New York City Councilmembers can cut to the bone when they want to. At a Council hearing with MTA chiefs on Monday, elected officials took full advantage of their ability to ask tough questions of transit executives who frequently dismiss any concerns raised by the board that is supposed to oversee their actions.
Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin drilled down on the MTA’s plan to hire 500 new police officers—a plan pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo that is expected to cost more than $600 million over the next decade, and $50 million a year, at a time when the MTA is facing down a $1 billion operating deficit, and when the NYPD says that crime on the subway is lower now than it was last year.
“Did you hear from NYPD that there was a shortage of transit police that they needed supplemented by MTA police?” Levin asked.
MTA Chairman Pat Foye replied that there were 80 positions that need or will soon need to be filled.
“Was the NYPD asked whether they wanted this?" Levin fired back.
“There were discussions between the MTA police and the NYPD,” Foye said.
“And they said yes they wanted it?” Levin asked.
“I can’t say that, I wasn’t party to those discussions,” Foye answered.
Over the course of more than three hours, several councilmembers asked Foye, New York City Transit President Andy Byford, Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran, and the head of MTA Capital Construction Janno Lieber, why the MTA needed the 500 new cops to stop fare evasion.
Foye’s argument, which he gave to reporters who questioned the MTA in recent weeks, was that the new officers would be doing general policing, which just happens to include fare evasion. (The MTA’s own budget proposal states that the new cops would be hired “mainly to support fare evasion and homelessness outreach mitigation efforts.”)
MTA spokesperson Abbey Collins, whose last job was in the governor’s office (like two other recent MTA spokespeople before her) trotted out this chestnut to prove that the MTA has been transparent about this from the very beginning and that all parties are on board with this plan.
The transit union reports that assaults against subway workers are up 40 percent this year, a figure that only includes workers who took time off because of the incident, and doesn’t include statistics on bus workers.
According to the NYPD, as of November 10th, overall crime in the transit system has declined from 2,142 complaints to 2,065 complaints over the same period in 2018, a 3.6 percent reduction.
Asked to explain the methodology for calculating fare evasion, Byford simply told the council that the estimate is $300 million a year lost. With that much money, Byford said, the MTA could resignal an entire line.
Levin countered that the MTA could use the money being spent on hiring new police to instead address the underlying causes of homelessness.
“That money could be very well used for new safe havens, or better outreach or social workers,” Levin said. “If we’re just sending a police officer an NYPD or MTA police officer to interact with somebody with a psychosis, then that is just a recipe for a bad outcome.”
The MTA is projecting a nearly $1 billion operating deficit by 2023.
“What would you say to the public on why they should feel confident about the MTA’s direction about the proposed capital plan, even with what Mr. Foran said, we’re in a dire financial situation as it relates to the MTA?” Speaker Corey Johnson asked, floating his plan for municipal control over the subway system. “An overarching answer to why the public should feel confident about the MTA right now?”
Foye answered that the L train project is on time and on budget, 2nd Track is on time and on budget, and ditto for OMNY. Congestion pricing is moving forward. “These are example so major projects that are on time and on budget,” Foye said.
As for municipal control, Foye commended Johnson for an “interesting and provocative” proposal. But said the state payroll mobility taxes are “fundamental component of the MTA’s financial structure today.” Replacing that funding will be tough. And remember the '80s?
“I think it’s a complicated issue that will be decided by officials above my pay grade,” Foye concluded.