The future of New York City’s transit system, still struggling to rebound from the pandemic, could be on the line in Tuesday’s election for governor.
As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chugs from crisis to crisis, the state agency faces the prospect of a new boss with a tough-on-transit track record. While the MTA’s not the only thing the two are far apart on, Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican opponent to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, has taken a stance opposite to Hochul on several major transportation issues.
The gap between the two candidates on future transit funding is potentially so wide that the head of the MTA — who is nominated by the governor — uncharacteristically chimed in on Zeldin’s record at the September unveiling of the widened Penn Station concourse.
Standing next to Hochul, MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber asked if he could add a comment after the governor was questioned about debating Zeldin.
“I hope when the debate comes around, we’ll be talking about the fact that Zeldin alone, among New York regional Republicans, didn’t vote for the [federal] infrastructure bill — we’re here celebrating infrastructure,” Lieber said. “That is a concern to us… who are trying to rebuild the MTA and the transit system.”
Zeldin has also pushed back against congestion pricing, the vehicle tolling plan designed to raise $15 billion for mass transit capital improvements that include signal upgrades, more station elevators and new trains and buses.
“The existential crisis is real, so how do you address that?” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “How do you fill a $15 billion hole?
“That’s a big shovel and it’s going to affect 3.5 million people every day and growing.”
Representatives for Hochul and Zeldin did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Safety Concerns, Money Woes
The tightened race for governor comes as subway, bus and commuter railroad ridership now regularly hits pandemic-era highs that are still about 35% below pre-COVID levels. Agency officials say that places the MTA on the brink of a “fiscal cliff” should $15 billion in emergency federal aid for operations be used up by 2024, a year earlier than expected.
The lag in riders returning — as many New Yorkers now regularly work from home or have shifted modes of transportation — is a problem for an agency that has traditionally counted on ridership revenue for close to half of its operating budget. A July report from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli noted that fares covered just 32% of operating costs as of May.
As Lieber has been encouraging Albany lawmakers to consider new ways to fund the transit system, Zeldin has called the MTA “a money pit” and congestion pricing “a scam.”
Beyond those attacks and slamming Hochul’s latest subway safety plan to put more police officers into the subway as “a day late and a dollar short,” Zeldin has offered little, transit watchdogs say, in terms of specifics on how the MTA would fund its $18 billion operating budget.
“Improve the ridership experience, make it safer,” Zeldin said on WCBS on Sunday after being asked about the looming budget gaps. “If you have 2 million more people riding the subway every day and they’re paying their fare, that’s a lot more money for the MTA. Also, we need to enforce fare jumping.”
But with polls showing that Hochul’s lead has shrunk to single digits from nearly 20 points in July, transit observers and insiders are highlighting what is potentially at stake for public transportation in the election.
“[Zeldin] is waving transit safety as the number one reason to elect him while having given every indication that he would make transit less safe by disinvesting in MTA capital upgrades and operating revenue,“ said Danny Pearlstein, policy director for Riders Alliance, a nonprofit advocate group.
John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union and a former head of TWU Local 100, pointed to Zeldin’s criticism of the MTA as “the easiest cheap shot in New York to take.
“He may not be in favor of defunding the police, but he may be in favor of defunding the MTA,” said Samuelsen, who’s also an MTA board member. “And that’s a concern.”
While TWU Local 100, the largest transit worker union in the city, endorsed Hochul in April, Zeldin last Friday secured the support of the Subway-Surface Supervisors Association. The supervisors union, with more than 3,900 members, backed Zeldin’s call to hire more NYPD officers for the subway system amid an increase in transit crime.
“My members go to work each day and face the same problems that our customers do,” Michael Carrube, president of the SSSA, said last Friday in announcing the endorsement. “They could be injured, they could be fatally killed, they could be thrown into the subway tracks, and we don’t want that.”
While Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams generally have worked together on matters of mass transit — in contrast to their predecessors, Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio — there is also the open question of how Zeldin and Adams would collaborate.
“In many respects, [Hochul] and Adams are each other’s biggest champions,” said Pearlstein of Riders Alliance.
Regardless of who is elected governor, Hochul or Zeldin will have plenty to contend with when it comes to the MTA.
Joseph Rappaport, executive director of the advocacy organization Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled, told THE CITY that the needs of the transit system must be central.
“It doesn’t matter who’s governor,” said Rappaport, whose group does not take positions on candidates. “There’s not going to be any excuse for not putting in elevators and making stations accessible, absolutely no excuse.
“You can talk about cutting waste at the MTA and that’s fine. But you still have to fund it.”