May
07

Cuomo dismissive, Trottenberg non-committal on Johnson’s NYC transit takeover plan

By · Published in 2019

Speaker Corey Johnson laid out the case for municipal control of transit in March.

It’s been a little over two months since Corey Johnson unveiled his sweeping plan for city control of the subways and buses, and I want to revisit Johnson’s ideas and the reaction to his plan. The intervening weeks have been busy ones for transit in New York City, first with congestion pricing and Cuomo’s ramming his quasi-reform plan through Albany and recently with L train not-a-shutdown work and recent fare hikes. It is of course never a quiet day for transit news in New York City, but Johnson’s proposal simmers in the background, gaining traction in wonkish circles and awaiting his eventual mayoral campaign.

Yet, despite the prominence of the plan and the audacity of it, neither the mayor nor the governor have latched onto the idea. Now, I don’t expect the city to gain control of its transit network without a protracted negotiation with the state, and Bill de Blasio isn’t in a position to call for city control of transit at a time when the governor is begrudgingly owning leading the way out of the MTA’s current crisis. But their silence speaks loudly. Cuomo, as far as I can tell, addressed the plan once in an interview with the obsequious Alan Chartock on Northeast Public Radio’s WAMC, and the Mayor has said next to nothing.

Meanwhile, shortly after the City Council Speaker unveiled his proposal, he joined me on my podcast to discuss his thinking and the whys and wherefores of it all, and a few days later, Polly Trottenberg, DOT Commissioner and MTA Board member, joined Ben Max for an appearance on Gotham Gazette’s What’s the [Data] Point? podcast. It’s worth delving into their various responses to see how the governor in Albany, the City Council Speaker, and the long-serving DOT Commissioner view their various roles in shaping the region’s transportation landscape.

On Chartock’s roundtable, Cuomo reacts dismissively

Let’s start with Cuomo. He’s the one currently in charge of the MTA, and even if he’s too busy fighting with the guy he brought into clean up the mess, the mess is his. On the one hand, you may think Cuomo would latch onto Johnson’s proposal as a way to rid himself of a pesky political liability, but this is Andrew M. Cuomo we’re talking about. During his only public comments on the Speaker’s proposal, delivered during a media segment with his good buddy Alan Chartock, Cuomo was dismissive. You can listen here, and the exchange follows:

Chartock: I was fascinated this morning when I read the New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has a plan to have the city take charge of the subways. Now let’s face it. Corey Johnson has risen to be Speaker of the City Council. He’s term-limited. I’m sure he’d love to be mayor and so now he’s saying the mayor should be that guy on the subway. So that’s not surprising I suppose. And it would take away control of the subways from the MTA and give it to the mayor. What do you think?

Cuomo: First of all, The New York Times loves to write stories; they’re sometimes loose with the facts. (Chartock chuckles.) New York City owns the subway system today; they lease it to the MTA. The lease can be canceled on one year’s notice. Just cancel the lease. You don’t have to take it over; you own it. Just cancel the MTA lease. All the hiring is done through the New York City civil service system. Why hasn’t a mayor taken it over? There are about 10 billion reasons, and that’s the 10 billion dollars the state gives to the MTA, primarily New York City Transit Authority, between operating and capital. If New York City took it over, they take it over. They don’t get the 10 billion in state funding.

Chartock: Well, why won’t they? They’ll say “Come on, governor. It’s not your money. It’s the taxpayer’s money. So give us the ten billion, and we’ll have the mayor run this thing, just like we do on education.”

Cuomo: No, you own it. It’s yours, you pay for it. God less you. (Chartock chuckles again.) Look, we fund Buffalo transit, Rochester transit, Albany transit. We don’t subsidize a local transit system or a regional transit system anywhere in this state to the tune of what we do with New York City because it’s the MTA and the state has participation. If you want to own, it’s yours. God Bless America.

Chartock: Well let me just pursue that, if I may sir, a little bit. Let me say, you have spoken in the past about the advantage of some sole responsible agent for these things and then you hold them responsible. New York City, for example, you gave that power to the mayor to fix the education system and you took that power away from the Board of Education that was moribund and everything else. Why wouldn’t that work here?

