As the September 13 Democratic primary approaches, City Limits is comparing the two gubernatorial candidates on the issues. Below is a brief examination of their positions on housing policy. Other articles in this series cover criminal justice, housing and education.
When Cynthia Nixon announced her run for governor in March, a campaign video released by the candidate showed her waiting for the subway, coffee cup in hand. Later that spring, she held a rally on a crowded L train platform, decrying the state of the subway system and blaming her rival, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for failing to maintain it. Over the last few months, Nixon’s made ample use of the hashtag #CuomosMTA, laying blame for the city’s public transit woes at the governor’s feet.
“As someone who is on the subway literally everyday, I know firsthand how delays have tripled under Andrew Cuomo, how train speeds are slower now than in 1950,” Nixon declared during last month’s debate.
As the gubernatorial Democratic primary approaches on Sept. 13, the two candidates vying for the state’s top office are looking to set themselves apart from one another, and one of Nixon’s tactics has been to attack the incumbent on his transportation record.
Her criticisms have merit, experts and transit advocates say, pointing to the subway’s state of emergency and declining MTA bus ridership, both of which came to a head under Cuomo’s watch. In the past, the governor attempted to deflect the blame for the MTA’s deterioration—squabbling with Mayor Bill de Blasio over who should pay to fix it—as his office prioritized other, flashier transportation projects, like replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge with a new, nearly $4 billion span named after his own father, and pushing for his $1.5 billion AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport that some critics have deemed unnecessary.
“The governor has a not-great record on transportation issues, unless you count supporting giant infrastructure projects that may or may not be needed, and are certainly heftily-priced,” says Eric McClure, executive director at StreetsPAC, which supports candidates who advocate for street safety and alternative transit, though the group has not formally endorsed either Nixon or Cuomo. “I’m sure there are a couple of other things that he’s done that would be positive, but I think a lot of those things get lost in the cloud of MTA woes.”
McClure points out that while Nixon’s campaign website includes a lengthy section outlining her subway plan and other transit platforms, Cuomo’s campaign site doesn’t say much about transportation, other than a brief paragraph about his $100 billion infrastructure program.
The governor has earned some transit-related accolades, however. Late last month, he signed an executive order to temporarily reinstate the city’s school speed camera program after the State Senate failed to renew it—something transit advocates have been pushing for all summer (and something Nixon had criticized Cuomo for not doing earlier).
He has the support of TWU Local 100, which represents MTA employees, with President Tony Utano saying Cuomo has done more for the system and its workers than any of his recent predecessors.
“What Cuomo has done for us, no governor in my time — I’ve been here 40 years — has ever concentrated on putting money into the subway system and fixing it,” the union boss told Politico in August.
Cuomo’s also been praised for overseeing the hire of transportation superstar Andy Byford to head up New York City Transit—though experts say the real test lies in whether the next future governor will be able to drum up funding for Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan to dramatically overhaul the system, which is expected to cost tens of billions of dollar to realize.
“It’s like the Titanic lift,” says Jon Orcutt, director for the advocacy organization TransitCenter (which does not endorse or oppose political candidates.) “It’s going to be a huge act of persuasion [and] deal-making.”
Even if New Yorkers continue to blame Cuomo for their lousy commutes, it’s unclear if that anger alone will impact the results of the primary, as mass transit is less of a priority for voters outside the city, according to political expert Douglas Muzzio.
“People in the five boroughs are much more concerned about the state of the subway than people in Binghamton, so you have an upstate and New York City divide,” he says. “It depends where transit sits in the decisional calculus of each voter.”
Here’s more on where each candidate stands on some of the biggest transit issues.
On fixing the subways/buses
While the deterioration of the subway system has been decades in the making, the crisis came to a peak under Cuomo’s leadership. Last year, in an effort to improve service, he declared a state of emergency for the subways, adding an extra $1 billion to the MTA’s capital plan and launching a “Genius Challenge” to generate ideas for fixing transit. About a month later, in July of 2017, the MTA launched Chairman Joe Lhota’s “Subway Action Plan”—conceived at Cuomo’s behest—which aimed to speed up signal repairs and address other maintenance issues. But a year later, subway performance has yet to significantly improve, the New York Times reported last month.
Both Nixon and Cuomo have said they’re behind Byford’s comprehensive “Fast Forward” plan to fix the subway—though Cuomo, Nixon notes on her campaign website, waited “an entire week” after the plan was released to voice his support for it. Nixon’s transit platform, outlined on her campaign website, adopts many elements from Byford’s plan, including the modernization of the subway’s signal system, replacing old subway cars, redesigning and speeding up the bus network and prioritizing accessible transit for New Yorkers with disabilities.
“She does seem to genuinely believe in the importance of fixing the MTA,” McClure says of Nixon. “She rides the subway to campaign events, so she clearly understands the problems that the system is suffering, and she has articulated that and a number of other transportation issues I think quite well.”
