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.