Plan for more cops squeezes subways for cash

Dinowitz laments:

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More police are coming to New York City’s subway system as early as this month, designed to help crack down on fare beaters and other issues the Metropolitan Transportation Authority says is costing it money (and reputation).

But not everyone — especially those with a vote in the matter, like Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz — are keen on the mass transit law enforcement expansion.

The MTA board approved a plan late last month hiring 500 new transit police officers to patrol the subway system at a cost of $249 million over four years. That’s a lot of money to people like Dinowitz, who believes every single spare penny should be invested in much-needed upgrades to the aging train system.

Dinowitz expressed those views during a Dec. 12 rally alongside other members of the Assembly as well as with members of transportation advocacy groups like Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign and TransitCenter. Dinowitz used the rally as an opportunity to remind state officials they must be careful when treating the MTA as a piggy bank, especially since the Bronx lawmaker led efforts to prevent such raids against an already thin MTA budget more than a year ago.

Keeping MTA money where it belongs

Dinowitz introduced his “lockbox” bill in 2018 with then Brooklyn state Sen. Marty Golden, who would later lose his seat to Democrat Andrew Gounardes. That bill, according to Dinowitz, is designed to prevent such raids from taking place. It became law more than a year ago after it was signed by the governor.

“One of the galvanizing moments that crystallized the need for this bill to the public was when the MTA transferred $4.9 million to three upstate ski centers” just before the start of what was then described as the “Summer of Hell” in 2017, Dinowitz said. The MTA owed the money to the state, and the transit authority was directed by the governor’s office to make its check out to the Olympic Regional Development Authority, according to published reports, which had suffered some financial problems after a warmer-than-expected winter.

“The law is intended to prevent the executive branch from unilaterally diverting funds away from transit systems, like the MTA, who should need that money to improve service,” Dinowitz said.

That 2017 “Summer of Hell” was fueled primarily by track closures at Penn Station to allow for extensive repairs and renovations. That ultimately jammed the station and the three commuter rail lines it serves: New Jersey Transit, the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak.

The track closures created service ripples felt through the rest of the city, ultimately snarling subway lines as aging and damaged infrastructure caught up with the MTA.

Yet, ski resorts weren’t the only recipients of MTA money outside of its mass transit system. In 2015, Gothamist reported Gov. Cuomo had diverted $20 million from the agency’s operating budget and used it to pay off MTA-related debt. In fact, Cuomo had done so every year since taking office in 2011, moving more than $270 million away from the operating budget through 2015.

Dinowitz’s lockbox law prevents funds from being moved in such a way without the governor first earning the consent of state lawmakers. The bill also requires state officials to present a “diversion impact statement” laying out the effects of the moved funds.

Under lock and key

While using MTA funds to hire more police may not be a direct violation of the law, Dinowitz said, it certainly isn’t in the “spirit” of what his measure intended. That $249 million could be better spent improving transit service for riders not only in the sections of the Bronx he represents, but throughout the rest of the city.

“The MTA’s budget should be safeguarded for transit service, for buses, subways, commuter rail, Access-A-Ride, express buses,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director at Riders Alliance. “We felt that if the governor wants new police, he should find some other way to do that.”

Cuomo’s transit police plan would cost nearly $125,000 per officer each year — money Pearlstein says can be better spent.

“If the governor thinks that the MTA needs an infusion of cash for a police force that reports to him, what we’re saying is there are eight-and-a-half million people every day who depend on MTA services directly,” Pearlstein said. “Those folks need a leg up. If he’s investing for that purpose, he should invest in riders as well.”

Trains are currently patrolled by the New York Police Department’s transit bureau, created in the late 1990s after the MTA merged its transit police with the NYPD.

“Expanding the MTA police into our subway system doesn’t really make sense to me,” Dinowitz said. “The way this should be done is by working with the NYPD and finding new funding to support whatever increased police presence is necessary to keep our transit system safe for riders and workers.”

The governor’s efforts appear to be focused primarily on enforcing fares. Evading the $2.75 per ride has become too common of a practice for the MTA, which says it costs them $50 million every year — less than how much it would cost to introduce 500 new officers into the transit system.

Some critics of fare evasion enforcement say it’s unfairly targeting poor people who struggle to come up with fares, but still depend on subways and buses.  Dinowitz believes programs like the MTA’s Fair Fares initiative could help curb some of that evasion without the need for more police, by allowing tens of thousands of straphangers living at or below the poverty line to qualify for half-price swipes for subway and local bus rides.

“Given how low crime is in the subway already, we don’t believe that a 15 percent bump in policing — which is what these 500 police officers represent —will make a dent,” Pearlstein said. “Whereas we know that 15 percent more service — like we could have had midday or weekends on the subway — that would make a difference.

“You would have millions of people who would be waiting a few minutes less for their trains. That adds up rapidly.”

The state continues to look for new ways to fund the billions of dollars needed to keep mass transit operational in the city, including a plan to start levying congestion fees to cars traveling into lower Manhattan. Dinowitz couldn’t say whether the increase of policing in the subway was necessarily warranted, but the longtime lawmaker certainly wants to see MTA money spent more on service, especially as his district faces some service cuts in the coming year, especially when it comes to express buses.

“It’s a little hard,” Dinowitz said, “to look my constituents in the eyes and explain how we just approved congestion pricing — largely a result of the MTA telling everyone that doing so would mean vastly improved buses and subways — while they are being told to expect less transit service.”

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