Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Getting Cuomo to do the right thing

Transit and livable streets advocates are rightly frustrated with the way Andrew Cuomo has dealt with our issues as governor. He has not been an anti-transit ideologue like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and he has not championed drivers above everyone else like Bill Thompson or Carl Paladino. He is simply uninterested in transit. He has no personal use for it, and he does not see transit victories as particularly helpful or necessary in his career.

As a result, Cuomo has abandoned transit issues like the budget lockbox and the Tappan Zee BRT when it seemed they would get in the way of another goal like passing a popular revenue plan or reconstructing an aging bridge. He has prevaricated on issues like congestion pricing and the borough taxi bill when he feared they would anger an important constituency. He has failed to take the initiative on issues like Chris Christie's reallocation of Port Authority funds from transit to roads. And he has neglected transit champions like Chris Ward and Jay Walder, driving them out and replacing them with managers chosen for their loyalty to him rather than their commitment to making transit work.

This is incredibly frustrating, especially because we do not have very much of the kind of power that can command Cuomo's respect. The Occupy movement aroused so much sympathy among the mainstream media that Cuomo felt comfortable defying the New York Post editorial board and abandoning their absurd construal of "no new taxes." The Occupiers created space for Cuomo to advance his career by doing the right thing. They did this by camping out for months, playing drums and having lots of really long meetings, but the effect of all that was to get out the message about income inequality and taxation.

Let's look at another example of inequality. There's an argument to be made that it's unfair to maintain the "free" bridges with sales and income tax dollars while transit riders have to pay more and more for crappier service. Tolling the bridges would remedy some of that inequality (and bring in riders for the transit services). It's the right thing to do.

If Cuomo wanted to take a stand on bridge tolls, he would have to face the angry right-wing Democrats from the outer outer boroughs and the suburbs, and maybe even a few myopic liberals who are swayed by bogus arguments about regressive taxes and totalitarianism. He won't do the right thing without the kind of political cover that the Occupiers provided.

Are transit advocates capable of harnessing that kind of power? And if we're not, maybe we should be using a different strategy?

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