Squabbles over how the MTA would pay for its $800 million action plan to fix the subways took up much of the agency's full board meeting on Wednesday morning, but MTA chairman Joe Lhota made one thing clear: the subways aren't getting fixed unless the city splits the cost.
"I will not spend one penny more than we have in our existing budget," Lhota said. "We'll be able to see what can be done and what can't be done, if we're unsuccessful in getting the full amount of money."
"Would we move other agency priorities around to get the subway action plan done?" MTA boardmember and Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg wondered.
In response, Lhota emphasized that the subway action plan was the top priority, but completely dependent on the finalization of the budget. "If we don't have the full amount of money, there may be things that we can't do," he admitted.
When board member James Vitiello asked about specific revenue sources for the plan, Lhota responded he'll present the budget in October, "assuming we get half the money or don't get half the money."
Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly insisted that the billions of dollars the city contributes to the MTA's capital plan and operating budget proves that New York City residents have paid their fare share. The mayor has also pointed out that Governor Andrew Cuomo ultimately controls the MTA, and that the agency has suffered over the years as the governor and the legislature have reallocated portions of its budget.
"Try as they might, city riders won't allow the state and the MTA to pull the wool over their eyes," Austin Finan, a spokesman for the mayor, told Gothamist. "Implementing half the plan isn't an option. If Chairman Lhota needs the money to fund his plan, he should ask the State to return the nearly half-billion dollars it swiped from the authority he now oversees. It’s really that simple."
Asked if Governor Cuomo will push the state to allocate more funding in the event the city maintains its position, spokesman Jon Weinstein told us, "The state committed it's share of the funds requested by Chairman Lhota and will make that money available whenever the MTA needs it, regardless of the city's refusal."
During the meeting, former vice chairman of the Port Authority, Scott Rechler, further emphasized the need to find funding. "It's been clear we've been woefully underinvesting in our subway system for decades," he said. Rechler is "not a fan of robbing Peter to pay Paul," instead urging the board to "maintain the entire regional system" as well.
While most board members seemed to be in agreement over the need to secure a source of revenue as quickly as possible, no one was able to name a viable solution.
"We've gotten to the point where we have charged our customers the maximum we can charge them for the service we are providing," board member and former Suffolk County Executive Mitchell Pally said, dismissing the idea that fare hikes could provide sustainable funding for the new plan. He admitted that MTA service ranged from "good" to "not so good."
"The MTA needs a new form of revenue," Lhota agreed.
Protesters gather outside of MTA headquarters. (Libby Torres / Gothamist)
Wednesday's board meeting was filled to capacity, with over 50 New Yorkers signed up to speak. MTA officials even had to turn some people away.
The source of frustration for many public speakers at the meeting was, of course, train delays and subway accessibility. Teria Mitchell, a visually-impaired woman, called out the board on the issues with accessible train stations, while William Raudenbush, an UWS city council candidate, was present at the meeting to speak for a group of senior citizens who want more consistent bus service. Both commented on a need for transparency, as well—"We want some books open. We want to know, what are you doing to get more funding?"
Outside MTA headquarters, protesters spoke out against a number of issues ranging from alcohol-related subway ads to accessible train stations and more. "From the A to the Z, public transit should be free," demonstrators chanted. They also called on the state to "make the rich pay," referencing a plan introduced by New York State Senator Michael Gianaris. His plan "Better Trains, Better Cities" would implement a surcharge on millionaires living in the MTA region, with the revenue going towards funding for subway improvements.
Mayor de Blasio has supported Gianaris' idea, while dismissing calls for congestion pricing. Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo has called congestion pricing an idea "whose time has come."
With additional reporting by Christopher Robbins.