(Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)
Following completion of the fiscal year 2019 state budget late last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio was forced into a decision whereby the city will pay half the $836 million MTA Subway Action Plan. De Blasio had for months refused to match the state’s $418 million pledge, put forth immediately by Governor Andrew Cuomo upon MTA Chair Joe Lhota’s release of the plan.
Now, the mayor says, the ball is even more clearly in Cuomo’s court to get the subways running reliably. But just a week after the budget passed, Cuomo said that the Subway Action Plan could move ahead given the city money and that it was time to also start at the long-term plans to improve the subways.
With a modernization plan due soon from the new head of the MTA’s New York City Transit division and another five-year MTA capital plan looming, all signs point to the governor asking the city to yet again allocate additional funds toward the state-controlled MTA. Any funds put forth from city coffers are in addition to the significant portion of MTA revenue that comes from city residents who pay fares and tolls.
But just how much will Cuomo try to get the city to pay? After de Blasio increased the city’s contribution to the current MTA capital plan to record levels last time around, how many billions will the governor ask of the city for the full-scale modernization plan being readied by Andy Byford of NYC Transit?
In an interview on NY1 on April 2, de Blasio insisted the governor must now work with the money he has. “I was willing to put in the money,” he said of the Subway Action Plan funds, which he either had to put up or the state would have taken from city funding. “But let’s be clear: That’s one-time only. Now, the governor’s got everything that he’s asked for. Great. Take responsibility. Fix the subways. There’s no more excuses. There’s no more delays. Just go do it.”
This came before the governor appeared on April 5 at an event hosted by the Association for a Better New York (ABNY). After detailing highlights of the new state budget for the crowd of business and political elite, including the city funding for the Action Plan, Cuomo said that while there are various ways to raise the funds needed for a long-term MTA plan -- such as congestion pricing -- simply asking the city and state to directly allocate funds is the fastest and easiest way of doing so.
“We have to put in a new system, new signals and new cars and make up for the 50, 60 years that we have ignored this system. Where does the money come from? You can either raise fares and tolls and expand congestion pricing -- but that could take three years, if you expedite it,” he said. “Or government is going to have to ante up and put more money in the pot, which is the simplest and cleanest option.”
Cuomo was looking ahead to the next MTA capital plan, which will include tens of billions of dollars over 2020 through 2024, and be adopted in 2019. Notably, the presentation slide displayed behind him read “NYC must step up,” implying the governor plans to request the city pays additional funds on top of its $2.5 billion committed contribution to the current capital plan, for 2015-2019, which also includes $8.6 billion from the state, much of which comes from the city, and other MTA revenue.
In addition, the flush city has more money to spare than the state, making it a more ideal source of funds than Albany, the governor and Lhota, a Cuomo appointee, have argued, despite the reality of where most MTA funding already comes from. And, they say, the city technically owns the subways.
“I know people don’t like it when I say this, but New York City does own the subway system. They lease it to us and we operate it,” Lhota said at the ABNY event, giving a presentation after Cuomo’s remarks. “The reality is it’s a commitment, they owe it, and they should be paying their fare share when it comes to the capital program.”
Cuomo also ascribed blame to the city for the MTA’s lack of progress given de Blasio’s initial refusal to fund the emergency subway investment. “The state pledged 50 percent of the funding as soon it was announced by Chairman Lhota last year. The city refused to fund half the plan, we lost eight months before the plan could become fully operational, which was a terrible loss and waste of time,” he said.
Following the ABNY event, Lhota told reporters that if the MTA had had all of the $836 million pledged right away, it could have paid for more workers and repairs, performing its triage to the buckling system more quickly.
Last week’s back and forth is the latest episode in an ongoing dispute between the mayor and the governor over MTA funding. For the governor, if de Blasio would like to see improvements to the beleaguered MTA, the city needs to pay its fare share, which means more than it currently does. Its unwillingness to do so has thwarted progress on improving the subway, Cuomo maintains, and could stand in the way of long-term fixes.
For the mayor, the governor controls the MTA and the city already pays more than it should, and Cuomo is likely to only squander additional funds on initiatives that do not improve subway service. He doesn’t want the governor wasting city money on frills like WiFi and shiny new stations without investing in the subway’s outdated signal systems, for example. De Blasio wants a dedicated MTA funding stream through an added tax on top earners--the millionaires tax-- a call Cuomo has resisted, and has been open to some form of congestion pricing to produce revenue, though the governor only pushed through a first phase in the recently-adopted budget.
“The City of New York committed a record $2.5 billion to the last MTA capital plan, and just last week pledged to help fund a state effort to fix subways the state runs,” said de Blasio spokesperson Eric Phillips in a statement. “Instead of constantly asking New Yorkers for more money, the state and MTA should learn to do their jobs within their budget and finally seek a sustainable revenue source so riders aren’t continually victimized by their blame game.”
And regarding Cuomo’s argument that progress in recent months has been stalled by the city’s reticence to oblige Cuomo’s request for city money, Phillips said the funds would have “gone into the same hole of mismanagement that caused the subway crisis.”
“The Mayor’s advocacy ensured that riders' money couldn’t be diverted and would actually go toward a real plan for their subways rather than station facelifts and light shows,” he continued, of an apparent budget provision clarifying where the money must go. “We wish the Governor were even half as obsessed with fixing his subways as he is with Mayor de Blasio.”
