It goes without saying that mass transit is the backbone of New York City’s economy.
Over half of the city’s workforce takes a subway or bus to get to work every day. An additional 650,000 commute daily from suburban counties using Metro North and the Long Island Rail Road, both under the command of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA itself wields a $15 billion annual budget, employing 65,000 locals, and makes an approximately $25 billion investment in capital improvements every five years. These investments generate an additional 350,000 jobs across the state in fields like rail car manufacturing.
Given the MTA’s outsized importance to the city’s economy and workforce, one would expect transit to be among the more pressing issues during the 2013 mayoral campaign. But when seven candidates spoke at a forum on transit last month, it quickly became clear that improving transit falls pretty low on their agendas.
First, a caveat: The mayor isn’t actually responsible for the MTA. (That job falls to the governor.) But that doesn’t mean that the next mayor won’t have a say about the current state of service or future plans for expansions. And sometimes the city takes a direct lead on a project, as in outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to invest over $2 billion in city funds for an expansion of the 7 subway line to the far West Side of Manhattan.
Attending the transit forum were five Democrats: Christine Quinn, Bill de Blasio, William Thompson, John Liu and Sal Albanese; and two Republicans: Tom Allon and Adolfo Carrion. (One mayoral candidate, Joe Lhota, whose previous job was to actually run the MTA, was reportedly invited via Twitter but did not attend).
I asked the city’s leading transit advocates and experts what they thought about the candidates that night.
“Disappointed,” summed up Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
“Could have been better,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, openly feigning diplomacy. Later, as diplomacy’s veneer began to fade, “I know I’ll be feeling more bitter as the mayoral race goes on.”
Ok, not a good start.
How about some of the candidates saying they want to take control of the MTA? “Bullshit,” said Joan Byron, policy director with the Pratt Center for Community Development. “They say they want to run it, but they don’t have any plans for it.”
“I’m not sure any of the candidates are willing to move beyond the status quo,” added Vanterpool. She worried that there were “not enough specifics” from the candidates to indicate that they had any meaningful ideas about the issue.
“The candidates are extremely cautious about proposing anything that will cost money,” like increased service or new expansions to support a growing workforce, observed David Giles of the Center for an Urban Future. I sensed he was practicing the art of tactful condemnation.
I asked Jim Gannon, spokesperson for the Transport Workers Union Local 100, how he would like the next mayor to differ from Bloomberg in relation to the MTA. “How about actually giving a shit about it?” Gannon replied. “In 12 years, he never once went to an MTA Board meeting.”
These are the voices of frustration. Transit experts have witnessed decades in which Albany has treated the MTA like a political punching bag, taking “dedicated” state tax revenues needed to run the trains and buses from the authority’s coffers, and effectively shrinking to zero its contribution to the MTA program of system maintenance and repair. On a positive note, state legislators did enact a new payroll tax on businesses in 2009 that adds $1.5 billion to the MTA’s revenue each year, though this tax is under constant threat from suburban lawmakers.
When it comes to expanding and improving the transit system, the state’s answer has been for the MTA to simply borrow money for expensive projects. Now 17 cents of every dollar collected in fares goes to paying down the authority’s debt, which stands at $41 billion.
Bloomberg’s position on transit has been a little better, but less than advocates might hope for. His achievements include the 7 line extension (almost finished) and the introduction of Select Bus Service, the city’s version of bus rapid transit, with two routes currently running and five more planned. The Select Bus Service routes in particular have been a huge success. The mayor’s network of bike lanes has also been successful and popular (if divisive), adding an important alternative to the city’s finicky subway and bus lines.
Transit advocates also laud Bloomberg for spearheading a campaign to implement congestion pricing, similar to London’s famous scheme. If enacted, the revenues would have been used to improve outer borough bus service — except no one believed the money would actually be used for transit. State legislators hated the idea from the start, and Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan fell through.
Advocates contend that system improvements during the Bloomberg administration have been too Manhattan-centric at the expense of underserved outer borough neighborhoods. Other state-led projects have focused on Manhattan as well: A project to expand Grand Central Station (called the East Side Access Project), the Second Avenue Subway and the Fulton Transit Center (way past schedule and over budget). Perhaps the $2 billion sunk into the 7 line extension could have been better used for outer borough projects.
You could take the cynical view. Of Bloomberg prioritizing the 7 line extension, Gannon said, “Most of the money went to his big developer buddies, right?” Well, yes. The project’s primary beneficent, Related Companies, will build and control 6 million square feet of prime office space, 20,000 new units of housing and 750,000 square feet of luxury retail space. That’s a lot of rent money. Using public money to support large projects that benefit a single large developer — usually politically connected — has been one of the less admirable aspects of Bloomberg’s development agenda.
Or take the practical view. Giles, of the Center for an Urban Future, observes that the city’s commuting patterns have changed]over the past two decades. Fewer city residents are commuting into Manhattan and more are commuting within their own borough, to another outer borough or even to suburban counties like Westchester or Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island.
