Alejandro Mallea

The subway station Mets-Willets Point in Queens.

A crisis besets America’s largest city. It threatens to derail the entire economy, but it most cruelly punishes working people, especially low-income residents, folks in the outer boroughs, the old and the young. It’s not a stretch to say it poses a threat to public safety, as the risk of serious accidents increases. Add to the human toll an environmental one, because one potential consequence of the crisis is that thousands of New Yorkers will take steps to increase their individual carbon footprints. Beneath it all is a fundamental test about the ability of government to solve problems, coming at a time when faith in the public sector is thinner than ever.

Leaders tend to look to moments of crisis to show their mettle. But in the case of the crisis that has gripped New York City’s transit system this summer, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have struggled to get beyond their bitter feud.

Both men recognize the system is in trouble and both acknowledge that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) needs more money to repair a system plagued by antiquated technology, and that government needs to come up with a new way to fund that work. But after debating whose problem it is and then who should pay to fix it, they’re now at loggerheads over what the new funding approach should be. De Blasio wants to impose a new tax on millionaires. Cuomo supports imposing congestion pricing, which would charge drivers to enter central Manhattan. De Blasio disses Cuomo’s idea as inequitable. Cuomo scoffs that de Blasio’s tax is dead on arrival.

The fact is, neither man has impeccable credentials when it comes to public transportation, though de Blasio’s résumé is stronger. The governor is a “car guy” who likes to ride motorcycles with Billy Joel, tinker with muscle cars, and reminisce about his job driving a tow truck when he was young. His transportation record has been more focused on suburban commuters than on city residents whose rides to work begin on a bus or subway.

Meanwhile, the mayor eschews the subway for an NYPD-chauffeured SUV as he moves about the city, giving him little sense of daily life underground. While de Blasio has undertaken some interesting transportation policies over the years—greatly expanding the ferry system, implementing a Vision Zero initiative to reduce traffic fatalities, and proposing a controversial streetcar linking the Queens and Brooklyn waterfronts—he had said little about the buses and subways that provide 7.7 million rides a day.

This summer both men were forced by the deteriorating situation on the subways to grapple fully with the mass-transit challenge facing the city—which serves a growing ridership with inadequate funding and a lot of aging infrastructure. First de Blasio and Cuomo squabbled over who actually controlled and was accountable for the system (Hint: It’s the governor). Then the governor demanded the city pay for half of an $800 million rescue plan. Polls started to show both men were getting blame for the crisis, but Cuomo received a bigger share of the flak.

Now the fight is whether to stick rich people or drivers with the bill. The fact is, neither approach would be easy to get approved. When then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought a congestion-pricing plan to Albany in 2008, there was so little legislative support that the Democrat-controlled Assembly didn’t even bother to vote. And when de Blasio sought to make good on his 2013 election promise and use a millionaires’ tax to pay for his universal pre-kindergarten program, the governor thwarted him. The mayor got his pre-K, but not his tax.

The legislative prospects are part of the picture, but electoral considerations are also at play. De Blasio is up for election this fall, while Cuomo and state legislators face the voters next year. Both men are rumored to have designs on the presidency, though the more centrist Cuomo is the more likely national candidate. Both men deny such ambitions.

Whether they seek national office or not, the transit situation is not just a math problem for the mayor or governor to solve. The question is not just how to pay to make the current system more reliable. The moment also demands a vision for the progressive force mass transit can be.

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New York City does not simply depend on its transit system. It is its transit system. About three in five New York City workers commute via subway or bus, more than twice the number who get to work via cars—a far higher percentage than in any other US city. For most New Yorkers, the hyper-simplified subway map forms their mental picture of the city’s geography, which is fitting because the subway is where the city’s politics, culture, future, and past are all packed together like a rush-hour crowd. The subway is where poverty is impossible to ignore, where street music lives, where the races and cultures meet, where urban crime took on its most sinister aura and where it began to recede. The subway lines are effectively the thread that binds the city together, without which the connections among the boroughs would be merely a formality.

On an average day, the city’s transit system carries more than twice the combined daily ridership of the next 14 largest US transit systems. It is vast: 662 miles of track used by 6,400 cars on 24 lines serving 469 stations in the subway, and 4,400 buses on 233 routes, all operated by nearly 48,000 employees.

Given what it’s asked to do every day, the MTA still provides an incredibly valuable service, and most New Yorkers will admit that, compared with how it was in the early 1980s, the system today is cleaner, safer, and more reliable, thanks largely to a major infusion of capital during the administration of Governor Hugh Carey.

But the state pulled back on its financial commitment in the later ’80s and in the ’90s—during the administrations of Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, and his Republican successor George Pataki—and that prevented the system from replacing aging infrastructure, like its antiquated signal system. As other cities innovated, New York lagged behind: It was a big deal in 2006 when New York City finally started to introduce “countdown clocks” in subway stations to tell riders how long until the next train arrives. Other cities had such technology decades earlier. Several New York lines still don’t have it.

The federal government also withdrew, in New York and everywhere. According to the American Public Transit Association, federal support for operating expenses is half the share it was in 1980, and the federal share of capital funding for transit—65 percent in 1988—had dropped to 43 percent by 2014. One effect of the reduced capital support to the MTA from all sources was that it had to borrow more to do necessary repairs and replacement, and that made debt service a bigger part of its operating budget, cutting into what it could spend on other work.

