Transit Troubles

by Klaire Geller

Every morning I visit mta.info to check if there are any delays that will impact my morning commute. Next to the train statuses are press releases covering the latest news from the MTA. One such release was touted as an accomplishment: “MTA Board Approves Lowest Fare Increases Since 2009”. Yet while the base fare remains at $2.75, the bonus when adding an amount above $5.50 has decreased from 11 to 5 percent. Weekly and Monthly unlimited MetroCards have also had their prices raised.

My feelings about the MTA are ambivalent. On one hand, I’m forced to endure squeezing onto crowded trains, working around the frequent delays, and getting on at a local station that quivers whenever the express train rolls by. Some might argue that I have no right to lodge such complaints. After all, the MTA provides me with free transportation to and from school on weekdays. While I’m grateful for my free MetroCard, I take the subway seven days a week in order to get to classes on Saturday and my internship on Sunday. On weekends, I have to jump through hoops of service changes, just like everyone else, and pay a fare that has been steadily increasing since 2009. The MTA might greet these hikes with fanfare, but they are the result of the dysfunctional transit system that calls New York City home.

The source of this two-fold problem stems from the authority’s administration. The authority was created during the term of former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, meaning the MTA is a state agency. Board members are nominated by the governor (with input from local downstate leaders), and confirmed by the New York State Senate, and this is where the first problem lies. Top MTA officials are supposed to represent the interests of the downstate transit system but are chosen by a body that represents the entire state of New York. State senators who represent the most northern and western regions of the state have a say in something they shouldn’t: downstate transportation. The same way San Francisco legislators should not tell Los Angeles how to run its transit system, representatives from Buffalo or Syracuse should not be selecting the board of the MTA.

Of course, upstate elected officials would argue that they should have a say in the board selection process, because the State of New York allocates some of its budget for the MTA. From their point of view, it would be irresponsible to have only downstate officials make selections, because chosen board members could turn to the state and ask for massive amounts of funding, which could instead go toward other regions in the state. However, asking is all MTA board members can do. Ultimately, budget decisions are left to the state legislature, which can allot money to the MTA irrespective of the amount the authority requests. Should the MTA not receive all the money it asks for, it can issue its own debt (borrow money) to make up the difference. This is the second major problem of the agency.

 

Since the authority can take out loans on its own, it has more freedom to engage in risky or expensive spending, such as the Second Avenue Subway. This new subway line is slated to run along Manhattan’s Second Avenue from Hanover Street in the south, to 125th Street in the north. While the MTA is celebrating the completion of the first phase of the project, no official will be willing to tell you that this expansion is already $700 million over budget. Of course, the MTA isn’t only building a new subway line. It’s also renovating stations, repairing lasting damage done by Superstorm Sandy, and even experimenting with a high-tech replacement to the MetroCard where riders can tap a phone or bank card. This irresponsible do-everything-at-once approach is a direct result of the MTA’s ability to conduct finances independent of the state, and once the spending becomes out of control, passengers are stuck with the bill.

The most obvious solution is to place the MTA under the jurisdiction of its home: New York City. But that too, has several problems. Part of the reason the MTA is a state authority is because its subsidiaries include the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and MetroNorth. While the LIRR stays within the boundaries of the state, MetroNorth has stations in both New Jersey and Connecticut, and renegotiation contracts would be complicated and costly. Even a move to put the subway, bus, and Staten Island railway systems, which stay entirely within New York City,  under the city’s control would face opposition from upstate officials who are content with the status quo. However, until serious reform is voted in (whether aforementioned or otherwise), riders have no choice but to suck it up and swipe.

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