Teachout: Cuomo thinks small on infrastructure

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Zephyr Teachout. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
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Zephyr Teachout, the memorably named Fordham law professor and former Howard Dean aide who’s attempting to mount a primary challenge to Andrew Cuomo, thinks the governor is bad for transit.

“He uses the M.T.A. as an A.T.M.,” she told Capital in a phone interview Tuesday, referring to the governor’s diversions of M.T.A.-dedicated money for other purposes. “Another disaster or, for that matter, economic slowdown and the M.T.A. would be in real trouble.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which the governor controls, runs the city’s subways and buses, several of its bridges and tunnels, and the Metro-North and Long Island railroads.

The M.T.A. has had a rough decade. 

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It took a hammering in the recession, thanks to its reliance on economically sensitive taxes. Superstorm Sandy sent deluges of brackish water into its under-river tunnels, corroding equipment and delaying its post-September 11 security regime. The agency has withstood leadership churn and derailments, including one in the Bronx near Spuyten Duyvil that killed four passengers.

Cuomo, who identifies as a car guy, says he’s concerned. In May, he recommended the M.T.A. create a “reinvention commission” to address the climate and demographic challenges of the 21st century. The M.T.A. duly created a roster of transit-world stars and hosted its first meeting on Wednesday.

Just politics, says Teachout. 

“I suspect that it’s more of a reinvention commission for the reinvention of Cuomo’s reputation in terms of actually caring about resiliency and infrastructure,” said Teachout, a Fort Greene resident and Q train rider.

("I love the Q, and I love the Q because of that magical moment every morning—I live in Fort Greene and work in Manhattan—when you emerge out of the subway and take the bridge over. And I love it.")

The governor's campaign had no comment.

Teachout, who only emerged recently as a possible Cuomo challenger, when she attempted to win the nomination of the Working Families Party, said she hadn't yet put together a detailed infrastructure agenda. But she describes a 2011 white paper put out by the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute as “quite influential” on her thinking.

That paper, called “Building the Future,” makes an economic development case for investment in the M.T.A., arguing that if New York State were to spend more on mass transit and to direct more of its spending to businesses in New York and thereby pursue a “transit-related manufacturing strategy,” it could create a lot of “good, middle class jobs.”

Zephyr would find at least some of that money by rebalancing what she described as an “upside down tax code" that favors the rich, and by closing tax loopholes, like the one awarded to Madison Square Garden that the Independent Budget Office recently said would be worth $54 million a year by 2015. 

“Right now, most people who looked at that don’t think the tax exemption is worth it, but it makes sense if you look at Cuomo’s campaign contributions,” she said. (The Garden's owners have donated generously to Cuomo's campaign.)

Teachout is less than fully formed when it comes to some of the specific transit controversies of the moment. 

Asked what she thinks of Sam Schwartz’s borough-friendly take on congestion pricing, she said only broadly that she favors “local experimentation,” but thinks “the state has its own obligations to invest in the M.T.A. separately.”

She wouldn’t comment on the Port Authority "bridgegate" debacle and what, if anything, can be done to depoliticize the bistate agency controlled by Governors Cuomo and Christie.

But she did say that, generally speaking, she thinks New York needs to be more responsible and more ambitious when it comes to infrastructure.

"There’s this basic obligation I feel as governor that I would have to protecting people from the dangers of fragile and aging infrastructure," she said.

As far as the subways are concerned, Teachout said "our standards are too low."

“When the subway system works well, we should actually be saying, 'We don’t want it to be working at good 1990s levels,'" she said. "We want to be figuring out how expand out and how to build mass transit that connects to everybody. And what I see is that, I love mass transit, I use it all the time and I just think there’s many more opportunities to dream bigger in terms of what we can do.”