Cuomo: Yes, but New York City education is primarily funded by New York City. The state provides assistance the way they do with every local school district but it’s primarily funded by New York City. You want to take over the city subway system and you want to pay for the New York City subway system, God bless you. You want the state to take it over, and by the way, the state pays the lion’s share of the funding. Last capital plan, we paid $8 billion, the city paid $2 billion, because it’s a state agency. But if you want to take it over and you want to pay, that’s an option. And by the way, you don’t need state approval. Just call up the MTA today and say,” we’re canceling the lease, here’s your one-year notice.” (Chartock chuckles.) And then pay the bill.

Cuomo’s derision nearly speaks for itself, and it’s worse when you hear the half-informed contempt in his voice drip trough the audio. Johnson’s proposal discusses ways to reallocate the funds, ways to ensure regional transit is supported and ways to remove Albany from the equation. Cuomo doesn’t engage with the substance, and it’s not clear he even read the report before parrying with Chartock. I found this reaction quite unsatisfying and almost juvenile. Cuomo is in a position to be governor of New York state for as long as he wants, and it would behoove him to understand why local control of transit would be best for the state, best for the city and best for him.

Johnson discusses the philosophy behind his plan

Needless to say, during our conversation about his plan, Corey Johnson had more thoughtful things to say than the governor did in response. Calling for the buses or subways to come back under city control isn’t a new idea, and it’s one that sort of failed the first time around. So I wanted to understand from Johnson why this plan and why now. He spoke at length, as both a transit rider and policy leader, on the need to rethink transit governance:

This is the first time that an elected official with some level of prominence has decided not just to talk about it in a soundbite-like way, a one-off, two-off way, but to actually present a real plan that could be dissected, that could be modified, that could be added to…. We are in a crisis, and the crisis that we’re in stems from years of disinvestment, years of bad management, and also a lack of creativity on figuring out how to have a 22nd century mass transit system in New York City.

The reason why New York’s economy has grown decade after decade after decade is because of mass transit, is because of our subways and buses. If we want to continue to grow, if we want to be a center for economic activity and a lifeblood for the entire region, we need a mass transit system that works, and the current structure at the MTA is a system that was set up to deflect accountability.

We’re saying is there’s a better way to do this. There’s not just a better way to do it because of the day-to-day issues that riders face; there’s a better way to do it to actually be able to grow the system and expand the system, be creative with the system and do all sorts of things that other cities in Europe and around the United States have been able to do.

Johnson’s plan isn’t a simple cancellation of the lease, as much as Cuomo would like to rid himself of a problem that way. Rather, it involves rethinking governance to add a mobility czar in charge of subways, buses and streets, and then integrate planning and leadership across all of the ways New Yorkers use to travel around the city. It is not, Johnson said, “just looking at these things in their own silos, but actually saying how do you integrate subways and buses and bikes and pedestrians and safe and livable streets in a way that works for the entire city in a master plan-like way, not piecemeal, not one-off.”

No governor is going to choose New York City over the rest of the state. It’s not going to happen. But every mayor is going to have to ensure that the subways and buses run properly.

I don’t want to get too into the weeds on Johnson’s statements to me. After all, you can listen to the full interview, but I do want to look at Johnson’s approach and his reaction to the governor’s statements. In our discussions, the City Council Speaker mentioned Chicago and Los Angeles as examples of areas where mayoral control has led to more holistic planning, and he spoke about Andy Byford’s experiences in London, Sydney and Toronto. “We’re not creating something that no one’s ever done before, he said. “We’re modeling this idea off of what we’ve seen work in other places where you can have greater accountability, the flexibility to try new things, do new things, expand service.”

And what, I asked him, of Gov. Cuomo. Is this about him? After a long, pregnant pause, Johnson spoke. “Even if our current governor was not the governor,” he said. “I still think this would be the right proposal and right plan, and he is not the first governor that has been in charge of the MTA where things have not gone well for the public. Governor Pataki did all sorts of irresponsible things as it related to diverting MTA funding and not investing in the system in a way that was meaningful. So it’s not really about any governor, it’s not really about any mayor, it’s just about setting up a system that works for whoever the governor is and whoever the mayor is. No governor is going to choose New York City over the rest of the state. It’s not going to happen. But every mayor is going to have to ensure that the subways and buses run properly.”

