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Tunnel Vision

Here's Where NYC's Mayoral Candidates Stand on the City's Broken Subway

Everyone agrees it's fucked but no one can agree on how to fix it.

John Surico

John Surico

Photo by Mario Tama via Getty

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

There's a mayoral election in New York City on Tuesday, but you'd be forgiven for not knowing about it. In September's party primaries, current mayor Bill de Blasio, who is expected to easily skirt to re-election, won 74.6 percent of the vote, yet only 326,361 people—or barely 4 percent of the city's total population—actually voted for him. In early October, two-thirds of New Yorkers surveyed in a Quinnipiac University poll said they didn't really know much about his Republican opponent, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis. And even Governor Andrew Cuomo, who picks fights with de Blasio just for fun, shrugged off the race's relevance. "I don't think anyone should take anything for granted in an election — but I don't think the mayor should be losing sleep about this election," Cuomo told reporters in September.

Yet while public cognizance may seem at a low point right now, a host of policies that these politicians represent are still on the ballot. And for the first time in a while, that includes the future of the city's subway system, which Cuomo called a "state of emergency" for in June. Even if the mayor has little say over the city's subways, weekly meltdowns and looming shutdowns have forced the nascent issue into the spotlight, with each candidate offering different prescriptions for transit ills to address riders' frustrations.

So before New Yorkers head to the polls on November 7, it pays to know what those fixes are.

BILL DE BLASIO (DEMOCRAT)

Until the subway system made headlines this past summer, the current mayor didn't concern himself much with New York's underground. Unlike Michael Bloomberg, the city's last mayor who made his subway rides a daily photo op, de Blasio has only recently started appearing on the crammed trains, long opting for an SUV ride to his gym, and then City Hall, each morning. (Which tabloids just love.) He appeared alongside Cuomo when the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway opened in January, but didn't speak at the inaugural event.

When problems began to sizzle last May, de Blasio at first shifted blame to the state. "The M.T.A. [Metropolitan Transit Authority] is run by the State of New York, not the City of New York," he said in an interview then. (The mayor recommends four appointments to the MTA's board; the governor names six, including the chairman.) When asked to pledge more from the city's coffers for the Subway Action Plan—the MTA's short- and long-term blueprint for getting the system back up to speed—de Blasio balked, repeatedly stating (which he still does) that the city contributed $2.5 billion to the MTA's latest five-year capital plan, the most in city history.

However, as the transit controversy continues to eat up airtime, de Blasio has grown increasingly vocal on proposed solutions for New York's ailing subway system, particularly in regards to the MTA's funding. The incumbent's coup de grace is what he's labeled as a "millionaire's tax," essentially a .5 percent increase in income taxes on New Yorkers who make more than $500,000 and couples who earn over a million. According to his campaign website, the tax would raise over $800 million each year, for both "MTA improvements" and subsidized MetroCards for 800,000 low-income New Yorkers—an idea known as Fair Fares.

Pissing off a lot of progressives citywide—especially those who subscribe to the New York Times editorial page—de Blasio has been staunchly opposed to Cuomo's congestion pricing idea, calling it a 'regressive tax' that would fall upon low-income New Yorkers. Appearing alongside Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who endorsed de Blasio's proposal after a delayed, crammed ride on the A train last Monday morning, the mayor said his "millionaire's tax" was "another way of responding to the inequality that plagues our society."

NICOLE MALLIOTAKIS (REPUBLICAN)

"What's it like riding the subway under Bill de Blasio?" Nicole Malliotakis asked in a campaign ad, riding on what appears to be a designed subway set, before the lights cut out. "A lot like this... a nightmare."

The irony of the video, critics quickly pointed out, is that de Blasio, as mentioned, has little sway over the subway's day-to-day service, and Malliotakis, who represents parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn in the New York State Assembly, should know that. Yet, in perhaps an ode to New Yorkers' awareness of subway power politics—or lack thereof—the Republican candidate has tried to turn the subway's shittiness into a wedge issue. Even if, in both the ad and on the campaign trail, her solutions are scant.

On her campaign website, Malliotakis calls for the MTA to fully fund an upgraded signal system, which has been cited as a main cause of the system's woes. (Although this is something that the MTA is already doing, albeit incredibly slowly.) She also says that, "unlike Bill de Blasio," she'll work with Cuomo to find new sources of revenue for upgrades, and not appoint any MTA board members who increase tolls or fares.

When de Blasio announced his millionaire's tax proposal in August, Malliotakis responded on Twitter, "Taxpayers, hold onto your wallets!" Malliotakis later said Cuomo's congestion pricing plan "in broad terms, is something that needs to be looked at," but had reservations over tolls, representing a borough that has plenty of them.

BO DIETL (INDEPENDENT)

When all's said and done, Bo Dietl will best be remembered as the guy who called de Blasio "Big Bird" on the 2017 campaign trail and—contrary to his own statements beforehand—couldn't help himself from acting like 'Wild Man Bo' at the mayoral debates. Dietl, who's probably most recognizable for his role pointing a gun at Henry Hill's face in "Good Fellas," fits comfortably as the Trump of the city's mayoral race—equal parts buffoon and bull.

Yet, in terms of detail, the retired NYPD detective's transit plan online is surprisingly thorough, outlining a "three-point plan" to fix the subways. The first proposal is to freeze all expansions and capital spending until every subway line has a 95% on-time rate during normal operations. The second is to establish a sustainable stream of funding for the subway system; Bo's suggestions include tinkering with existing sales and state taxes, a non-resident (or "pied-a-terre") property tax, and a restored Commuter Transportation Tax. And lastly, Dietl proposes using 100-year "green" revenue bonds for any further subway expansions.

But it wouldn't be Bo Dietl if his comments on transit policy didn't include a shred of the absurd. At the first mayoral debate, when de Blasio refused to say he'd give Cuomo the $400 million for emergency repairs that the MTA has asked for, Dietl mimicked de Blasio, harboring his strong Queens accent. "Not my yob, not my yob," he said, seemingly out of breath from shouting each answer. "It is his job right now."

SAL ALBANESE (REFORM)


Albanese, a third-time mayoral candidate from Brooklyn, scored second in the Democratic primary with 15 percent of the vote to de Blasio's nearly 75. Since then, Albanese has decided to stay in the race, accepting the Reform Party's nomination. (Although he has not been able to participate in any general election debate.)

Albanese is the sole candidate to support the MoveNY congestion pricing plan, which would set bridge and tunnel tolls (some of which are currently free) for those entering the busiest parts of New York at $5.76 for EZ-Pass users, or $8.50 with cash. Supporters say the plan, which the Cuomo-convened "Fix NYC" panel is currently considering, would raise billions of dollars for infrastructure. In addition, Albanese has called for the expansion of mass transit options, and dedicating .3 percent of the already-existing personal income tax revenue to subways.

MIKE TOLKIN (SMART CITIES)

Tolkin's longshot campaign for City Hall largely came to an end when he lost the Democratic primary in September, but the Millennial—who really played up his young, tech-savvy bona fides throughout his campaign's short existence—has kept on, labeling his candidacy as the self-created "Smart Cities" line on the ballot. Tolkin has the most outside-the-box plan for transit, with ideas like implementing "SkyBuses" (or "drone-based transit") to hasten transit, and also robotic horses. His proposed $25 billion capital plan for a "mass transit overhaul" went largely unreleased, although snippets included mentions of private-public partnerships, redesigned trains and stations, and modernized data and signal systems.

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