Don’t hold your breath
A result of the societal choices we make
“We say that there is not enough money,” observed Joseph Viteritti, the Hunter College public policy professor who is also working on a book on John Lindsay’s years as mayor in New York City during the late 1960s. But, Viteritti said, part of responding to that dilemma, in addition to using resources efficiently, is engaging in a “conversation nationally about having people contribute sufficiently so that we have adequate money” for public purposes.
Robert Paaswell agreed that the inability to build the Second Avenue subway on a larger and more rapid scale was not inevitable but a result of “social choices that we make.”
Or, as Robert Abrams, the Bronx borough president when an earlier, aborted effort at Second Avenue subway expansion took place in the 1970s, told Remapping Debate, “The fact that it has been delayed for so long, the fact that the price has so escalated, the fact that it is being done piecemeal and not on the scale and magnitude that is required, is an indication of our failure to meet and recognize priorities.”
Abrams added that the money, in fact “is there.” It may not be in the hands of the MTA, he said, but it is “in the society.”
One of the priorities that has trumped transit, says Viteritti, is simply “keeping the tax and revenue structure in such a way that people [who can readily afford it] get off without paying anything.”
Planners are not shy about other places where money could come from. Art Guzzetti, a vice president of policy at the American Public Transit Association, argued that an increase in the federal gasoline tax, stuck at $0.18 per gallon since 1993, could help stabilize and grow the ailing federal highway trust fund, out of which federal transit expenditures are made.
Richard Barone, director of transportation programs at RPA, explained that in contrast to other countries, the landowners and developers adjacent to transit lines are not expected to contribute to an expansion, despite the fact that the buildings will rise in value (after the disruption of construction). “We want them [building owners] to make money on this,” Barone explained, “but they should be contributing for the service they are getting.”
The City of New York, meanwhile, is contributing nothing to the construction of the Second Avenue subway (though it has spent money on the No. 7 line extension on the West Side). Its $500 million dollar contribution to the MTA’s 2010-2014 capital budget makes up just 4 percent of the MTA’s planned capital expenditures on its New York City Transit division. As Peter Derrick related: “There hasn’t been — that I know of — any sustained effort on the part of any state or federal politicians to say, ‘Well, you know the city owns the subway system, we are fixing up the city’s subway system; we are expanding it…Why the hell aren’t they putting up some money for it?’”
What keeps transit from being a priority?
In response to Remapping Debate’s emailed inquiries, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), whose district includes parts of the East Side of Manhattan, acknowledged that, “unfortunately, there is a long history of bias — dating back at least to the 1950s — toward appropriations that favor automobiles as ‘transit.’” In her view, that bias has begun to lessen “as transportation planners begin to define road-building criteria in terms of passengers moved, not vehicle capacity.” She said that “we should be seeing this cup as half full rather than half empty.”
Others are less sanguine. Joseph Viteritti, the public policy professor, told Remapping Debate that the difficulty of getting funding “is not just about the Second Avenue subway,” but part of a larger problem in the United States, namely: “Do you hear anybody talk about an urban agenda anymore? I don’t.” In contrast to the 1960s, the period Viteritti is currently writing about, “there is no urban agenda.”
The lack of interest in an “urban agenda” or in increased funding for transit at the federal level, though partly longstanding historical phenomena, as Viteritti explained, are also, in part, a result of what Ethan Pollack, a senior policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, described as a “political economy” problem. “Where public transit is directly benefiting people,” Pollack explained, “That is in…a concentrated urban or metropolitan area. If you look at the senate, who is underrepresented? Urban and metropolitan areas.” The problem replicates itself at the New York state level, as well, Pollack asserted: “There is this big tension between New York City, and the suburbs, and upstate, and western New York.” Part of the problem, then, is that “people who are making the decisions are ones that are over-representing more rural and suburban voters.”
To Robert Abrams, though, making transit a priority is about making the case for the needs of people. In earlier eras, we made reforms that resulted in a more livable society for more people: “Whether it is a healthcare system — Medicare, Medicaid — or Social Security, there were always voices and forces who said, ‘it is too grandiose an idea, which we cannot afford.’ But there has got to be the leadership and the commitment and the will to forge ahead and to get it done.”
Over a long period, that sustained leadership has been lacking. In 1968, the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority, the forerunner to the MTA, introduced an ambitious regional transportation plan that included a Second Avenue subway. The line was to be built in two phases: the first, between the Bronx and 34th Street in Manhattan; the second, from 34th Street to Lower Manhattan. The agency said, “The program is big. The program is ‘do-able.’ The program makes up for lost time. The program will meet present and future needs.”
Seven years later, in 1975, when New York City was in the midst of a severe financial crisis, the head of the MTA told a reporter: “I do not feel that the Second Avenue subway is dead. I think it will be built in the lifetime of most New Yorkers who are around today. And I hope I’m one of them.”
The MTA chief at that time was David Yunich.
He died in 2001.