So was born the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose enormous portfolio includes not only the subway system, but also two commuter railroads that extend to Long Island and Connecticut, and nine bridges and tunnels across the city’s five boroughs.
But the powerful agency that was created has ended up being used by state leaders both to wield enormous influence over the region’s transportation system, and to avoid blame and responsibility when things go wrong.
As subway service deteriorates, with delays soaring, riders could be forgiven for being frustrated in trying to find someone to hold accountable.
In many ways, it is the structure of the authority, formed in the political battles of a half-century ago, that has given rise to the current problems.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, sought to put the current crisis in context, saying it has been decades in the making.
“The fundamental problem with the city subway system is that it is way over capacity,” he said. “It is extremely outdated, and now it’s crumbling. It’s the same thing you see with La Guardia Airport and J.F.K. Airport and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. All of our infrastructure is 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 years old, 100 years old, and it hasn’t been maintained.”
He added: “‘Well, why didn’t you maintain it?’ Well, because it cost a lot of money, and it’s not glamorous for politicians to spend money on it. The first thing to overlook is maintenance, so ultimately it catches up to you.”
Mr. Cuomo said he had ambitious plans for the subways. “I have invested more in the M.T.A. than any governor in the history of the state of New York,” he said. “We have the largest capital plan ever. So we have the funding for the long-term fixes, and we’re doing it. We just need a bridge to get from here to there.’’
While Mr. Cuomo said he was doing all he could to fix the problems, he also said there were limits to what was possible.
“I have representation on the board,” he said. “The City of New York has representation on the board. So does Suffolk, Nassau, Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, other counties.”
Critics, however, note that Mr. Cuomo has already had six years in office to address the region’s transit woes. And while the governor committed about $8 billion to the transportation authority’s $29.5 billion capital improvement plan, he has not specified how the state will fully finance its share.
Many riders who complain about having to spend money on such lousy service may not be aware of a basic truth: Their subway fares do not come close to paying the cost of running the system, much less modernizing and expanding it.
That is as true today as it was in 1968, when Rockefeller succeeded in taking control of the last vital piece of the region’s transportation apparatus: the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which had built up a large trove of surplus cash. The agency’s ample coffers gave Rockefeller the upper hand in taking over the subway system from the city.
The state had already taken control of the bankrupt Long Island Rail Road and was working to take over the troubled Metro-North system. One man stood in the way of Rockefeller’s complete control: Moses, who was by then a lion in winter, but one who still had some bite left in him.
He derided the plan as “grotesque” and “absurd.” Mayor John V. Lindsay, though he knew that the city’s subway could not address its needs through self-financing, also opposed the takeover.
But Rockefeller, with his own infrastructure visionary by his side, in Ronan, prevailed, and on March 1, 1968, the M.T.A. was established.
So great was Ronan’s influence on the region’s transportation system that it was referred to at the time as the “Wholly Ronan Empire.”
He died in 2014 at the age of 101. But a few years before his death, he met Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, for lunch at the exclusive Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Fla.
“He was as sharp as a 40-year-old,” Mr. Moss said.
Mr. Moss said the creation of the M.T.A. was revolutionary at the time — public transit would be tied to the revenue of cars and trucks crossing bridges and tunnels.
“It was a national breakthrough,” he said. Even today, with bridge traffic on the rise, the tolls generate billions of dollars to subsidize public transportation.
The question then became how to distribute that money.
“The deal Lindsay made was flawed,” Mr. Moss said. He said the board had come to be dominated by interests outside the city, and over the years, according to critics, politicians representing Long Island and Westchester County have gotten an outsize piece of the pie.
Mr. Moss also said that when the state took over the Long Island Rail Road, it could have taken another step that might have solved one of the most intractable problems in the city’s infrastructure network.
“It was a grave mistake not to buy Penn Station,” he said.
While Mr. Moss said the city should have more influence over the transportation authority, he scoffed at the idea of giving it back control over the subways.
“The mayor can’t get rid of 80 horses in Central Park,” he said, referring to the debate over the city’s horse-drawn carriage industry. “You think he can handle six million subway riders?”
Philip Plotch, an assistant professor at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, who is writing a book about the Second Avenue subway, agreed that giving control of the subway back to the city was a nonstarter.
But he did think there were some ways that the city might be able to exert more pressure.
“It would certainly make sense if the M.T.A. board was more proportional based on population,” he said.
Mr. Moss, on the other hand, sees the main flaw in the byzantine structure of the agency — with each of the different commuter rails and the subway operating its own fief — adding to the costs of procurement and slowing the pace of reform.
“Everyone wins when you don’t know who is in charge,” Mr. Moss said. “Everyone but the rider.”
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