New York City Councilmembers Peter Koo (Queens), Council Transportation Committee Chairperson James Vacca (Bronx) and Council Finance Committee Chairperson Domenic Recchia (Brooklyn) want to give subway stations letter grades like restaurants. This makes a great sound bite, but doesn’t solve the problem. The devil is in the details. Just who would pay for their survey? Take a trip down memory lane to understand what real power City Hall has beyond appointing four members to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board for management and oversight of the New York City Transit subway system. I doubt Koo, Vacca or Recchia or anyone else in municipal government is even aware of these long since forgotten legal options.
The original BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Rapid Transit - today’s B, D, J, M, N, Q, R and Z lines) and IRT (Interboro Rapid Transit - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, Franklin Ave and Times Square shuttles) subway systems were constructed and managed by the private sector with no government operating subsidies. Financial viability was 100 percent dependent upon farebox revenues. They supported both development and economic growth of numerous neighborhoods in the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens. As part of the franchise agreement which owners had to sign, City Hall had direct control over the fare structure. For a period of time, owners actually make a profit with a five cent fare. As decades passed, the costs of salaries, maintenance, power, supplies and equipment pressured owners to ask City Hall for permission to raise the fares. This additional revenue was needed to keep up with maintaining a good state of repair, increase the frequency of service, purchase new subway cars, pay employee salary increases and support planned system expansion. Politicians more interested in the next reelection (and subscribing to the old Roman philosophy of free bread and circuses) refused this request each year for well over a decade. As a result, in order to survive, owners of both systems began looking elsewhere to reduce costs and stay in business. They started curtailing basic maintenance, delayed purchases of new subway cars, postponed salary increases for employees, canceled any plans for system expansion and cut corners to survive.
In the 1930s, NYC began building and financing construction of the new IND (Independent Subway - today’s A, C, E, F and G lines). This new municipal system, directly subsidized by taxpayers’ dollars, would provide direct competition to both the IRT and BMT. Municipal government forced them into economic ruin by denying them fare increases that would have provided access to additional badly needed revenues. Big Brother, like the Godfather, eventually made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. The owners folded and sold out to City Hall.
In 1953, the old NYC Board of Transportation passed on control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets to the newly created New York City Transit Authority. Under late Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was created. The Governor appointed four board members. The Mayor appointed four more and the rest came from suburban county executives. No one elected official controlled a majority of the votes. As a result, elected officials have historically taken credit when the MTA or any operating subsidiary such as New York City Transit did a good job. When operational problems occurred or fare increases were needed – everyone could put up his or her hand. Don’t blame me, I’m only a minority within the Board. Decade after decade, NYC mayors, comptrollers, public advocates, City Council presidents, borough presidents and City Council members like Koo, Vacca and Recchia would all play the same sad song – if only we had majority control of the Board things would be different. All have forgotten that buried within the 1953 master agreement between the City of New York and New York City Transit is an escape clause. NYC has the legal right at any time to take back control of its assets which includes the subway and most of the bus system as well. Actions speak louder than words.
If municipal elected officials such as Koo, Vacca and Recchia feel they could do a better job running the nation’s largest subway and bus system, including keeping subway stations safer and cleaner, why not step up to the plate now and regain control of your destiny?
Talk is cheap but actions speak louder. Otherwise either pick up a mop or broom and help out or stand aside and leave it to the professionals.