Running for reelection, the mayor of New York City has good ideas, but he has no money to work with and no control over the transit authority.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has never been shy about his ambitions, and he has rarely cowered from doing what he believes necessary to realize them. When he determined he wanted to be mayor, he switched his party registration from Democrat to Republican; sensing that party’s extreme move to the right during the Bush years and fearful for his own electoral success, he became an independent. In his reelection campaign against Democrat Fernando Ferrer, he spent $70 million — compared to his rival’s $17 million. Last year, frustrated that New York City limits its mayor to two elected terms, he forced the city council into a switch that would allow him to win a third term because, he argued, steady leadership is essential during an economic downturn.
Despite his self-infatuation, the mayor has been a significant force for change in terms of alternative transportation in New York. His fight for congestion pricing, a policy that ended with a dud in the state legislature after Mr. Bloomberg bungled his attempts at lobbying, would have provided the Metropolitan Transportation Authority an important new financial resource. And under the leadership of Janette Sadik-Kahn, his Department of Transportation has been steadily transforming formerly automobile-centric areas of the city into more livable, walkable places.
It’s no surprise, then, that the mayor’s transportation platform for his reelection campaign is both ambitious and well thought through. But he faces a number of structural stumbling blocks that make the plan’s full implementation difficult to imagine.
It’s worth noting the principal goals of the plan, because they symbolize an important shift in the way New York politicians focus on transit improvements — notably because the list does not include any new subway extensions, which are typically the mainstay of similar attempts to attract the public’s support, and which are inevitably forgotten as soon as the campaign ends.
- Expand City Ticket to serve all stations at all times (not just weekends, as of now).
- F Train Express Service into Brooklyn, with an extended V Train.
- Staten Island North Shore reuse for rail.
- Brooklyn and Queens waterfront light rail/streetcar.
- Next train information provided in all subway stations.
- More BRT in all boroughs.
- Commuter van service to under served areas of the city.
- Free Manhattan crosstown bus service.
- Expanded ferry system.
- New integrated RFID transit card.
These are all good, implementable ideas that would improve transit in New York significantly for the city’s more than 8 million inhabitants. City Ticket expansion, specifically, would leverage existing resources to allow the outer borough population to take advantage of the commuter rail network. They’re currently forced to pay far too much for this service, and not enough Metro-North and Long Island Railroad trains stop in Queens and the Bronx.
Light rail along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts would be nice, serving areas frequently far from subway stations — though there are a number of other routes in Kings County that would be just as well-suited for streetcars. And there are plenty of good reasons to improve transit service on Staten Island.
But Mayor Bloomberg has to contend with two major problems: one, the savings he promises through administrative cost-cutting couldn’t pay for all of these new services, and he’s proposed no new major financial source that could fund them, let alone keep the ever-indebted MTA from falling behind on its payments again; two, the mayor of New York has no control over the MTA, meaning that his cost-cutting plans won’t hold water and his transit improvements will have to be funded by municipal dollars unless he can coerce the state government into moving money the way he wants. That’s an unlikely proposition considering the mayor’s previous relations with Albany. He claims it could be done through a “partnership.” We’ll see.
Mr. Bloomberg’s ideas, in other words, hold little actual weight in the New York political scene. While it may sound nice to improve transit through greater funding and a MTA management shake-up, those changes likely will only be made at the state level, where the mayor has little authority.