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Amid political bickering, a progressive solution to NYC’s transit crisis waits in the wings

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At its core, the current transit crisis is more regressive than any fee-based plan to solve it

Incident On NYC’s Subway Snarls Morning Commute Into Manhattan Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At a time when two prominent New York politicians are vying to claim the mantle of progressivism, an ongoing transit crisis of the state’s own making threatens to derail Andrew Cuomo’s and Bill de Blasio’s ambitions. That crisis is regressive at its heart, with the poorest New Yorkers bearing more of the costs of unreliable and deteriorating transit service, and no end in sight to an ongoing feud holding progressive solutions hostage.

For years, as the New York City transit system has grown more unreliable, Cuomo and De Blasio have allowed their personal feud to delay actions on reversing the crisis, to lasting and damaging effect. Cuomo has tried to suck up all the oxygen in the room by lecturing about funding responsibilities instead of promoting solutions to the problem. Despite statutory authority over the MTA and the power to control budgets and make all MTA appointments, Cuomo argues that the city should spend its way out of the state-imposed transit crisis. While he has given lip service to congestion pricing, a plan that invests in transit while freeing up clogged city streets, he has not used his powers in Albany to push for a comprehensive funding solution.

The mayor, meanwhile, has been outfoxed by Cuomo on funding responsibilities at every turn; he also refuses to issue a full-throttled endorsement of congestion pricing, preferring instead a millionaire’s tax, his catch-all solution to funding shortfalls and one that is not rationally tied to improving transit and mobility.

At its core, the current transit crisis is more regressive than any fee-based plan to solve it. In a report issued in October, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer detailed how the economic costs of subway delays could be as high as $389 million in lost productivity and lost wages. Across the board, Stringer’s research explored how lower-income residents bear a disproportionate cost of the delays. Nearly a third more New Yorkers from lower-income neighborhoods than wealthier neighborhoods reported lost wages due to a transit delay, and over twice as many were reprimanded at work for arriving late. As hourly wage workers are more likely to live in these lower-income neighborhoods, those who cannot afford to be late or to take an occasional cab ride bear more and more of the costs of delays. As subway service gets worse, these discrepancies will only grow.

Congestion pricing, meanwhile, is the key to a progressive solution. The FixNYC plan released earlier this year proposed various traffic pricing schemes and could generate between $800 million and $1.1 billion annually for transit investment while combatting congestion that costs the city $20 billion annually. And according to an analysis by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, congestion pricing would overwhelmingly affect wealthier New Yorkers.

In looking at New York City’s State Senate and Assembly districts, TSTC found that no single district sends more than nine percent of commuters into Manhattan via car, and in most districts, drivers make up under four percent of commuters. Furthermore, TSTC determined those who drive into Manhattan “are significantly wealthier than public transit users.” Some neighborhoods have as many as 30 public transit users for every one driver entering the traffic pricing zone, and all of the former would benefit from increased service and decreased travel times if the latter pay for use of city streets. Imposing a fee on the wealthier for their use of a limited resource—in this case, road space—so that the less wealthy can benefit is progressive in its nature.

Other advocates have picked up the mantle for congestion pricing. In a recent statement, John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance (a group of which I am a board member), called out the true nature of a traffic pricing plan. “Governor Cuomo controls the MTA,” he said. “He also dominates the state budget process, the only legal mechanism that can raise the tens of billions of dollars it will take to fix the subway. The MTA now has a modernization plan but the governor still hasn’t put forward a funding plan for the legislature to vote on, and riders continue to suffer through regular breakdowns and delays.”

“Congestion pricing is a fair and sustainable way to raise the billions of dollars needed to complete the MTA’s plan,” Raskin continued, “but it can only happen when the governor takes responsibility and leads. The subway crisis has to be treated like a substantive emergency, not a means to score political points. When the governor passes a plan to fund the billions of dollars of subway repairs we need, riders will celebrate his leadership. Until then, no one is interested in the same old political games.”

Meanwhile, the same old political game continues apace. In mid-July, after another morning subway meltdown, Cuomo went off on the city in a diatribe that’s become all too familiar in recent years. “I offered in the Subway Action Plan 50-50,” he said of a plan to split with the city the $836 million cost for his smoke-and-mirrors plan to begin to save the subway. While waxing poetically on his days as a youth in Queens, where he apparently always split everything in half, Cuomo claimed the city “is supposed to pay by law. I had to go to the legislature to get a law to force the city to pay. They have the full legal obligation. That’s the law.”

But the law is merely a technicality—no matter which budget generates the dollars, New York city residents and taxpayers foot most of the bill for the MTA, a point recently reinforced by the Citizens Budget Commission. In testimony to the City Council last year, the CBC detailed the reality of MTA funding. In addition to over $1 billion in subsidies and contributions that come directly out of the New York City budget, city taxpayers and businesses foot the bill for $3.4 billion of the annual $4.6 billion in regional taxes the MTA collects, and 45 percent of state taxes designed to promote transit investment through New York.

Despite this point, De Blasio finally ponied up city money from its general fund coffers for the subway action plan earlier this year, and he played right into the governor’s hands. Disingenuously at best, Cuomo claimed the city’s foot-dragging on funding led to a delay in implementing the action plan. The mayor continues to push for that millionaire’s tax, as his aides continue to dispute the proven progressive nature of the congestion pricing; the state legislature, meanwhile, split for the year without a plan to curtail Manhattan traffic while generating dollars for transit investment.

The most damaging action of all is inaction, an Albany specialty. Without a solution that generates dollars for transit investment while prioritizing buses and other transit options over single-occupancy vehicles, a declining transit system will impose costs on the entire city borne by those who can least afford them. Nero’s fiddle, barely audible over the announcement of yet another rush hour subway delay, never sounded so pained.

Benjamin Kabak is the founder and editor of Second Ave. Sagas, the long-running site chronicling news and views from the New York City subway.