I think about those last few sentences frequently as it seems to get to the crux of Johnson’s argument for local control. The governor won’t side with New York City for political reasons, but the mayor has to answer for local concerns. Johnson elaborated a bit when I pushed him more on Cuomo’s dismissive reaction:

I want to work with the governor, and the way to get things done in a way that benefits the 8.6 million people who live in New York City is to not have a public tit for tat with the governor.

New York City is a city that gives more to the state than we get back. And so there is a symbiotic relationship that exists between New York City and the state. The state funds plenty of programs that they don’t have direct authority and control over and you could work in safety valves where if things were not going well under this new authority, the state could intervene and take control in an emergency, if you had a fiscal crisis again, if you had a mayor that wasn’t doing well and it was screwing up the regional economy…To actually talk about those things, you actually have to have a substantive, thoughtful, comprehensive granular conversation on the details of it.

…When he’s gone, when we have a different governor and a different mayor and when the good times are here and when the bad times come, the system is set up to deflect accountability, to put a lid on creativity, to have any talk about expansion, to have accountability on a day-to-day basis, and that is not a good thing. So it has to be de-personalized. It can’t be about Andrew Cuomo, it can’t be about Bill de Blasio, it can’t be about Corey Johnson. It has to be about what is best for the governance and accountability for the future of New York City 20 years from now, 50 years from now, a century from now. That’s the type of planning that we need to do. That’s the planning that government typically doesn’t do. We do it on electoral cycles, every four years, and that’s what we need to move away from.

At the least, Corey Johnson is thinking on a far deeper level about the theoretical models for control and growth while Gov. Cuomo hasn’t shown the willingness to engage yet. Hopefully, he can get there. But there is a third party involved in this discussion, and to that end, let’s turn to Polly Trottenberg’s comments.

A non-committal response from the NYC DOT Commissioner (and MTA Board Member)

Polly Trottenberg spoke of the city’s role with regards to the MTA in a recent Gotham Gazette interview.

Shortly after I interviewed Corey Johnson, Polly Trottenberg made her appearance on Gotham Gazette’s What’s the [Data] Point? podcast, and the conversation was a good one. I’ve been critical of Trottenberg’s boss for dragging his — and the city’s — feet on street space prioritization, and I wonder if a stronger DOT commissioner could force the mayor’s hand more frequently. But Trottenberg hit the right notes.

“We’re certainly looking to reduce auto usage in the city and particularly to provide alternatives,” she said in response to a question about the city’s current plan. “Providing alternatives is what we very much focused on. If you want to get people out of their cars, you have to have good subway service, you have to have good bus service, you have to have safe protected bike lanes. What we see in New York is that when there’s good bus and subway service, people get out of their cars. When the MTA added those few subway stops on Second Avenue, we saw a real drop in traffic on the Upper East Side When you provide the alternatives people take them.”

Trottenberg’s words ring true: When the city makes alternatives available, people use them. After all, car owners are in the minority in New York and those who feel they have to drive are more than willing to leave their cars at home as soon as a better alternative comes around. But, as Trottenberg noted, “we have stopped growing out our subway system.”

She set an aggressive goal of three new stations per year. “Given the growth and economic dynamist of New York City, we should be opening three subway stops every year,” she said. “That’s the pace, if not faster. That’s how London and Paris and other big global cities are growing out their systems.”

