Home MTA Politics From Quinn, a (bad) idea for mayoral MTA control

From Quinn, a (bad) idea for mayoral MTA control

by Benjamin Kabak

Every four years, when Gracie Mansion casts around for a new tenant and the offices in City Hall need a new manager, a bunch of politicians come forward with ideas for transit. Sometimes, these ideas are loftier and more realistic than others, and sometimes, the mayoral candidates say what they think voters wants to hear. This year, the transportation platforms are not disappointing, and on Thursday, Christine Quinn, the Democrats’ leader in the polls, unveiled her less-than-inspiring and politically odd plan. For some reason, she wants MTA control.

With Joe Lhota leading the GOP polling, this year’s campaign should be about transit, and it comes on the heels of a fairly successful Bloomberg administration. In fits and starts, Mayor Bloomberg through his 12 years has seen through an extension of the 7 line, the launching of Select Bus Service and an expansion of the city’s bike network. His congestion pricing plan failed in Albany, but it would have been the most ambitious transit innovation in New York City in generations. Now, despite media coverage alleging the contrary, for SBS and the bike lane process, he and NYC DOT have been sure to engage the community almost to a fault. What happens next?

This year, Sal Albanese has taken on the mantle of transit reformer. The Brooklyn Democrat been trumpeting a congestion pricing plan based upon Sam Schwartz’s modeling, but his candidacy hasn’t gotten enough traction yet. When Christine Quinn talks, on the other hand, people listen, and what we heard yesterday was a bunch of nothing along with some wishful thinking.

In remarks delivered at La Guardia Community College, Quinn spoke about the need to improve commutes for Outer Borough residents. Noting that these New Yorkers’ rides are, on average, 20 minutes longer than most Manhattanites’, Quinn issued a series of calls for more city-subsidized ferry service, an expansion of Select Bus Service to encompass a whopping 10 more routes over four years, Metro-North service into Penn Station (which has long been a post-East Side Access goal), and, oh yes, city control over the MTA. Quinn’s ultimate aim is to make sure that no New Yorker has a one-way commute longer than 60 minutes.

On the one hand, Quinn’s proposals are admirable. The city and its various transit agencies should be trying to cut down on commute times where possible, and we have the tools — road space for buses, a bike network that Quinn never mentioned — to do it. But on the other hand, we also have geography with which to compete, and New Yorkers quite often live far away from where they work. Not everyone can live on Manhattan, and even if we recognize that a majority of New York City residents with jobs don’t commute into Manhattan, Manhattan is still the centralized job location for city residents and suburban commuters. We need better intra- and inter-borough connections, but Manhattan still drives the city’s economy.

In light of the challenges a potential Mayor Quinn would face in realizing this 60-minute time limit on commutes — the Rockaways and Bay Ridge ain’t getting any closer to Midtown — her ideas don’t do much. Promising 10 new Select Bus Service routes over four years is barely an improvement over the current pathetic pace, and Select Bus Service is hardly a major upgrade. Until someone starts talking about and pushing through physically-separated bus lanes and signal prioritization, SBS will be slightly better than super-express bus service. It’s hardly worth the brouhaha.

Ferry service is another red herring that doesn’t do much to speed up commutes, but the City Council loves the idea of subsidizing it. Why? I don’t know. It connects very well-off areas of Brooklyn and Queens with Midtown and Wall Street. These are hardly neighborhoods that require much in the way of transit subsidies, and although emptier, the ferries aren’t quicker than the subway. Again, here is where real interborough bus rapid transit would be a boon to these neighborhoods.

It’s not even worth spending too much time on Penn Station Access. Bringing Metro-North to the West Side and through the Bronx isn’t a Quinn original by a long shot. In fact, it’s been around longer than she has even been a part of city government.

I’ve saved, of course, the best for last: Quinn wants to be able to appoint the president of New York City Transit and the majority of seats on the MTA Board. Why? I have no idea. In her speech, she explained, “This change will keep our trains and buses operating as a regional system but will make sure that the majority stakeholders have a majority voice. And having the buck stop with the mayor will bring much needed accountability, just as we’ve seen with mayoral control of our schools…Having local control of our transit will allow us to focus like a laser on the gaps in the system, and commit more fully to getting commute times under control. It will also allow us to dramatically reinvent the way the MTA plans for new transit routes.”