But even if both candidates support Byford’s ideas, making them a reality is another matter.
“As of this exact second, the Byford Fast Forward plan is a complete fantasy, money-wise,” says John Kaehny, executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany.
In addition to funding for Byford’s goals, the state has still yet to identify how it will come up with approximately $7.3 billion it’s committed in the MTA’s current 2015-2019 capital plan, he points out.
“The governor’s job is to be a steward of the MTA,” Kaehny says. “His track record, therefore, is abysmal, because the MTA is broke. The MTA is worse than broke.”
On congestion pricing and funding public transit
Last year, Cuomo assembled the Fix NYC Advisory Panel to come up with a way to address traffic congestion in Manhattan and find revenue sources for fixing the subways. The panel released a report in January which included a plan for congestion pricing, which would charge vehicles a fee to enter Manhattan’s Central Business District below 60th Street—funds that would be used to improve public transit.
Cuomo has said he supports the plan, but many advocates were disappointed when this year’s state budget included congestion pricing fees for only taxis and for-hire vehicles.
“The governor certainly doesn’t act alone on this stuff, but we all know the kind of political influence he has, the ability to make deals. When he wants to get something done he makes it happen. He did it for marriage equality,” McClure says. “But he just has not put the levers to the assembly or the senate to pass a comprehensive congestion pricing bill, which is really overdue at this point.”
Cuomo has defended his progress on the issue so far, telling reporters in March that congestion pricing is something that will need to be rolled out in phases. During last month’s debate, he told the crowd he “fought for it very hard” and blamed the Republican Senate for failing to pass it.
Nixon is also in favor of congestion pricing—her platform calls for charging cars a fee of $11.52 round-trip, the same as the Fix NYC report recommends—but she also wants to institute a Millionaires Tax to help pay for subway fixes, something de Blasio pushed for. Cuomo has said such a tax is politically untenable, since it’s been attempted before but failed to pass in the legislature.
But McClure argues both tactics are the way to go.
“There’s no reason that we can’t do both congestion pricing and a tax to raise additional funds for transit, because neither one would raise all the funds necessary to invest in the MTA,” he says.
Advocates, meanwhile, have been pushing for the governor to sign the so-called “Transit Lockbox” bill, which was passed by the state legislature earlier this year and would make it harder for the state to divert funds intended for transit to other uses—something Cuomo has been criticized for doing in the past.
“He used the MTA like an ATM, and we see the result,” Nixon lobbed during the last gubernatorial debate.
Cuomo did not directly respond to that statement during the event, but his administration has defended itself against such criticism in the past, with the MTA saying the so-called “diverted funds” were used to pay off the agency’s debts and other MTA-related expenses, the Gotham Gazette reported in July.
In a statement last month, a spokesman for the governor said that Cuomo is currently reviewing the new “Transit Lockbox” bill.
“The Governor has taken aggressive action to ensure the MTA has the money it needs to improve service including securing full funding for the $836 million subway action plan, investing an historic $8 billion in the MTA capital program and passing the first phase of congestion pricing which provides a new dedicated revenue stream to the MTA,” Spokesman Peter Ajemian says.
On improving transit infrastructure
While Cuomo may not give mass transit the attention advocates would like to see, he’s been more vocal about his administration’s goals for improving transit infrastructure—opening the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway line with great fanfare on New Year’s Day, and celebrating the first span of the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge by driving over it in a 1955 Corvette.
While Cuomo’s campaign website doesn’t mention the subways, it mentions how his administration “launched the most ambitious infrastructure program in the country,” specifically naming the renovations of LaGuardia and JFK airports and Penn Station, and the new Mario Cuomo bridge among his accomplishments.
“Under Governor Cuomo, New York State does not just talk about moving vital infrastructure projects forward, it actually gets them done,” his official administration website states.
Political professor Muzzio says that while there was some pushback about naming the new Tappan Zee after his father, Cuomo also earned “much praise” for the project.
“He did build an essential piece of infrastructure,” he says.
(That project, though, was overshadowed this past weekend, when the official opening of the second span of the new bridge was delayed because a portion of the old Tappan Zee was deemed unstable.)
Critics also argue that Cuomo has prioritized spending on wasteful vanity projects, like reports that he spent $30 million on blue and gold tiles for the East River tunnels, or his plan to outfit the MTA’s bridges with $200 million in synchronized lights.
“[That’s] $200 million that could have gone to subway and bus service,” Kaehny says.
Nixon, meanwhile has seized on such projects in her criticisms of Cuomo. Her own infrastructure platform calls for reforming the state’s Highway and Bridge Trust Fund, so that money intended for roads and bridges would no longer be used to cover operating costs at the Department of Transportation, as has been the case in the past.
She says she would also re-purpose funds from some economic development tax credits to go towards infrastructure, and would allow local governments to charge fees on new development that could be used to invest in roads, bridges and sewer and water systems, according to her platform.