City Hall farce, Albany folly

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Or how the chartering of a transportation corporation 64 years ago became an excuse to dodge blame and poison politics amid the subway free fall


  • Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference on the F train in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on Sunday, July 23. Photo: Ed Reed / Mayoral Photo Office, via flickr

  • After yet another calamity amid the summer heat wave, a second subway derailment, Mayor Bill de Blasio and wife Chirlane McCray head for a press conference on board the F train in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on Sunday, July 23. Photo: Ed Reed / Mayoral Photo Office, via flickr

  • New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo rode an E train from Chambers Street to Penn Station on September 25, 2014. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

So, let’s see if we have this right: A crippled subway system routinely tortures 6 million riders a day. It is beset by track fires, power outages, derailments, breakdowns, signal failures and airless cars.

Yet the debate now raging is not about how to end the agony. Or even how to lessen suffering amid a brutal summer heat wave. Amazingly, it is about the incorporation of a transit bureaucracy in 1953.

Some New Yorkers have already lost jobs in 2017. Busted switches and chronic train delays have made it tough to get to work on time. But this is what passes for leadership in City Hall and Albany these days:

Pols talking in legalisms — unmoored from the real world underground — about an era when Vincent R. Impellitteri was mayor, Thomas E. Dewey was governor and Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Hello?

Here’s the context. On June 5, trapped riders endured 48 sweltering minutes on an F train with no air, power or lights. On June 27, an A train derailed in Harlem, injuring 39 people, after a worker improperly left rail detritus on the tracks. By July 21, when a Q train derailed in Brooklyn in the morning rush, the near-calamity was barely noticed.

“The Summer of Hell is turning into the Summer of Fear,” said Nick Sifuentes, deputy director of the Riders Alliance, an advocacy group.

Indeed, there are three things to fear, and the imperiling of passengers is No. 1 on any list. But there are social and economic costs, too — the “human costs of subway delays,” city Comptroller Scott Stringer called them in a July 8 survey of 1,227 straphangers at 143 stations over a two-week period.

How bad is it? Among respondents, two percent said they were fired as a result of subway delays, while 22 percent said they were late for job interviews, his auditors found. Among employed respondents, 18 percent were reprimanded, and 13 percent lost wages on account of delays.

“When New Yorkers are left stranded on the subway platform or stuck in a tunnel ... they’re losing wages and putting their jobs in jeopardy,” Stringer said. They’re also missing classes, job interviews, and doctor’s appointments, and “running late to pick up children and care for elderly relatives,” he added.

And that brings us to the third fear: that a viable and speedy solution may not be found.

That the unseemly finger-pointing between Governor Andrew Cuomo, who holds outsized control of the MTA while positing that he does not, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who veers erratically between washing his hands of the system and posturing about how he’d like the city to helm it, will continue so long as they both hold office.

That de Blasio — swaddled in his SUV cocoon from April 19 until he finally ventured into a subway on June 14 — will now use the system as a reelection prop and vehicle to bash Cuomo, as he did on July 23 on an F train in Brooklyn when he demanded the MTA spend cash he claims it’s hoarding before turning to the city, hat in hand.

That a mayor who sanctimoniously said on June 2 it would be “cheap symbolism” to forsake his chauffeured convoy and take public transit to his Park Slope workouts is now engaged in, well, cheap symbolism to score political points and force upon the electorate a show of empathy that hardly helps bolster subway service.

That Cuomo, whose approval ratings have fallen as transit horrors have worsened, and who rarely deigns to ride the rails himself, unless, say, he’s inaugurating a new Second Avenue Subway, will sharply escalate the juvenile blame game, abetted by MTA chairman Joseph Lhota, to undermine de Blasio at all costs, which appears a greater priority than actually fixing the trains.

And that takes us back to June 15, 1953, the day the New York City Transit Authority was created. The MTA, midwifed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, was birthed on March 1, 1968 and became the parent of the TA.

Citing the 64-year-old lease agreement between the city and the TA at the time it was chartered, and buttressed by a 1981 legislative finding, Cuomo and Lhota on July 20 said the city technically “owns” the system and leases it to the MTA — but is 100 percent responsible for its funding and capital upkeep.

“They own it, they lease it, it’s their responsibility to fund it,” Lhota said. It’s merely “affiliated” with the MTA, he continued.

“I’m a lawyer, look at the law,” Cuomo said. Yeah, no kidding. Tell us something we don’t know. “By the law, the city is solely responsible for funding the capital plan of the subway system.” Then in a feint at taking the high road, the governor added, “We stepped in on a moral level.”

Let’s break down these preposterous claims. An obscure 1953 lease provision allows the state to abdicate legal responsibility for 8.2 million people? Only a “moral” obligation keeps it from abandoning the driver of its otherwise lame economy? Taxpayer funds trickle downstate only via a governor’s noblesse oblige?

Here, de Blasio actually found his footing in the F train press conference in which he branded Cuomo’s arguments “fiction,” saying the state had basically run the show since 1953.

“Just take ownership, and fix the problem,” the mayor said of the governor. The only thing wrong with that formulation: de Blasio needs to take ownership, too. Cough up more cash. Bolster MTA efforts to fix the trains. Reach détente with Cuomo.

Do the city a favor, Messrs. Mayor and Governor: end the dereliction of duty today.

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