some transportation experts are concerned that if the MTA doesn’t come up with new ways to cover its operational costs that it may become overly reliant on aid.
“This is going to become like the movie ‘Groundhog Day,” John Samuelsen, the international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents thousands of transportation workers, and MTA board member told The City. “This is going to repeat itself over and over again if they don’t come up with new revenue sources.”