Why New York isn’t building subway stations at that pace is the big question. We know work costs too much; we know work takes too long; we also know there isn’t an impetus from Albany to address these problems. So what then does Trottenberg, a high-ranking city official in an administration that hasn’t exactly embraced Johnson’s call, think of the Speaker’s plan for city control of transit? She danced around the question in her podcast appearance:

They’re certainly ambitious…We are a city that’s very consultive. We have our local elected officials, we have our state elected officals, and lots of folks get interested in these projects…Transportation projects are keenly felt by people in their daily lives. I don’t want to pretend it’s not a big deal when we put in a bus or bike lane or really make radical changes in the street. People feel deeply about that stuff for it and against it…

I think there’s no question we have a great leader in Andy Byford. I think we have to give him the resources and support he needs for what is clearly starting to be a real turnaround for the subway system…I do think the MTA board is a non-transparent and not particularly transparent construct. I think the city has a role to play. We are a big investor in the MTA. It most directly impacts the lives of our citizens, and I’d like to see the city’s priorities really considered and be more a part of what the MTA is focused on.

When it comes to the MTA, the governance questions are a lot deeper than just the board…You really need to take a deeper look at how the whole capital plan comes together, the role of our legislature, the business community…By the time you get to the board the process is sort of cooked. I’d like to see the MTA and city leading up more closely to whatever happens on Board day.

I wouldn’t expect Trottenberg to embrace a politically controversial plan from the outset, but that’s a non-answer if ever there was one.

So where does this leave everything? I hesitate to say battle lines are being drawn because they’re not yet and probably won’t be unless and until Johnson’s plan becomes the centerpiece of an ongoing policy discussion or mayoral campaign. But it’s clear that the current term-limited administration is content to sit this one out while the governor will take his typical “not my idea” approach to someone else’s good idea. That is, he’ll deride it on principle without engaging on substance until it becomes politically expedient for him to shift his tone.

And that’s where things will stand. It’s likely the best and perhaps only way to truly fix the MTA and take control of our transit future will be city control of the buses and subways. The path from here to there, while clearer today than it was before March, remains muddled with countless games of politics yet to unfold.



Categories : MTA Politics

5 Responses to “Cuomo dismissive, Trottenberg non-committal on Johnson’s NYC transit takeover plan”

  1. Larry Penner says:

    To understand today’s NYC subway crises, you have to go back to the beginning. The original BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Rapid Transit – today’s B,D,J,M, N,Q, R & Z lines) and IRT (Interboro Rapid Transit – 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, Franklin Ave and Times Square shuttles) subway systems were constructed and managed by the private sector with no government operating subsidies. Financial viability was 100% dependent upon farebox revenues. They supported both development and economic growth of numerous neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens. As part of the franchise agreement which owners had to sign, City Hall had direct control over the fare structure. For a period of time, owners actually make a profit with a five cent fare. After decades passed, the costs of salaries, maintenance, power, supplies and equipment would pressure owners to ask City Hall for permission to raise the fares. This additional revenue was needed to keep up with maintaining a good state of repair, increase the frequency of service, purchase new subway cars, pay employee salary increases and support planned system expansion. Politicians more interested in the next reelection ( and subscribing to the old Roman philosophy of free bread and circuses) refused this request each year for well over a decade. As a result, in order to survive owners of both systems began looking elsewhere to reduce costs and stay in business. They started curtailing basic maintenance, delayed purchases of new subway cars, postponed salary increases for employees, canceled any plans for system expansion and cut corners to survive. (Sound familiar from the 1970’s to today?)

    In 1920, automatic coin-operated turnstiles were first introduced on the Lexington Avenue subway. This began the elimination of ticket collection employees.

    In 1932, NYC began building and financing construction of the new IND (Independent Subway – today’s A, C ,E ,F & G lines). This new municipal system subsidized by taxpayers dollars would provide direct competition to both the IRT and BMT. Municipal government forced them into economic ruin by denying them fare increases that would have provided access to additional badly needed revenues. Big Brother, just like the Godfather, made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. The owners folded in 1940 and sold out to City Hall.

    In 1953, the old NYC Board of Transportation passed on control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets to the newly created NYC Transit Authority. Under late Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 60?s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was created. The Governor appointed four board members. Likewise, the Mayor four more and the rest by suburban county Executives. No one elected official controlled a majority of the votes.

    Until the 1960s, most subway stations had clean, safe, working bathrooms with toilet paper. Revenues generated from a 10-cent fee helped cover the costs. It was common to find both penny gum and 10 cent soda machines dispensing products at many subway stations. It was a time when people respected authority and law. That generation of riders did not litter subway stations and buses leaving behind gum, candy wrappers, paper cups, bottles and newspapers. No one would openly eat pizza, chicken or other messy foods while riding a bus or subway.

