The history of who’s in charge of NYC subways


Bobby Cuza at NY1

The latest front in the ongoing feud between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio has been the question of just who is responsible for city subways. But as NY1’s Bobby Cuza explains, while the personalities may have changed, the subway system has been a political football since its inception.

Thursday, Gov. Cuomo and the MTA sought to shift responsibility for the ailing subways to the city.

“For anyone to say, ‘Not my problem; it’s the state’s problem,’ they don’t know the law,” said MTA Chairman Joe Lhota. “They don’t know the history.”

But history says the MTA is a creature of the state.

Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay broke ground together on the Second Avenue Subway, but years earlier they jockeyed for control of the agency.

Rockefeller prevailed in 1968, bringing the subways under the umbrella of the newly-formed MTA.

“He had a great idea: he took over the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, with all its tolls and bridges, tossed Robert Moses overboard, and he merged the Long Island Rail Road, what was then Metro-North, part of Amtrak, and the New York City subways into the MTA,” Mitchell Moss of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation.

Originally, the subway was privately-owned and operated. But the city-owned IND line opened in 1932, and under Mayor La Guardia the city assumed control of the entire system in 1940.

The problem, then and now, was that the subways lost money. Yet, raising fares was politically unpopular.

So in 1953, the subways were removed from political control and given over to a new independent entity called the New York City Transit Authority.

That governance structure — a board of political appointees — essentially remains today.

But the governor gets the most appointees, picks the MTA chairperson, and has at times exerted considerable control over the agency.

“The state is really operating the system,” Moss said. “These are unions which are under the state’s domain, and the financing is the state’s responsibility.”

The city, meanwhile, has been virtually powerless over the subway’s day-to-day operations for 50 years.

One exception was the 7 line extension, which was financed by the city and pushed through by Mayor Bloomberg, who took a ceremonial ride in 2013, well before the extension actually opened.

Cuomo, of course, put himself front-and-center when the Second Avenue Subway opened. He’s been less eager to claim responsibility for recent breakdowns.

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