Who Failed the C Train?

Out along the L-train tracks, running from Chelsea to Canarsie, small black boxes are sprouting on stubby metal poles. This is the future of the subway system: a computerized signaling network that will allow trains to run closer together.

Well, this might be the future. The state-of-the-art signal system—called CBTC in transit jargon, for Communications-Based Train Control—has been in the planning stages for twenty years and is currently in its fourth year of construction; its debut was recently pushed back to July. Installing CBTC on a single, simple line has cost more than $288 million.

If the future runs—someday—through Williamsburg, the subway’s past and present are in a dark tunnel beneath Chambers Street. And it is sodden and charred. This is the remains of the Sunday-afternoon fire that in three hours destroyed a signal relay room that had operated the A and C trains since the thirties.

Replacement parts will be scavenged and the signals rebuilt in five years—scratch that, in nine months. Yet however long it takes to restore “normal” elbow-to-eyeball flesh-pile service, and whoever caused the fire—a homeless person, a giant rat—what’s really broken can’t be fixed underground. It’s the link between Albany and City Hall.

On a frigid mid-November morning, George Pataki and Michael Bloomberg stood chatting at the center of another aging city transportation wonder, the Brooklyn Bridge. They were killing time before playing their roles in a publicity event, waiting to greet runners carrying the final “bid book” for the 2012 Olympics. Whenever the mayor spoke, he kept his head down and his eyes fixed on the bridge deck, forcing the governor, who is eight inches taller, to bend over and lean in to hear what Bloomberg was saying. The mayor and the governor profess respect and admiration for one another, but their body language told of a more complicated relationship: Bloomberg grudgingly needing Pataki’s help, Pataki pretending, uncomfortably, to care about Bloomberg.

The dynamic between the two men has always been odd, but lately it’s grown even more puzzling. When Pataki was up for reelection in 2002, Bloomberg held off proposing commuter- and property-tax increases until after the governor won a new term. With Bloomberg running this year, Pataki shows no interest in returning the favor. Bloomberg was looking for three big breaks from the new state budget—help with the city’s ballooning Medicaid expenses, real funding of city schools as ordered by a state court, and a boost in the MTA’s capital budget.

Bloomberg went oh-for-three. Pataki didn’t just stiff the city; he’s proposed a Medicaid formula that could cripple city hospitals, and told the city to kick in a large share of the court-mandated education money. The MTA five-year capital request? Pataki slashed it by $8.5 billion.

“No politician wants to cut a ribbon on a rebuilt toilet. That’s how the TA collapsed in the seventies,” says David Gunn.

Part of this is simply the annual budget farce. Pataki and Bloomberg will threaten dire repercussions if they don’t get what they want; Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno will stall; by July, both the state and the city will have staggered to new budget deals. Meanwhile, the acrid smell in the Chambers Street station will be a reminder that the sloppy budget process has real-world consequences. “Long-term capital projects suffer terribly because of the politics of the state budget,” says Richard Ravitch, who, as chairman of the MTA in the early eighties, helped rescue the subway system. Even back then, the MTA was making plans to computerize its signal system, but the rebuilding was repeatedly shelved in favor of emergency needs.

Modern equipment can burn, too, of course, but it’s more easily replaced. And much of the transit system’s core is antiquated. “The problem you have is that the least sexy stuff you do in this business is state-of-good-repair stuff,” says David Gunn, an MTA executive in the eighties who now runs Amtrak. “No politician wants to cut a ribbon on a rebuilt toilet, you know? That’s how the TA collapsed the first time, in the seventies. There was no attention paid to the physical condition of the system. But a new route or a new service—politicians love that.” And Pataki’s budget, while trimming money for a new Second Avenue train and an LIRR link to Grand Central, does include extending the 7 train from Times Square to Eleventh Avenue—a project paid for wholly by city dollars.

The morning of his state-budget speech, Pataki called Bloomberg to give him a quick synopsis of the bad news. Pataki, according to Bloomberg, said, “Look, I’m doing the best I can.” The mayor didn’t divulge his response. But it likely was as mild as everything the mayor has since said publicly.

Bloomberg is admirably adult, and he’s right that name-calling is a waste of time. Pataki is doing whatever it takes to keep his presidential fantasy alive, and if that means cutting taxes while the subway crumbles, well, no one voting in the Iowa caucuses cares about the subway part. The mayor’s failure, though, is his inability to find an effective substitute for public ranting. He could have used the rebuilding of downtown as a lever against Pataki, but largely ceded ground zero to the governor in favor of taking the lead role in the development of the far West Side.

Yet that trade-off has weakened Bloomberg’s hand even further. The state owns the stadium site, and the MTA, a state agency, controls the air rights above the rail yard where Bloomberg wants to build a stadium for the Olympics and the Jets. Making the deal happen would be easier if Pataki pressures the MTA to keep the fee low. That would further reduce the money available for repairing the existing transit system, of course. But Bloomberg would get his ballpark, and, according to the mayor’s theory, the West Side stadium would become a Vesuvius of tax revenue, spewing more than enough money to help keep the subways humming, pay the exploding civil-service pension tab, and water the flowers in Prospect Park.

There are four main risks that Bloomberg says could blow a hole in his new budget, forcing the mayor to make large reductions in services or labor. Three of those items—the Medicaid formula, the settlement of the school-funding lawsuit, and the MTA’s capital program—depend on changing Pataki’s mind or evading the governor’s schemes. Perhaps this is all a setup, with Bloomberg lowballing the estimates of what he expects from Albany so that in June, with his reelection campaign officially under way, he can pull a fiscal rabbit out of the hat and say he’s spared the city major cutbacks. But that presumes a level of political slickness Bloomberg claims to disdain. And last week the word the mayor kept using when he referred to the coming skirmish with Albany was hope: “Hopefully, they’ll come through.”

For a man whose business acumen and Republican ties are supposed to reap major benefits for the city, that’s pretty lame. For a mayor who wants to be reelected, it could prove downright dangerous.

Who Failed the C Train?