Quinn essentially calls for a proactive MTA instead of a reactive one, and here, I agree. As we’ve seen with service along the F, L and G trains, the MTA is unwilling to increase frequencies until load guidelines require it. I think the MTA could increase transit usage by making service more frequent, but it’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem made worse by the MTA’s precarious budget.

But Quinn asserting control would be no better, and it ignores the history of New York City Transit. The MTA arose out of politics as the city politicians insisted on a fare that torpedoed the subway system’s budget. The city wouldn’t or couldn’t pay, and politicians turned fares into an electoral issue. It was an economic disaster and one we do not want to repeat.

With a Mayor Quinn in control, she would be blamed for everything that goes wrong, would have to deal with fallout from suburban interests and would have to be willing to take on the lion’s share of the MTA’s funding burden. The city just isn’t in a position to do that, and it goes against the maxim that a smaller government entity should never request to take over control of something as unwieldy as the MTA from a larger one. Work with the state and agency heads for a better responsiveness, but let the state maintain the control.

Over at The Observer, Stephen Smith picked up a similar thread, and I believe his kicker sums it up: “New York is fundamentally a rail-oriented city, and Christine Quinn apparently has no plan to add to this infrastructure, or even make more efficient use of existing lines, aside from the Metro-North plan the MTA is already working on. Buses and ferries are all well and good, but Ms. Quinn is going to need to do better if she wants to give the city back its subways.”

This isn’t a transportation plan; it’s a plan to win over voters by pinning the tail on the scapegoat. It just might work if Quinn’s endgoal is to reach City Hall, but it won’t help get those commute times below 60 minutes, for that would require true leadership.

You may also like


D.R. Graham April 12, 2013 - 12:52 am

Ben you’re right it won’t cut down commute times but having the Mayor being the majority stakeholder is probably one of the better ideas besides having full city control. The politics now with the creation of the MTA is mature enough to stay out of the fare barking issues, but just enough to make transit a voter issue which it has not been in YEARS! Actually being able to vote for or against the mayor based on transit funding, expansion, service levels is a win-win for the people of the city. Suburbs be damned!

Benjamin Kabak April 12, 2013 - 12:57 am

This theme came up a few times in yesterday’s threads on the 7 to Secaucus: Suburbs be damned is the perfect way to stifle New York’s economy. Whether we like it or not, suburban commuters and suburban tourists are a major economic driver in this city. To underscore the regional economy, Manhattan’s day time population is around 4 million, and I’m not convinced the mayor is any better equipped to handle this than the state is.

Additionally, if elected city officials had direct control over the MTA, there is no way they’d be able to keep out of the fare issue. It would become a political hot button. I don’t see any sort of maturity here as much as I’d like to.

You also didn’t address the funding issue: Where will transit get its dollars once the state no longer has control and opts to wipe its hands of that problem?

D.R. Graham April 12, 2013 - 1:33 am

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean Suburbs be damned as in “suburbs don’t matter.” I mean it as in the city has a better understand on how to better improve regional transportation in a way that benefits both the suburbs and the city because the city has more at stake than the suburbs and the state itself.

Not all of the suburbs and suburbanites have ties to the city so to base transportation decisions on the needs of let’s say Mineola, LI is silly. But when the city bases it’s decisions on the many who commute from Mineola and all places like it, smarter more constructive transportation decisions can be generated. To his credit Bloomberg proved this with his NYC2030 Initiative. The problem has always been “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Hire a master chef and something can finally get done. The MTA by itself does not have the political muster to move things forward because it can only move on political oversight and funding as proven with the 7 extension and the SAS. Now provide some form of Mayoral control and now you finally have someone with some chips on the table in this game of poker.

Justin Samuels April 12, 2013 - 3:51 am

A much higher percentage of people in the suburbs drive to work. They are less dependent upon MTA services than are people in NYC. Yes, a number of people take the LIRR or NJ Transit into the city to work, but its still a smaller percentage of overall working people.

NYC is the biggest stakeholder in the MTA (not saying the suburban counties don’t have stakes). the MTA in Los Angeles is under the control of the mayor, and ditto in other cities.

Yes, Quinn or whoever the mayor is would get all of the blame for things that go wrong. And that’s great, because with a clear person to blame you could get accountability. And with a MTA more directly under city control, if the city were able to secure the money, i think we’d be more likely to get service expansions. I like Quinn a lot better now.

