CityViews: Cynthia Nixon on the Leadership New York City’s Subways Need

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With eight million rides a day, city subways and buses are the lifeblood of New York. Instead of meeting growing need, subway performance has declined, with delays almost quadrupling—from 20,000 per month in May 2012 to 76,000 in January 2018. On-time performance hovers at a failing 60 percent, much lower than any other transit system in the world. Trains now move slower than they did in 1950.

The governor of New York is in charge of the subways. And for eight years, straphangers have have been neglected and ignored by the current administration. And that alone should be enough to disqualify Andrew Cuomo for a third term.

The governor has kicked this can down the road for eight years because it doesn’t affect him or his wealthy donors. He has made the deliberate choice of cutting taxes on corporations and the ultra-rich, and cutting services for everyone else. There is no greater evidence of this approach than our dilapidated subways.

New Yorkers deserve better than to be stuck in a perpetual signal delay. We need to start moving forward.

We can’t fix the subway until we have a governor who knows it’s her job to fund the MTA. Governor Cuomo has no plan to bring relief to millions of subway riders. I do.

The plan to fix the subways presented last week by Andy Byford, president of the New York City Transit Authority, is a comprehensive diagnosis and remedy to our subway crisis. But as is typical with studies he has commissioned, the Governor is often unwilling to fund the recommendations of his own appointees.

When Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan was released over a week ago, the governor initially refused to support it. It was only after I and other transit activists put pressure on the governor for refusing to support his own MTA’s plan that, today, he finally caved and recommitted to congestion pricing. The problem is the Cuomo has said he’ll use comprehensive congestion pricing to fix the subways before, and then he abandoned it. Why should we believe that Cuomo will stick with it this time? Especially when there’s no chance of it getting through the legislature before they break in June? And why is he ruling out a millionaires’ tax as part of the funding solution?

While the MTA hasn’t put out a number on the cost to repair their subway, likely due to political pressure from the governor, the billions needed will require multiple revenue streams. To meet the need, my plan includes comprehensive congestion pricing, plus a portion of the funding generated from a polluter fee and a millionaires tax.

A congestion charge on private cars and trucks will raise more than $1 billion annually and will allow New York State to issue bonds which will go a long way towards funding a large scale, accelerated plan like Fast Forward.

Last fall, Governor Cuomo convened a panel called Fix NYC to recommend policies that would fund public transit investment and reduce traffic congestion. The Fix NYC proposals on congestion pricing are not only capable of raising billions needed to fix public transportation; they are also fair and just, with the heaviest burden for payment falling on wealthier households and the greatest benefits going to public transit riders. And yet, Governor Cuomo has failed to implement these recommendations.

Private car owners in New York City earn more than double the income of households that have no car and rely exclusively on public transit—and car owners who drive into the central business district regularly for work are wealthier still.

And a recent study from the Community Service Society found that only 2 percent of working poor New Yorkers would be subject to a congestion fee applied to cars that drive into the center of Manhattan and only 4 percent of outer-borough residents commute to jobs in Manhattan by vehicle. The study estimates that 118,000 outer-borough residents rely on vehicles for their commute to work compared to 2.1 million who rely on public transit.

Governor Cuomo also missed the mark to fully implement Fix NYC’s recommendations when he decided to impose a flat fee on yellow cabs, Ubers and Lyfts, without touching private cars and trucks. This move not only goes against the intent of the panel’s recommendations, but could be disastrous for yellow cab drivers facing desperate times. Experts say that solely hitting for-hire vehicles will neither significantly decrease congestion nor generate the revenue needed to fix the subways. We need a pricing system that is fair to all drivers and riders.

To help make this plan more equitable, some of the money raised could pay to reduce tolls elsewhere in the city, giving drivers a break, for example, on Staten Island and in eastern Queens, where the subways don’t run. Low-income drivers who need to commute into Manhattan by car would also be eligible for a partial toll rebate, so they wouldn’t have to pay any more than the cost of a subway ride.

Under Cuomo’s leadership, inequality has skyrocketed and the wealthy have not paid their fair share. Our plan would generate additional revenue through a millionaires tax and a polluter fee. A polluter fee will generate billions of dollars to be used to fund New York’s transition to green energy. As carbon emissions are greatly reduced by high-functioning public transit systems, a portion of the polluter fee can and should be dedicated towards fixing our subways.

At present, New York also has one of the least accessible mass transit systems in the entire world. A small percentage of stations have elevators and even those elevators break down too frequently. A modern subway should be open to all—riders in wheelchairs, with walkers, with strollers, with suitcases, and with bad knees and bad backs. Moving toward a transit system that is 100 percent accessible is essential to enabling all New Yorkers to access everything the city has to offer.

Our dilapidated subways have become a symbol of Cuomo’s disastrous austerity budgets that were balanced on the backs of millions of working New Yorkers in order to pay for enormous tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. His negligence and reluctance to make the wealthy pay their fair share has created a crisis that could take decades to fix.

New Yorkers can’t afford to wait that long. The subway is the lifeblood of our city. If the subway dies, so does the city of New York. We need bold leadership and immediate action from our next governor.

Cynthia Nixon is a Democratic candidate for governor and the gubernatorial nominee of the Working Families Party.

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