At a town hall meeting on transit in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a public speaker suggested that Andy Byford lobby New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to steer $2 billion from his stalled streetcar proposal for the borough to Byford's transit improvement plan.
“One thing I've learned in my long career is never to get into politics as best I can," said Byford, president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's New York City Transit division since January.
While effervescent pitchman Byford is savvy enough not to pit one transit plan against another, his blueprint to modernize the city’s subway and bus systems is deep into politics already, whether he likes it or not. Political maneuvering surrounding the state-run MTA and the city it serves goes back generations.
The MTA is one of the largest municipal bond issuers with roughly $37 billion in debt.
Current palace intrigue includes a feud between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; the complication to Cuomo’s re-election bid from a challenge by fellow Democrat Cynthia Nixon; and continued debate over creative options including a congestion pricing proposal.
To what degree Cuomo supports the Byford plan, and congestion pricing, is significant. Cuomo controls the MTA board to such a degree that de Blasio appointee Veronica Vanterpool said last year that the governor's dominance has effectively "neutered" the board.
“I’m trying to read the governor. He can make it or break it,” said Howard Cure, director of municipal bond research for Evercore Wealth Management. “I was disappointed this year that congestion pricing wasn’t discussed more. I thought it had a chance.”
Cuomo, possibly hearing the footsteps of Nixon, the former "Sex and the City" star whose early campaign revolved around city-centric problems such as unreliable transit and public housing, has slowly come out in favor of the Byford plan. He said he favors congestion pricing conceptually.
Byford, who oversaw systems in London and Toronto before arriving in New York, wants to center his “Fast Forward” overhaul around new signal systems, with priority on the most crowded corridors over the first five years of a 10-year plan; redesigning bus routes across the city's five boroughs; and improving handicapped accessibility.
Speaking at Brooklyn's John Jay High School, Byford referenced the turnaround of London Underground.
“The Tube 20 years ago was in the same state that we are in here now. The Tube had hopeless unreliability with its signals constantly failing, it had unreliable rolling stock. The stations were squalid."
Now, he said, “the place has transformed because of sustained, affordable, predictable funding, which couldn’t be raided for anything else. It was what you call lockbox, and it survived and endured the political cycles.”
How to pay for his MTA plan and just what priorities will emerge in the first five years will challenge Byford. The price tag could run as high as $40 billion over the 10 years, split about equally in five-year increments, although Chairman Joe Lhota and other MTA officials have backpedaled on cost estimates after sticker shock followed initial revelations.
So how to pay for it, and who's going to pay for it?
“This is a perennial challenge of particularly the MTA and more broadly, infrastructure," Vanterpool said at a Center for an Urban Future conference in lower Manhattan.
“What we do know is that the price tag is going to be big and it has to be big,” she added. “The numbers that have been put forth over three decades of capital programs are the politically palatable numbers. They’re not the right numbers for the needs of our systems, which has resulted in the status quo that we’re all experiencing now.”
That status quo includes breakdowns, delays, track fires and bus traffic congestion.
According to Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the MTA is not alone.
“What we’re seeing today, as frustrating as it is, is unfortunately not unique," he said. "We’re seeing this play out in New Jersey and in places, really, around the nation.”
Chris Hamel, the retired head of municipal finance at RBC Capital Markets, said a private-sector role for state and local infrastructure has bipartisan support in Washington.
“I’m a fan of state and local government. I’ve worked in state government and I’ve worked with state and local government for three decades, but some things they don’t do well,” Hamel said at the CUF conference.
“They don’t always procure infrastructure at the lowest cost, they’re not particularly good about anticipating what it costs to keep infrastructure in a state of good repair, which is why the country and our state and city are in the circumstances that they’re in, and for some reason they’re not good about raising taxes and fees to pay for it.”
The MTA’s previous capital program, from 2010-2014, supported 350,000 jobs in New York City and $44 billion of economic activity throughout the state, according to numbers the authority released in 2011.
