Radical Changes Affect More Than Subway Riders

Cuomo, de Blasio & the MTA: The View from Roosevelt Island

Updated 2 weeks ago David Stone
Can a cobbled together MTA plan help Roosevelt Island's subway service or will it just saddle us with more expenses?
Can a cobbled together MTA plan help Roosevelt Island's subway service or will it just saddle us with more expenses?
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

A surprising press release on Tuesday, "Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced a proposal to transform the MTA and create dedicated and sustained funding streams for the agency. The proposal includes the joint endorsement of congestion pricing and a plan to reorganize the MTA," avoided most details and left Roosevelt Island in a peculiar position - as we usually are.

MTA Re-Imagined

Transforming the MTA jumped out of the gate first but ended up getting the least media attention, which tells you all you need to know about editorial choices.

Revolutionary change at the MTA can benefit all of us more, in the long run, than congestion pricing, a dubious gimmick, or the de Blasio favorite, taxes on the wealthy. (The Mayor still wants to impose a Millionaire's Tax as part of the solution but supports congestion pricing now because of the urgent need for subway repairs.)

Reinventing the MTA will alter the "antiquated structure" of the State agency "to centralize common functions among the 6 existing entities," Cuomo and de Blasio said.

"Currently – NYCTA, LIRR, Metro-North, MTA Capital Construction, MTA Bus, SI Railway – operate as 6 separate entities."

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But now, "All common functions such as construction management, legal, engineering, procurement, human resources, advertising etc. will be consolidated and streamlined in a central operation."

This means "The individual divisions will focus on day-to-day management of their primary operation."

These concepts are so obviously correct and beneficial, out of the box, that you wonder why nobody proposed it before, but it should also make you wary. What makes anyone think that agencies acting as individual fiefdoms will suddenly see the light and act unselfishly as a whole?

It defies probability.

In my career, I oversaw millions of dollars in contracting with the MTA. One thing I learned was that finding a dishonest purchasing officer was harder than finding a needle in a haystack, not what many people imagine.

With some notable exceptions, local government have come a long way toward cleaning up their houses in purchasing and contracting departments.

But one relatable experience spotlights a greater problem.

Tasked with coordinating Novell software licensing that let all the MTA divisions save through larger scale, rather than individual, buying, I worked with what felt like a family of brothers and sisters without parents.

Most were eager to do the right thing with public money. Others, one sibling especially, saw it as a battle over turf. One size fits all guidelines didn't always go down easy, and since it was an all or none proposition, maneuvering that single buyer into agreement was more difficult than it should've been.

Someone is going to have to do some fancy arm-wrestling to make this work on a broader, more diverse platform.

Consolidation of resources, inevitably leading to fewer jobs, runs counter to human nature. Evolution trained us to value mutual self-preservation over economy, one of the most memorable lessons I learned while dabbling along the fringes of a career in human resources.

Mix in the certainty of entrenched patronage jobs sprinkled throughout the MTA and that it's rare to find a politician tough enough to do the cutting businesses demand for health and survival and you've got yourself a grand battlefield without any recognizable generals.

Some kind of win will come, but it won't be painless or unlimited. Or transparent. New York State doesn't work that way.

How To Pay for the MTA

Drubbing Mayor de Blasio's passion for a Millionaire's Tax, Governor Cuomo's preference won out - with a hitch or two buried inside because it's known that congestion pricing isn't enough to collect all the money needed for the subway to overcome decades of neglect.

"The MTA Transformation Plan would include a congestion pricing financing model."

The press release then went on to make clear that Roosevelt Islanders who drive or use for hire vehicles will get smacked simply because we live on this island. The vast majority of us live north of 61st Street, the demarcation line for congestion pricing, but because our river crossing options leave little choice but to enter south of there, we will get burned routinely.

In press conferences and follow up releases, Roosevelt Island was never mentioned as one of the exceptions being considered for relief.

So, it goes.

Congestion Pricing with a Spin

Did Governor Cuomo suddenly see the light or just green?

Until Cynthia Nixon mounted a serious challenge to Cuomo's primary reelection bid, he condemned marijuana as a gateway drug that should not be legalized in New York. 

Now, with a push from Nixon and other progressives, the Governor sees wacky tobacky as part of the solution for what ails the subway. No, not that weed will make the grim task of commuting tolerable, but taxes collected on sales of it, once legalized, can pay for all those switches and rails the MTA neglected during his term of management.

An historical perspective is irresistible. 

Until 1967, playing the numbers was a moral abomination in which mobsters took advantage of vulnerable citizens by selling them daily hope. But then, New York State created the State Lottery (a rose by any other name is still a rose) and ran the numbers racket out of business.

Being operated by the State was seen to cleanse playing the numbers because it was dedicated exclusively to raising money for education, an intention that provided to be little more than a sales technique as funds soon began finding their way into other streams of support.

Oh, and one other difference. The New York State Lottery's payout percentage is far less than what the alleged mob paid.

That said, it should matter that since marijuana use has no more connection to public transit than, say, public housing or health care, there is no valid argument for tying it up completely to benefit the MTA. 

The Cuomo/de Blasio plan also adds a new internet sales tax that will be dedicated to the MTA.

These both dodge responsibility. Neither has any natural connection to public transit and, hence, no good argument for exclusive rights.

Why not tax those who actually benefit most from having a wide-ranging public transit system?

Those benefits accrue mainly to real estate developers whose Manhattan office towers were built tall to pack in workers from Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx and whose apartment complexes were strategically placed to spike rents higher near subway stops.

The de Blasio Millionaire's Tax at least hinted at something like that, even if the Mayor blanched at putting real estate interests and paying a fair share in the same sentence. He's still pitching it, but the catcher's already left the field and is taking a shower in anticipated marijuana money.

The bottom line for us on Roosevelt Island is that we will pay more and gain little or nothing of relative value from what's figuratively a stew of feeble alternatives to the radical changes in cultural no one has courage enough to propose.

 

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