In the debate over funding the Subway Action Plan, de Blasio repeatedly pointed to $456 million he said the state had diverted from MTA funds over the last several years. He said the state should put that money back into the MTA to fully fund the rescue plan.
An MTA spokesperson argued that the city’s criticism misrepresents the facts. “Of the $456M cited by the City, $235M went to pay debt service on MTA bonds, $169M was allocated for direct Capital Aid to the MTA (which freed up MTA operating resources), and $30M went to the MTA in additional operating aid. The final $22M was savings to the MTA by eliminating capital projects dictated by the legislature but paid for anyway in MTA State funding,” said Jon Weinstein, the MTA spokesperson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.
In response, Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in a statement prior to the adoption of the state budget, “The State can try fudging the numbers all they want,” but to achieve “true progress,” the investment “must coincide with the Governor putting the $456 million the State has previously diverted toward upgrades that get trains moving on time.”
“And he can support a tax on millionaires rather than send his MTA bill to working class riders,” she added, echoing de Blasio’s repeated calls for a millionaire’s tax to fund the subway, a proposal that neither Cuomo nor the Republican-led state Senate has supported, though the Democrat-led Assembly is in favor of it.
While the dispute over the “diverted” funds gets into especially complicated territory of budget buckets and funding streams, there is a clear difference of opinion over whether paying off debt is a wise use of those MTA funds given the immediacy and severity of subway woes.
“Paying off debt with any extra money is certainly unobjectionable, but practically speaking, the MTA has such capital needs, and the federal government’s contribution is so uncertain, that I don’t think that will be a realistic option anytime soon,” Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said in an email on Friday.
Regional Planning Association (RPA) senior fellow Julia Vitullo-Martin said the MTA paying off its debts is a good use of its money. “If you borrow money you have to pay it back, and the MTA has borrowed big: $38 billion. It isn’t really a question of paying off debt versus making repairs. The MTA can pay back now or pay back later,” she said in an email. “But there are good reasons not to defer debt repayment, which has its own set of high costs. And even though investors basically know the MTA will repay the bonds, the combination of huge debt and huge ongoing operating deficits has been making Wall Street uneasy.”
“One result,” she explained, “has been the downgrade in bond ratings.”
On the conflict between the governor and mayor overall, Gelinas casted doubt on the idea the emergency plan was in fact what Cuomo portrayed it to be. “This is not so much a temporary emergency plan, but an open-ended effort for the MTA to do what it should have been doing all along: properly maintain the subways,” Gelinas said. “If it does not have adequate resources to do that, then the state and the city need to work together on a rational cost-control and revenue plan.”
The argument that New York City residents already provide a large portion of the MTA budget has been a favorite of transit experts and local officials as a way of refuting Cuomo’s insistence that the city should pay up. In an August 2017 Gotham Gazette op-ed, for example, former Assemblymember Jim Brennan argued the city already pays the lion’s share of the MTA capital plan, and the mayor should make that better known.
“Even when the State finally comes up with the money, it will likely come from the MTA region, either through some form of congestion pricing or a diversion of some current tax receipts from the region,” he wrote, while also outlining how the next MTA capital plan will need a major influx of funds. “If the Mayor wants the public to understand why the City won’t contribute further funds to the MTA, he needs to clearly explain that the City’s residents and businesses already cover the costs.”
Richard Barone, RPA’s vice president for transportation, said Cuomo and de Blasio should find common ground wherein the city believes resources are used in a way that meets its interests. “The city is in better fiscal health. The city should probably try to bring some more [funding],” he said. “The state needs to understand what the city’s priorities are as well. And there needs to be some compromise there. It’s been a power struggle and neither side is willing to give.”
Barone cited the state’s emergency action plan as an area where the state would have been wise to seek the city’s consultation and cooperation rather than the MTA crafting it on its own.
“Do I think the mayor should be willing to spend more on something that’s critical to the functioning of the city? Yes,” he said. “Do I think the state needs to learn the city’s priorities more and give it a seat at the table when it comes to determining the MTA’s priorities? Totally. There needs to be a better dialogue between the two. Right now that’s not the case, unfortunately.”
But according to Gelinas, it is understandable that de Blasio is instinctually reticent to comply with Cuomo’s calls for the city to pay more money to fund his initiatives. “These were deficiencies in the MTA just doing its job,” Gelinas said in an interview on Friday. “There was no exogenous disaster to cause this to happen. This is just the MTA missing obvious things -- that ridership was going up, and they were not able to handle a record number of riders because they were not invested in the system well enough. So I don’t know why this is the city’s job to fix.”
The governor not only appoints the MTA chair, but also a plurality of the agency’s board members, while a handful are mayoral appointees. The recent de Blasio-Cuomo dispute also comes on the heels of reports in The New York Times detailing the sky-high costs for MTA projects as well as rampant waste and corruption at the agency.
However, since “the city is a creature of the state,” resisting bad spending practices in Albany would prove a difficult task, Gelinas said.
Still, she said, the MTA would be wise to improve its spending practices before asking others for more money. “The MTA needs to look at its costs and what it spends its money on before it starts hitting anybody up for more revenue,” Gelinas said, echoing her calls in a recent City & State op-ed to reduce the high construction costs in the city. “But when it does need more revenue, it should be on a rational, permanent basis, not just, ‘It’s an emergency, we need money. Let’s ask the city for more money. And let’s ask them for more money later.’”
“It’s like If someone is extorting you,” Gelinas explained. “You pay once and they’re going to come back and extort you again.”