    In 1967, NYC Transit introduced the first ten air conditioned subway cars operating on the old IND system (A, C, E. F & G lines). It was not until 1975, that air conditioned subway cars were introduced on the old IRT (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, Franklin Avenue and Times Square shuttle lines). Subsequently, this also included the old BMT (B, D, J, L, M, N, Q, R & Z lines),

    It took until 1982 to retrofit all the original IRT “Redbird” series subway cars. By 1993, 99% of the NYC 6,000 subway cars were air conditioned with the exception of a handful running on the #7 Flushing line.

    In 1969, the MCTA became the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and took over management of the NYC Transit Authority.

    In November 1967, the Chrystie Street connection opened. This linked the BMT line (today’s B, D, N & Q lines) via the Manhattan Bridge to the IND Sixth Avenue line.

    In December 1988 the Archer Avenue subway line was opened at a cost of $440 million.

    In 1996, Metro Cards were introduced which provide free transfers between the subway and bus. This eliminated the old two fare zones making public transportation an even better bargain. Purchasing a weekly or monthly subway/bus pass reduces the cost per ride and provides virtually unlimited trips. Employers offer transit checks which help subsidizes a portion of the costs.

    In December 2001 the 63rd Street Tunnel between Queens and Manhattan was opened at a cost of $650 million.

    In September 2015, at a cost of $2.4 billion funded by the City of New York — the Flushing #7 subway extension from Times Square to the new Hudson Yards Station opened.

    On January 1, 2016, Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway was opened at a cost of $4,5 billion.

    Today Governor Andrew Cuomo is serving as the hired superintendent running the MTA hired by NYC who is actual landlord or owner of NYC Transit buses and subways.

    All have long forgotten that buried within the 1953 master agreement between the City of New York and NYC Transit is an escape clause. NYC has the legal right at any time to take back control of its assets. This includes the subway and most of the bus system. Actions speak louder than words. If municipal officials feel they could do a better job managing the MTA including running the nation’s largest subway system, man up and regain control.

    NYC Council Speaker and 2021 Mayoral candidate Corey Johnson is correct that City Hall can actually regain control of the both the NYC Transit subway and bus systems. All have long forgotten that buried within the 1953 master agreement between the City of New York and NYC Transit is an escape clause. NYC has the legal right to take back at any time control of its assets. This includes the subway and most of the bus system. In 1953, the old NYC Board of Transportation passed on control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets under a master lease and operating agreement to the newly created NYC Transit Authority.

    Under late Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 60?s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was created. The Governor appointed four board members. Likewise, the Mayor four more and the rest by suburban county Executives. No one elected official controlled a majority of the votes..
    The master lease and operating agreement was subsequently amended over time to take over various NYC private franchised bus operators.
    In 1971, the passenger operations of the former B&O Rail Road Staten Island Rapid Transit Railway Company were sold to NYC for $3.5 million. Later that year, NYC passed on control to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA created a subsidiary, the Staten Island Rapid Transit Operating Authority. It is managed by the MTA NYC Transit’s Department of Subways. and Staten Island railway.
    In 2005, NYC transferred management of the seven private franchised bus operators (Command Bus, Green Lines, Jamaica Bus, Triboro Coach, Queens Surface, NY Bus and Liberty Lines Bronx Express) to the MTA. The MTA subsequently created MTA Bus, which is a separate from NYC Transit Bus.
    Regaining total control comes with a number of financial liabilities. City Hall will have to negotiate with both the Governor and State Legislature over how much of the MTA’s $40 billion long term debt and billions more in employee pension, health insurance and other liabilities come with the package. NYC would also inherit a series of union contracts and work rule agreements. You also have to develop a plan for turning over management for billions in hundreds of ongoing capital improvement projects that are already under way. Don’t forget current purchases for several thousand new subway cars and buses. A significant portion of the $12 billion worth of capital funded projects contained in dozens of grants from the Federal Transit Administration would have to be transferred from MTA to NYC. This would involve the de obligation and re obligation of funding contained in active grants from MTA to NYC. There would also have to be an update to the MTA Federal Transit Administration Bi Annual Certification for thousands of federally funded assets currently being maintained by the MTA to NYC. This document submitted every two years certifies that any asset worth over $5,000 is being properly maintained and remains in active transit service. All of these assets have to meet their promised useful life.
    NYC Transit subway needs concentrate spending on reaching a state of good repair for existing fleet, stations, signals, interlockings, track, power, yards and shops. Ensure that maintenance programs for all assets are fully funded and completed on time to ensure riders reliable service. Any system expansion projects such as $6 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 need to be put on the back burner until all of this is accomplished.

