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Who really runs New York City's subway?

Who really runs New York City's subway?

Worsening crisis has brought question to forefront
Who really runs New York City's subway?
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio exits the F train in New York on July 23, 2017.
Photographer: Yana Paskova/The New York Times

NEW YORK — Millions of New Yorkers rely on the subway every day, but many have no idea who runs the vast system.

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The confusion over who is responsible for the subway has worked well for some politicians over the years, but the worsening subway crisis has brought the question to the forefront of New Yorkers’ minds.

Q: So, who runs the subway?

A: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority runs the subway, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo controls the authority. Cuomo appoints the MTA chairman, and the governor has taken a hands-on role in the agency’s operations, overseeing the opening of the Second Avenue subway in January and declaring a state of emergency for the subway in June.

Transit advocates have repeatedly urged subway riders to direct their fury at Cuomo, a Democrat who might be considering a presidential run in 2020. It appears to be working: Two recent polls showed Cuomo’s approval ratings slipping, in part because of his handling of the subway crisis.

Q: What is the mayor’s role then?

A: Mayors have historically taken different approaches when it comes to the subway. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had the city pay for a subway extension to the Far West Side of Manhattan that opened in 2015. Mayor Edward I. Koch famously rode the subways to ask “How’m I doin’?” and waged a public campaign against subway graffiti in the 1980s.

New York’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio, has received criticism for not regularly using the subway and for not taking a more active role in addressing the system’s needs. But he has recently started riding the subway more often and wants to use his position as a bully pulpit to speak on behalf of frustrated riders.

Q: What is the MTA board responsible for?

A: The authority’s board must approve fare and toll increases, service changes and a five-year capital improvement plan. And the agency doesn’t just run the subway: It also oversees city buses, two of the nation’s busiest commuter railroads — the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad — and several bridges, including the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The board typically has 17 voting members, including six members nominated by the governor; four recommended by the mayor; three delegates from Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties; and four suburban members from Orange, Dutchess, Rockland and Putnam counties who share one vote.

Q: What about the debate over who owns the subway?

A: Cuomo recently muddied the waters over who was responsible for the subway by saying that New York City technically owned the subway and was solely responsible for funding its capital needs. Lhota echoed the governor’s comments, pointing to a 1981 law that was crafted to help the city during a fiscal crisis. Lhota said that the state assumed the burden of capital costs for the system, but that the arrangement was not meant to be permanent.

The mayor’s office disputed Cuomo’s and Lhota’s reading of the law and argued that their comments were a distraction when the two leaders should be focused on fixing the subway.

Q: Why is the state in control? Shouldn’t the mayor run the subway that the city relies on?

A: It’s a long, complicated story, involving the master builder Robert Moses, a power grab by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and pressure to keep the subway fare at 20 cents. In 1968, the state took over the subway under the newly-created Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Officials hoped that the tolls on bridges and tunnels could help subsidize the expensive costs of the subway.

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