As New York City’s subway system melts down, causing delays and miserable commutes for tens of thousands of straphangers—if you’re lucky to be near enough to a pole to grab one, that is—Mayor Bill de Blasio has assumed and embraced the role of a hapless bystander, shrugging his shoulders at what he insists is not his problem. “If you have a concern—if you like something NYPD is doing, or you don’t like it—talk to me. If you like the schools or you don’t like them, talk to me,” explained de Blasio on his weekly radio appearance. “If you like something happening in our subways or don’t like it, you talk to the governor.”
De Blasio is not totally wrong that he doesn’t control the subways, but he isn’t totally right, either. The mayor of New York names four of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 17 board members; the governor nominates five members. Local suburban counties appoint the remainder of the board’s voting members. The MTA by design requires cooperation among its board members and the elected officials who name them. Organizations like the MTA, or the Port Authority, were engineered to achieve high-minded administration of public assets, “removed from the hurry and strife of daily politics,” as Woodrow Wilson wrote in his classic 1887 essay, “The Science of Administration.” But the problem with this technocratic vision is that, unless some individual bears final responsibility for making the trains run on time, then everyone can hide behind shared authority.
This kind of buck-passing is happening now. On Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio told reporters, “The governor controls the MTA, the state controls the MTA.” He continued, “the MTA as you know was built to be this kind of amorphous entity where no one knew quite who was in charge and to insulate it from public opinion. It shouldn’t be insulated from public opinion. The public should hold the leadership accountable and in this case it means the governor and Chairman Lhota.”
The mayor repeats this sentiment every time he gets asked about the subways. On May 12, he said, “my message is to remember that the subway system, the MTA is run by the state of New York, not the city of New York.” A week later he announced, “The city of New York—number one responsibilities include policing, fire department, schools; all the things that effect daily of life of the people—public hospitals, etc. The MTA—unless the governor wants to turn the MTA over to the city of New York— the MTA is the state’s responsibility.”
Even when pressed on providing discounted transit fares to poor people—a locally promoted issue that should be dear to his progressive heart—de Blasio insisted that he couldn’t do anything about it. “The Fair Fare proposal,” he explained, “is a very well-intentioned one, one that would do a lot of good, it’s just not one that the city of New York should be taking on. The MTA should be paying for that.” And perhaps it should, though providing cheap fares for the poor is really a welfare program, and not a question of the “day-to-day operations” of the transit system for which the state, according to the mayor, has ultimate responsibility.
And even if he does not have direct control of the subway system, there are things de Blasio could do to alleviate the crisis, or at least keep it from getting worse. With the city flush with revenue, he could have directed extra money toward MTA capital improvements, instead of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into dodgy economic development schemes, fattened union payouts, or voter-friendly giveaways like free suntan lotion. The city’s streets are also a mess, and those are definitely under the mayor’s control: keeping traffic flowing above-ground is essential to keeping things rolling in the subway. Mayor de Blasio continues to promote thicker residential density in neighborhoods like Sunnyside or Central Brooklyn, without consideration of the need for additional transit capacity for these already-stressed zones. Also, the mayor announced his waterfront streetcar plan and the Utica Avenue subway extension early in his term, but these ideas have apparently faded into PowerPoint purgatory.
De Blasio may be within the letter of the law regarding his freedom from accountability from the MTA’s downward spiral. But what kind of mayor makes a virtue of his own incapacity? When Michael Bloomberg recognized that the city’s schools were failing to teach their students, and that the governing structure of the Board of Education was corrupted, he fought to centralize authority and take direct control of the system. Similarly, when he wanted to extend the Number 7 train to its present terminus at Hudson Yards, he directed $2.4 billion toward the project. A chief executive should be creative in how he uses his authority, whether through charm, negotiation, or power plays. If Mayor de Blasio were to seize this moment and exercise leadership rather than keep saying, “Not my job,” he could effect the kind of transformative change he promised when first elected.
Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office