This summer, New York City’s public transit infrastructure underwent emergency repairs that were so disruptive that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dubbed it the “summer of hell.” But why is the governor, and not the mayor, responsible for the Big Apple’s transit needs? And how unique is this arrangement among cities around the globe?
Full transcript below
Patrick Verel: This is Patrick Verel, and today I am speaking with Annika Hinze, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Urban Studies Program here at Fordham.
The summer of hell has officially ended for New Yorkers, who rely on subways and commuter trains to get around. But while the summer part is fading fast, the hell part seems like it’s going to be with us for a very long time, thanks to neglected infrastructure. Now so much of this seems to be the result of a transit system that exclusively serves the New York City Metropolitan area, but which is controlled by the State of New York. How unusual is this?
Annika Hinze: Actually, those types of arrangements are quite common. They are really quite common actually across the entire United States, and quite pervasive when it comes to urban development. They are not a new structure, but an interesting structure that allows informal bargaining between urban city and state actors. The MTA itself is actually a public benefits corporation, which means that its board consists basically of private actors who are appointed by state and city government. So in a way, they allow a bargaining process between city and state actors, but through a private board, an appointed board.
One of the problems with that, is of course that this board doesn’t have any democratic accountability. If you’re appointed, you can hold the elected officials accountable for appointing someone who is incompetent, but you can’t really actually hold the boards themselves accountable. For a long time, the federal government hasn’t given any sort of money directly to cities. It’s always channeled through the states and is always allocated to the states, and that is often a problem because of course in a state legislature, the representatives from Schenectady and the representatives from Albany will be interested in public infrastructure projects for Schenectady and Albany, and not for New York City. One of the things that urban scholars specifically talk about in that connection is that cities are chronically under-represented.
Patrick Verel: Aside from transportation, what other areas can you think of that are affected by this kind of city/state conflict?
Annika Hinze: Well, a lot of development projects are. You know, if you think of large-scale development projects like the Barkley Center, they often involve private actors too. The case of New York City, we have the Empire State Development Corporation, which is very similarly structured to the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Patrick Verel: I know one of the things that makes this area different is that we have three states, so you have a lot of different actors all competing with each other and trying to work together. Can New York learn anything from other cities around the country?
Annika Hinze: Well in terms of our public transit system, I think we’re certainly unique. No other city in the United States has a transit system this extensive. Maybe we get used to the existence of the MTA and the broad, vast, subway network in the city, but you know, having moved here from Chicago for instance, I really appreciated this network, and the way it runs because it doesn’t, of course it has lots of problems, but as far as big cities in this country go, it’s quite unprecedented. And for how old it is, it actually works fairly well. It’s often really surprising to me, because clearly it is extremely under-maintained, and when I have visitors from abroad I often have them comment on how all the trains look like they’re from the 1970s, and then I also have to respond, “Well they are!”
It may also be a unique issue to maintain that in a way. You know, well actually keep it working. I think what we’re lacking here is often a national consensus about that important, because Americans love their cars. And so it’s much easier to convince a state legislature or the federal government to provide funding for, you know, a new highway or for road maintenance, than it is for public transit infrastructure. And that’s a huge problem. It serves a population that often cannot rely on cars. I mean, we hear stories all the time about the working poor, and increasingly they’re displaced from urban areas because it’s become very, very expensive to live in cities, especially in this city. So once they get, you know, people are forced to move to the first-string suburbs, especially the older first-string suburbs. They often become isolated from a good public transit infrastructure, and it puts them in a really tough place. We’ve seen this with the summer of hell, right? There was the one story about this several-hour delay one day that was caused by a power failure, and people started weeping on the trains and buses because they thought they might lose their jobs.
Patrick Verel: The U.S. Constitution provides the legal basis for states to exist, like New York, and Connecticut, and New Jersey. But not cities. Is this a uniquely American phenomenon?
Annika Hinze: American urban scholars always like to think that is very unique to the United States, but I can honestly say that it’s not. I think, especially big cities tend to be underfunded almost everywhere, and they’ve sort of become these strange animals. They’re loved, equally loved and hated because they provide some sort of excitement, right? People could talk about them, people can visit them, maybe people will even see their children move there for a while because it’s an exciting life, until kind of get it out of your system and move somewhere else. Settle into a quieter routine.
But they’re not often taken serious as places where people live everyday, and cope with everyday issues like transit. And then in addition, there’s always the question of how responsible does the federal government feel, and the federal government in most federal democracies does not feel very responsible for cities and urban infrastructure. You know, Berlin came out because of a banking crisis. About $80 million in debt, and the federal government, even though Berlin is the capital, the federal government said, “Well we don’t care. You’re going to have to resolve this problem by yourself.” It sort of reminded me of “Ford To City: Drop Dead” in the 1970s when then-President Ford talked about New York City’s debt crisis.
I think in most federal democracies there’s still this idea of not necessarily pastoral life, but of smaller cities, more manageable life. Not the big cities. There are also just tough projects for the federal government to maintain. If you actually, as a federal government, wanted the care about all the services that cities provide, you would have to make a huge commitment, a huge financial commitment.
Patrick Verel: Growing up in New York, you sort of think everything is unique to you. It’s kind of comforting to hear that no, in fact that this sort of animosity exists in other places as well.
Annika Hinze: My husband and I will fight about this all the time, because he’s from Canada and he’s a huge hockey fan. But he lived in Chicago for a long time before he moved to New York City, and he hates the Rangers. He supports his hometown team, which are the Winnipeg Jets, and he will support the Chicago Blackhawks. But not the Rangers, because the Rangers are too big, and they’re the New York City team. Everybody knows them, and they have too much money, and all the fans are so cocky, and it’s just not, you know, you just can’t love the Rangers.
That always pushes my buttons because I’m from Berlin, which is the biggest city in Germany. And I feel like I’ve seen this so many times where people from smaller towns move to Berlin and they will not support the local teams, but they will support their own small-town team. And I always feel like, “You can’t live here and manipulate our sports teams. It’s not okay. If you come here and benefit from everything we have to offer, you have to root for our team.”
And so maybe that’s the problem with the federal government, or with people in the state legislatures. They just don’t want to root for the big-city team.