“The debt burden eats up all their available cash,” says veteran transit advocate Gene Russianoff. “That burden is going to be there forever.”

Ironically, as the system aged in place it also got a lot more popular: Subway ridership is nearly 2 million people heavier each day now than it was in the 1990s. Improvements in service, decreases in subway crime, and the leap in New York City’s popularity as a place to live or visit were all positive story lines, but they did mean more labor for a system starting to show its age (some infrastructure dates to the 1930s). A bond act passed in 2005 allowed the MTA to move ahead with expansions, like finally building the Second Avenue Subway.

But there were concerns about how to maintain what the MTA already had, and to reach parts of the city that are poorly served by the current system. Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing scheme was a response to those shortfalls and shortcomings. But City Hall botched the sales job, and outer-borough pols like de Blasio—then a City Council member from Brooklyn—opposed the plan as unfair to outer-borough drivers. As mayor, de Blasio has dismissed MoveNY, a proposal to equalize tolls on all city bridges (several are now free), and use the proceeds to fund transit improvements, as politically impossible.

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Under enormous pressure to answer the state’s call for more financing from the city, the mayor in early August proposed his millionaire’s tax, which would raise the city’s income tax rate on individuals with incomes over $500,000 and couples who earn more than $1 million.

“We need a millionaire’s tax so that New Yorkers who typically travel in first class pay their fair share so the rest of us can get around, so the rest of us can get to work, so the rest of us can live our lives here in this city,” de Blasio said on August 7. “It’s a matter of fairness.” He predicted the tax would raise upwards of $700 million a year. Half a billion of that would go to capital work on the system. Up to $250 million would fund reduced transit fares for low-income people.

Later that week, Cuomo told The New York Times that “Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come.” While the governor has yet to release a plan, congestion pricing could involve tolling all the bridges or erecting tolls around some core part of Manhattan. Those tolls could be varied by day and hour to encourage traffic patterns that ease congestion.

Cuomo has argued that his plan will be more politically viable. “I think that’s just been declared dead on arrival,” he has said of the mayor’s tax proposal. “Congestion pricing is difficult, but I think is feasible.” De Blasio has reserved final judgment until Cuomo issues a specific congestion-pricing plan, but says, “there are big equity issues that need to be considered.” The mayor referred specifically to the inequities a charge would create for outer-borough residents compared with Manhattanites. Congestion pricing also could be unfair to low-income drivers, because the flat fee will hurt them more than wealthier drivers—although, overall, most congestion-pricing schemes would benefit low-income people, because poor people are more likely to use transit than drive.

“As a good progressive, I have no problem with asking the wealthiest among us to pay a little more in income taxes to help ensure the city they live in is inhabitable and affordable for all citizens, not just the well-to-do,” Alex Mathiessen, one of the organizers behind the MoveNY plan, told The Nation. “That said, I think that revenue from a so-called millionaires’ tax would be better spent on needs that don’t have built-in but untapped revenue sources like the transportation sector does–things like homelessness, public housing, and education. Moreover, given that Albany has already declared it dead on arrival, I think New Yorkers would be better served if elected officials get behind the governor in pushing for congestion pricing, and specifically for a plan akin to the Move NY Fair Plan.”

If the discussion is just about how to pay to fix things, the outcome in New York might disappoint supporters of either financing approach. For one thing, the transit crisis will likely fade from the headlines, making the task of merely fixing what we’ve got seem less pressing. And with the city projected to add another 500,000 people by 2030, what we’ve got might not be enough for a functioning system. Instead, someone has to articulate not just how to make the numbers work, but how to make transit a galvanizing issue for the public.

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At its most basic, a great public-transit system provides a safe way for people to move around and reduces vehicular traffic. But the impact of transit is, or could be, far more than that. Transit can connect economically isolated areas to work, and can provide blue-collar jobs and contracting opportunities to those same communities. It gives government a highly visible, everyday role in people’s lives. It provides a commons, a means to inform and engage the public, a place for public art. It offers multiple ways to reduce a city’s carbon footprint and to improve human health.

Other cities have shown the potential for transformative transit ideas. Brazil has established world-standard bus rapid-transit systems in cities large and small. Bremen ties its buses and streetcars together with an extensive car- and bike-sharing system allowing riders to seamlessly shift from one mode to the other. Dresden has a streetcar for delivering freight that gets trucks off the road. Nor is all the good stuff happening overseas: Denver has been expanding its system ambitiously through the multibillion-dollar FasTracks Program: 122 miles of new rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, and parking areas so folks will ditch their cars and take the train.

Not all those plans would make sense in New York, which already has a pretty elaborate system. But the MoveNY plan includes some ideas that clearly would make New York a better place to ride: a new subway line to connect Queens to Brooklyn to the Bronx, expanded bus rapid-transit offerings, bike and pedestrian access across the Verrazano Bridge (the only bridge connecting Staten Island to the city’s other boroughs).

Mass transit is an issue on which the nation’s largest cities are politically isolated. Roughly three-quarters of all public-transit trips take place in 10 metropolitan areas. Many of those areas are, like New York, experiencing systemic problems. Getting heftier federal support to improve those systems would require making the case to smaller cities to also use more transit, and convincing suburbs and outlying areas that those investments benefit them, so as to expand the pool of transit constituents. But getting that buy-in would require that cities that already have large transit systems demonstrate the transformative potential they have.

“It’s time to do something that will really break the mold here,” de Blasio said when he unveiled his plan.

Amen to that.