“We’ve dropped the ball in terms of communicating those benefits in many ways, and I’m going to pick on the MTA,” said Vanterpool, who urged the authority to better sell itself statewide. “Those numbers are not getting out.”
“There has always been this upstate-downstate divide, right, with the upstate roads and bridges and downstate transit and that’s actually also a fallacy, because everyone needs roads and bridges throughout the state and transit throughout the state," Vanterpool said.
Byford called on MTA board members to advance the next five-year capital plan, 2020-2024. The MTA’s $33.2 billion program for 2015-2019 -- $3 billion of which is self-funded through bridge and toll revenue -- materialized only after an intricate deal among state, city and MTA officials and after Cuomo called the MTA’s initial request “bloated.”
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions besides the money,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “What will he accomplish in the first five years, for example, and over 10?
"The MTA is not desperate for money right now. They just set aside $2.7 billion in signals in the current capital plan.”
De Blasio, quiet about his Brooklyn-Queens streetcar of late, had been reluctant to pump more city money into the MTA, although the fiscal 2019 state budget essentially required the mayor to earmark an additional $416 million to cover half of a subway improvement plan announced last summer, before Byford's arrival.
Multiple reports surfaced Thursday night that he and City Council leaders are on the verge of allocating $106 million for reduced fares for lower-income subway and bus riders. A six-month program for half-price MetroCards for households with incomes of roughly $25,000 for a family of four would begin in January.
De Blasio favors a millionaire's tax to backstop mass transit, though many political observers say such a proposal is dead on arrival in Albany.
Advocates of congestion pricing, or a fee for vehicles crossing into the most crowded parts of Manhattan, say such a move would provide the MTA with a badly needed dedicated funding source, up to $1.5 billion annually.
“The governor needs to support this,” said Cure.
Broader support could come next year from state lawmakers in Albany, after the November elections. The dynamic may change if Democrats gain control of the tightly divided state Senate.
Byford admitted that the authority has a credibility problem in managing the funds it has now.
“We don’t have the best of records of delivering projects on time and on budget, and that has to change,” said Byford. “We can’t expect to be given lots of money by Albany if you aren’t sure what’s going to be done with that money.”
Cure, looking beyond signals, rolling stock and capital funding, said the MTA should scrutinize labor agreements.
“Look at some of the big construction projects, the cost per mile on Second Avenue Subway or what’s going on with East Side Access, blowing through their budget and all the delays,” he said. “I frankly have very little confidence they can do it cheaply without work-rule changes.”
While removing the proposed tolls at now-free East River bridges could sway lawmakers from Brooklyn and Queens toward congestion pricing, it could also water down the effect of any plan that clears Albany. The original proposal, recommended by engineer and former city transportation commissioner “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz, called for East River tolling.
Cuomo's Fix NYC panel, which favors congestion pricing, also called on public transportation improvements in the outer boroughs and suburbs.
Outer-borough advocates have cited growth and changing commuter patterns in clamoring for service that covers transit gaps, if not outright deserts.
While affluent Park Slope, home to several subway lines, is hardly a transportation desert, some residents there still complained at the MTA town hall about lack of handicapped access at several nearby stations. Byford’s plan intends to make more stations accessible systemwide.
For southeast Queens and Brooklyn residents, the MTA board just approved a reduced-fare pilot program – the so-called Atlantic Ticket – for transfers between the city subway and Long Island Rail Road. The LIRR discount aims to make commuter rail a more affordable alternative to cumbersome bus-and-subway commutes.
According to MTA board member Andrew Albert, who helped champion the concept with Ellyn Shannon of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, southeastern Queens has long received the short end of the transit stick.
The Atlantic discount move prompted Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. and MTA board member Charles Moerdler, who lives in that borough, to call for a similar arrangement with MTA unit Metro-North Railroad.
“The Bronx exists and its people and its workers travel upstate and to the city,” said Moerdler.