“There is an urgent need for the kind of planning that addresses the transit system’s failings today, to overcome gaps,” Giles said. “There’s a new economic geography in New York. Flushing [Queens] is a major job center. JFK [John F. Kennedy International Airport] employs 55,000 people,” but there is limited transit service to these new job centers.
“These workers don’t use the AirTrain,” Giles added, referring to the dinky rail line to JFK airport run by the Port Authority. The AirTrain charges $10 for a round trip.
To advocates and planners there is an obvious answer: Improve the city’s notoriously slow and unreliable bus system. The idea is to build out a robust network of Select Bus Routes connecting new job centers in the outer boroughs.
The city’s first Select Bus Service route along Fordham Road in the Bronx was a huge success. It cut travel times by 19 percent. Ridership increased by more than a third. Now the city has plans for seven Select Bus Service lines, like the one currently under construction on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn.
“When we looked at Nostrand Avenue, we saw three or four large institutions — hospitals — with 25,000 workers coming there every day,” Giles said. The planned Select Bus Service route will run from Williamsburg to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn when it opens later this year. It will feature dedicated bus lanes and traffic signal priority. Passengers will purchase tickets before boarding in order to reduce the amount of time it takes to actually get on the bus.
Most of the candidates said they would like to focus on improving bus service at the forum, though there were few specifics and the subject was not mentioned until the event was nearly over. “I expected these ideas to be at the forefront instead of an afterthought,” Vanterpool of the Tri-State Transportation campaign glumly told me. “Disappointing that it wasn’t mentioned until so late in the program.”
Of the mayoral candidates in attendance that night, Sal Albanese was the biggest supporter of increased bus service, calling for 20 more routes. Bill de Blasio proposed a hypothetical new route from Flushing to JFK. Even Adolfo Carrion got in on the game and cited the new Fordham Road Select Bus Service route, saying, “We had the local businesses in the beginning squawking about it, but now Fordham Road is buzzing with business activity.”
“Improved bus service is like motherhood and apple pie, right?” said Byron of the Pratt Center. “Everybody is for it.”
“These ideas have been on the table for a long time,” Vanterpool said. But what will it take for the next mayor to actually get a robust rapid bus network up and running in the outer boroughs?
Perhaps most importantly, the next mayor must be willing to stick his or her neck out and defend new bus lanes from the inevitable critics. Despite being successful and popular, radical changes to city streets — like dedicated bus lanes — always anger somebody, and you can be sure that a hysteria-inducing columnist at the New York Post will be there to report it. While Bloomberg was able to shake off these denunciations, the next mayor may not be so eager to open themselves up to criticism for the sake of bus lanes.
Russianoff of the Straphanger’s Campaign worries that the next mayor may not have the appetite for an ambitious Department of Transportation. “There is a real chance that the next mayor will tell his or her Transportation chief to ‘anger nobody.’” In other words, the next mayor may avoid the ambitious street redesigns that are necessary for faster bus service.
The next mayor will also need to come up with new revenue — the MTA certainly has no extra money for expanded service. When asked directly if they would increase the city’s contribution to the MTA at the transit forum, two candidates, Liu and Albanese, said yes. The campaign’s frontrunners were less willing to open the purse.
“I can’t make commitments like that in a vacuum,” Quinn said, referring to the ever-changing city budget outlook. Thompson and de Blasio refused, referring to unsettled labor contracts.
But Russianoff observed that the city could make a meaningful contribution to the cost of building rapid bus service for very little money. “The price tag is small: $9 or $10 million a year to back and an additional $100 million in bonds,” he said. “Then the city could seek to earmark the money for its priorities, like Select Bus Service.”
Giles agrees that now is a good time for the city to borrow for large infrastructure projects. He would like to see even more ambitious thinking from the next mayor like building the Triboro RX, a 16-year-old proposal for a new rail line linking the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn along an old right-of-way. “This is a project that would really speak to the city’s changing jobs landscape,” Giles said.
Meanwhile, the mayoral candidates preferred talking about things that would be completely out of the hands of the next mayor, like the reinstatement of a commuter tax or new registration fees.
Where were the big ideas, the bold ideas worthy of a city like New York? Or what about ways to cushion the blow of four fare hikes in five years? How about discounted MetroCards for working families or a tax break from the city’s income tax?
The next mayor will inherit a growing city that is relying on 100-year-old infrastructure. Cities in Europe and Asia are laying more track every year, opening new rail lines and transit centers. But in New York, the type of visionary thinking necessary for the survival of great cities is lacking.
Our best bet may be to hope for the status quo. It’s also possible that the next mayor will retreat from transportation projects altogether or rip out existing lanes for buses and bikes.
But let’s go back to the $2 billion city investment in the 7 line. To Jim Gannon, this proves that, “When they make it a priority, they always seem to find the money.”
And it is this idea of priorities that gets to the very heart of the matter.