Earlier this week, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the first big proposal of his campaign for a third term: a 33-point “plan to reform mass transit.” Speaking of the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the mayor said that “it’s fair to say the MTA has not done enough,” and pledged to use his “bully pulpit” to spur change. The mayor’s announcement was an important start, but one key element is missing: the political will to find the billions of dollars to pay for necessary transit investments.
That Mayor Bloomberg said anything is a good sign. One reason that, in the mayor’s words, “we are still talking about the same transit expansions, like the Second Avenue subway, that were discussed 60 years ago” is that elected officials have avoided political accountability on transit for decades. This despite transit’s being second only to policing in affecting residents’ quality of life.
The governor of New York is nominally in charge of the MTA, but governors understand that promising meaningful investments in downstate transit is no way to win upstate votes. Most local and state pols use the MTA only as a convenient punching bag; they look tough to their constituents when they attack waste, fraud, and abuse at a government entity for which they have no responsibility.
Mayors, including Bloomberg for two full terms, have been happy to pass the buck, too. In response to a New York Times question about dangerous crowding conditions on the East Side, Bloomberg once said that commuters should get up earlier. Two years ago, when the mayor unveiled his congestion-pricing plan, which would have devoted money to mass transit, he used layers of arcane financial complexity to avoid the elephant in the room: after years of hearing about corruption, waste, and massive cost overruns at the MTA’s late-nineties renovation of its 2 Broadway headquarters, among other things, taxpayers and riders just didn’t trust the MTA with the money. Bloomberg’s failure to address this problem helped doom the plan.
Now the mayor is asking voters to hold him responsible for measurable improvements in mass transit. Bloomberg has even told the press not to allow him to make a handy excuse: that he doesn’t actually control the MTA. Monday, he compared his new efforts with what he’s done with the Board of Education, an entity he didn’t control, either, when he took office.
Bloomberg’s proposed improvements are mostly sound, including reinvesting in F-train subway tracks that have lain dormant for decades. Hundreds of thousands of outer-Brooklyn commuters could have a faster, less-crowded commute on upgraded tracks. Bloomberg also calls for faster bus service, which could be achieved with police enforcement of exclusive bus lanes in which other vehicles are prohibited, as well as the MTA’s use of improved technology. “Smart cards” that riders would wave or tap instead of swipe would speed up bus boarding, while GPS technology would enable the MTA to track buses, control traffic lights, and provide waiting customers with real-time schedules. (Another Bloomberg idea, free cross-town buses, makes good sense not as a permanent arrangement, as he has proposed, but as a stop-gap before smart-card technology makes it possible for customers to pay more quickly.) Bloomberg further proposes that the MTA make use of similar new technology in the subways. He hopes to offer count-down clocks so that waiting passengers can learn when their train is coming.
The MTA is already implementing some of these changes, but Bloomberg’s support would add political urgency, particularly if he folds all of his ideas into an easy-to-understand vision. He could pledge, for instance, to harness technology and investment to achieve a goal of “30 Minutes by 2030.” The projects he’s outlined so far could represent the first steps in a 20-year plan to get commuters from well-populated, outer-borough neighborhoods to midtown Manhattan in a half an hour or less.
Bloomberg’s proposal will remain just words, though, until he backs it up with cash. Mass-transit investment is expensive. For example, count-down clocks in subways are part of a multi-billion-dollar project to upgrade train communications from Depression-era technology. Sufficient money won’t come from the federal or state governments; it never has. Tackling bureaucracy, as the mayor suggested that the MTA do, is a fine idea, but it won’t be enough. To speed the projects he’s suggested and gain leverage over the MTA’s management at the same time, the mayor should dedicate $1.1 billion in city money each year—just 10 percent of what city taxpayers spend on education—to the MTA’s $5 billion annual capital budget. The city doesn’t usually devote money to MTA capital projects; Bloomberg made an exception in 2004 when he decided to pay the $2 billion cost of the #7 train extension to support Far West Side development projects. Consistently pumping city money into transit would help fund projects that Bloomberg believes are most important for New Yorkers. And it would mean putting another set of eyes on what the MTA does with the money in terms of cost and schedule overruns, contract structures, and the like.
Because the city is already so tax-saturated, finding the money will require long-term spending cuts elsewhere—particularly in the $13.6 billion that the city will spend on pension and health-care benefits for public-sector workers this year. While New York itself can do more to save on health-care costs, fixing future pension benefits requires state approval. To that end, the mayor could support statewide candidates who understand that government exists to serve the public, not to funnel money to powerful unions.
The MTA itself, too, must cut its spending, particularly on union labor, so that new money goes toward service improvements, not exploding costs. In his Monday proposal, the mayor offered support for changing some union work rules to give the MTA more flexibility in scheduling workers. He should also push state pols to address city transit workers’ young retirement age (55) and spiraling health-care costs, as well as the unsustainable worker costs at the MTA’s commuter railroads, which cut into the resources the MTA has to invest in the overall region. The mayor could start by sending an open letter to the state officials who are drawing up the MTA’s next contract with the Transport Workers Union, explaining how important it is that transit customers and taxpayers get more concessions from the union on work rules and benefits.
Mayor Bloomberg has set himself a difficult task, but if he embraces it and succeeds, he’ll leave New Yorkers with a valuable legacy that would benefit the city long after he’s left office.