Over the last several months, a series of breakdowns, derailments and never-ending delays have brought New York City subway riders to the breaking point. If it seems like our mass transit system is falling apart, that’s because decades of state disinvestment in our mass transit system are finally coming to a head.
We’ve now reached a point where our elected officials have acknowledged the depth of the crisis: a little over a month ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a “state of emergency” on the subway; everyone from City Council members to congressional leaders are meeting with constituents to discuss the so-called “Summer of Hell”; and on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would ask Albany to give the city authority to raise revenues to fix public transit – and fund Fair Fares – by raising taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents.
While everyone agrees that our subways require massive repairs and upgrades, there is no consensus on how to pay for them. But we have to face a harsh reality: fixing our subways will cost billions. Merely shifting around existing city or state revenues is insufficient. Any transformative plan to fix the subway requires an equally transformative plan to fund public transit: our leaders will need to come up with a new, sustainable revenue source to guarantee our subway system does not deteriorate further.
And while MTA Chairman Joe Lhota announced the beginnings of a plan, the question of funding remains mired in all-too-familiar petty politics: after laying out the MTA’s $836 million short-term plan to stabilize the subways, the chairman argued – and the governor reaffirmed – that the city should pay fifty percent of the cost. Meanwhile, when the mayor proposed a New York City millionaires’ tax, his announcement carried a familiar, if vexing, asterisk: even when the city wants to take action that affects only residents within its borders, it still must go to the state, hat in hand, to ask permission.
Fundamentally, the state Legislature is the only entity that has the legal authority to raise the taxes and fees necessary to generate the revenues our public transit system will need over the long term. Just as the state has come up with the plan for the subways, so too must it create a dedicated funding source. That means the governor will have to be the one to decide how to fund our subways – or fail to fund them at all.
So what kind of funding sources should the governor consider? He should begin by taking seriously the mayor’s proposal for a 0.5 percent tax increase on individuals making over $500,000 and married couples earning over $1 million. He should also consider Move NY, the proposal to reallocate tolls on the city’s bridges and charge drivers a fee for traveling through Manhattan’s central business district. Move NY already enjoys considerable support in the Legislature and among New Yorkers. And he should look to even bigger ideas as well, like a carbon tax, to not only fund public transit, but wean New York off of fossil fuels entirely. The most important thing is that the funding source cannot be subject to the whims of each governor in each budget cycle – the MTA needs a dependable long-term revenue source.
State disinvestment got us here; it’s up to the governor to get us out. He controls the MTA and has his hands on the levers of power that allow the state to find the revenue. It’s time for Gov. Cuomo to exercise his considerable leadership skills to rescue public transit – not just to get through another disastrous day, but to turn transit around so that it will succeed for another generation to come.
Nick Sifuentes is the deputy director of the Riders Alliance.