    NYC Transit bus and subway are the largest transit operators in the nation with a fleet of 6.400 subway and 4,400 buses. MTA Bus with a fleet of 1300 buses is one of the top ten bus operators in the nation. It is the equivalent of attempting to manage a fortune five hundred corporation. Does NYC have the technical capacity to take on such an undertaking to support creation of the new ‘Big Apple Transit’? Today’s NYCDOT technical capacity as it relates to subways and buses is weak. It is primarily in the management of bus lanes, bus shelters, bus stop signs, select bus service, bus priority signalization, bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and street calming projects.
    Perhaps NYC should take it one step at a time. Try attempting to manage the Staten Island Rail Road which operates 60 cars on a subway style system. Regain control of the 1300 MTA Bus fleet. After developing technical capacity to run these two, next try running the #7 subway line. The #7 Flushing subway line has its own stand alone fleet and yard which makes it the perfect candidate. NYC should first attempt to successfully mange all three over a five year test period. If successful, perhaps then initiate a serious discussion about regaining control of the other 95% of NYC Transit subway and bus assets.
    (Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, NYC Transit, MTA Bus, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road and NYC Department of Transportation).

  2. smartone says:

    It just makes sense that NYC take over subways
    removing MTA layer of bureaucracy is the only way to fix the issues with NYC Subway

    Honestly Real Estate developers have huge power in this city – look what happen when one new station opens in undeveloped part of Manhattan 25 BILLIION DOLLARS of new construction – that extension was funded entirely by NYC on its own.

    at some point Real Estate developers will realize that it benefits them to have NYC control their own subways and will force NY State to give up control and fund them

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    Look at page 59 of the city’s budget document.

    https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/omb/downloads/pdf/mm4-19.pdf

    Recall that after the New York Times blew the whistle Governor Cuomo decided to put up about $half a billion in actual revenues into the MTA as a part of a “state of emergency.” Not keeping a promise to come up with all the money needed to fund the capital plan after the “MTA had exhausted its resources,” cut raising the state’s contribution above the zero it had been since the mid-1990s. But putting in some actual money.

    And Cuomo bullied DeBlasio into having the City of New York put up money for the first time since the mid-1990s. Another half $billion.

    So now we have congestion pricing, with projected revenues of $1 billion. So what happens to the City of New York’s actual cash money contribution to the MTA capital plan? Look for yourself. Down nearly half a $billion. So expect the state’s contribution to disappear as well.

    Ask Johnson about that. “You come up with the money to pay for?” Nobody is paying for it. Nobody is paying for anything. The future of everything is being cashed in.

  4. Pedro Valdez-Rivera says:

    For the time being, its still #CuomosMTA after all.

  5. Tim Smyth says:

    One thing to keep in mind is the Johnson plan is predicated on the city taking control of the MTA Bridges and Tunnels which have never been under municipal control. Which brings up a few issues. One is once the city vs state distinction is removed in terms of free vs tolled what is to stop the city from tolling the remaining municipal owned bridges with all the politics that entails. Second I suppose that could argue that MTA Bridges and Tunnels form an integral network with all of the NYS DOT owned expressways and freeways in the five bureaus(Many of them part of the interstate network with all that entails dealing with Federal government). Thirdly from the state viewpoint loss of MTA Bridges and Tunnels also means no possibility of shifting tolling funds from these sources to Metro North and LIRR.

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