Van Bramer: Give NYC more say over MTA affairs


Queens council representative Jimmy Van Bramer wants more city control over its subways and buses.

One of the real political oddities that arose out of the 1968 creation of the MTA concerns control. Since the MTA is a state agency, Albany controls the mechanism that run a subway system operated entirely within New York City. Gov. Andrew Cuomo gets to appoint the people in charge of both day-to-day operations and the agency’s oversight board. The city nominally controls four out of 17 board seats, but even those require state sign-off (and as you can imagine, the frosty relationship between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t inspired Cuomo to move on three mayoral suggestions). So when Cuomo spends years ignoring the MTA and then starts meddling with the wrong kinds of transit projects, city officials are right to grow weary of this setup.

Today, in Crain’s New York, City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer calls for more city control of the subways and buses. Van Bramer represents 7 train riders who recently held a town hall with MTA bigwigs over unreliable Flushing line service, and he walked away unimpressed. “New York City Transit President Ronnie Hakim had some good answers,” he writes, “but on many issues, she left us scratching our heads. Hakim didn’t seem to know much about cross-honoring MetroCards on the Long Island Rail Road when service is disrupted. One of her colleagues dismissed our claim that service is worse on Mondays after weekend track work, only to have riders cite specific delays and disruptions that the agency forgot.”

Meanwhile, Van Bramer runs through the litany of complaints: The MTA’s service metrics show decreasing reliability while capital construction projects take years and cost too much with little public accountability for delays and disruptions. The biggest projects, dollar-wise, are benefiting suburban LIRR commuters rather than NYC subway riders, and Cuomo’s budget shenanigans which force the MTA to take on more debt mean, as Van Bramer notes, “Albany is setting New Yorkers up for massive fare and toll increases down the line.”

Van Bramer offers up this solution:

The city has increased its commitment to funding MTA capital improvements to $2.5 billion. Contrast that with Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties, which each have a full vote on the MTA board yet don’t contribute a cent to MTA upgrades from their budgets.

The city deserves a bigger say. I’m calling on the state to increase the city’s representation on the authority’s board, and have sponsored a City Council resolution to this effect. The city, after all, stands to gain the most from improved service—or suffer the harshest consequences if the system is neglected. Now is the time. With the city’s future hanging in the balance, it makes no sense for Albany and the suburbs to call the shots for our subways and buses.

It’s almost there, but maybe not quite. More seats on the authority’s board doesn’t really get the city the control it needs, and there’s an 800-pound gorilla — or a $13 billion one, if you prefer — in the room. Someone has to fund this giant subway system, and it ain’t cheap. If the city wants control, it’s going to need to figure out how to sustain funding sources, and while the taxes and fees that fund transit are largely levied within New York City, they are assessed at the state level. Will Albany be willing to shift this revenue to city coffers without a fight? And how do we improve on the mistakes inherent in city control for the first seven decades of the subway system’s existence? What happens when fare policies are inherently local and politicians have to run on the backs of fare hikes?

The current set-up is messy, and it doesn’t help when the priorities of New York’s chief executive aren’t aligned with the transit needs of its largest city. But city control, while perhaps containing an element of common sense, may not be the simple fix we would want it to be. Ultimately, the city should have more of a say over its transit system and future, but how that control is implemented is up for debate.

Categories : MTA Politics

7 Responses to “Van Bramer: Give NYC more say over MTA affairs”

  1. Bolwerk says:

    I wonder if de Blasio feels like a sucker for just endorsing Cuomo against Teachout without getting jack in return. He has been punished for being such a good little lapdog many times over.

    • Uncle Moishy says:

      DiBlasio agreed to give MTA >$3B in capital funding and still can’t get 3 of his nominees to the MTA Board approved. He should consider hiring a new tactician in chief.

  2. Larry Littlefield says:

    I gave the solution right here: the City of New York should take over the bus and para-transit system that runs on its streets, leaving rail transit (which runs on separate rights of way) to the state-run MTA.


    It wouldn’t have cost the city much more, net, than it has already pledged to the capital plan, with the potential for cost savings to boot. (Though DeBlasio, like Cuomo, may have no intention of actually paying).

    This would give the City of New York responsibility for a form of transit hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers actually use, perhaps diverting attention from the handful of vanity projects that seem the sole focus of city transit policy.

    After doing so, SOME city politician SOMEWHERE should be willing to talk about all the excess waste and inefficiency on the commuter railroads, notably the LIRR, and how city subway riders are forced to cross-subsidize it to minimize the impact on suburbanites. Instead of all city politicians considering the LIRR profiteers part of the same mafia as themselves.

    • Jeff says:

      Paratransit is a boondoggle period, with the average trip costing tax payers more than $30 per ride.

      With yellow cabs losing business like no tomorrow, but due to require ADA access starting next year, the MTA should just cut a deal with the taxi industry to have them supply the rides and have the riders submit their expenses for repayment, and maybe use a limo/Uber/taxi tax to partially wubsidize this. That way cab drivers gain more business, disabled riders get their rides, paratransit vans get taken off the streets, MTA doesn’t have to manage yet another inefficiently run agency and taxpayers can save a buck or two.

      • SEAN says:

        I like it, but what is the real cost breakdown on such a move. As important as para transit is to it’s users, the cost structure can cripple a transit agency.

      • NYCT already does that for those that take recurring trips on Access-A-Ride. You sign up for the program then pay $27.50 for a pre-paid debit card loaded with enough money for 10 cab fares for the trip you’d take. The only problem is accessible taxis can still be hard to come by…though the rules staring next year should make that easier.

  3. Since one of the main responsibilities of the MTA Board is to exert fiduciary oversight over the MTA, the seats on the board will and always will be apportioned according to who’s floating the money, not according to where ridership’s the most and not according to where the assets themselves lie, and there’s little chance that will ever change. Since NYS (and the NYS-approved dedicated taxes) finance the bulk of the MTA’s operating assistance and capital funding, the State will keep control of the bulk of the seats on the MTA Board until that changes.

    Anyways, I think the concern over the seats on the MTA Board is way overblown. They’ll approve just about anything that’s put in front of them, and half of them seem to sit there half-asleep and not say anything anyways. I think Commissioner Trottenberg’s objection to the old MTA Headquarters Lease in March was the first time they’ve actually deferred or rejected a vote in several years (and they still passed it anyways at this past month’s meeting, despite them not really getting anywhere with the city’s concerns). The MTA Board is more of a formality than anything else.

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