Benjamin April 12, 2013 - 12:40 pm

Yes, Quinn would get the blame…but what good is that if Quinn and others are all too ready to illegally overturn 2-term limits voted on twice by the voters? There is no accountability, ever, any more.

Bolwerk April 12, 2013 - 12:56 pm

The voters could vote the term-unlimited out. Not saying the term limit thing wasn’t scummy, but it just goes to show it wasn’t even a solution.

SEAN April 12, 2013 - 12:26 pm

Interesting… if you look at suburbs as a whole, you miss the forest for the trees. most of them are bedroom communities. However there are several that qualify as criticle job centers in there own right. In the NYC metro you have Stamford, White Plains, Jersey City, Newark & New Brunswick. Now what do all of them have in common? They are connected to Manhattan by a robust transit network that needs continued reinvestment to make the region stronger. Even the Minneola’s & Paramus’s of the region bennefit from the butterfly effect of NYC’s ecconemy.

J B Taipei April 14, 2013 - 5:21 am

Ben, while I agree with you that city control of the subway would be a problem in terms of funding, and could undermine the possibility of regional coordination (which the MTA doesn’t seem interested in anyway), history does not support you so far as fares are concerned. Fares actually started rising while the city controlled the subway, and went up a few times before the creation of the MTA, IIRC. I don’t see what’s changed that would make fare increases impossible now.

Benjamin Kabak April 14, 2013 - 10:45 am

This is history in a vacuum though. Fares went up a few times under city control but not when they should have and only when the subways faced an absolute crisis of financing. For decades, politicians used the promise of low fares to win city elections, and there’s no way that wouldn’t happen again.

Bronxite April 12, 2013 - 12:57 am

Wouldn’t ferry service significantly cut commutes from areas like Clason Point, Ferry Point and City Island?

I think the Quinn campaign is playing it safe right now, but I wish she would be more firm. Let s see some real innovation.

Benjamin Kabak April 12, 2013 - 12:59 am

And the Rockaways if you can move the boat fast enough. But it’s never worked without considerable subsidies in the past. City Council seems to like the East River Ferries because they’re serving dense areas (and hence are crowded) and require less subsidizing than the Rockaway ferries ever did. The other issue is drop points. At midtown, the ferry terminal is far from the job centers so it lessens the impact of the ride.

SEAN April 12, 2013 - 12:52 pm

In a vacume ferries don’t seme to be a viable option, but when you look at the big picture they can be a tremendous game changer. That’s not to say that ferries will work everywhere, however they can be one part of a larger transit network.

Here’s an example… There’s a new waterfront community being developed in Stamford’s south end called Harbor Point. Although the train is a short distance away, a ferry stop would benefit the area by adding service to locations MNR doesn’t or would require a transfer to the subway. Other locations that could benefit with regular ferry services include Tarrytown, Ossining, Peekskill, Rye, Yonkers & other shore communities.

Now there’s cross Hudson ferry service from numerous locations, but what I’m referring to are more of a high speed service more or less along the coastlines.

al April 12, 2013 - 3:44 pm

This is where the MTA should look to augmenting Express Bus service with express van service where the driver works in major job centers. The MTA has plenty of white collar workers who could do this.

BrooklynBus April 12, 2013 - 8:29 pm

I’ve heard that the Rockaway ferry is half empty because there are no bus routes to take you to the ferry. Doesn’t NY Waterways run a free bus to their ferry and it’s coordinated. Either the MTA or DOT needs to do the same.

Benjamin April 12, 2013 - 12:43 pm

When would we get this innovation? Once she is elected? Give me a break.

AG April 13, 2013 - 12:42 am

Funny you mention it… Ferry Point Park (where the golf course is being built) once had ferries than ran back and forth to Whitestone, Queens… until the Whitestone Bridge was built.
There was also a ferry from the east side of Manhattan that brought Germans up to hang out in Throggs Neck.
City Island should do well with a ferry too…
It’s amazing how commuting has changed.
The east Bronx suffers from a lack of rail service…. just like northern Queens.

John-2 April 12, 2013 - 1:24 am

Strategically, this is Quinn looking ahead to the general election and the likelihood of facing Lhota, combined possibly with an effort to make sure Albanese’s campaign doesn’t gain any traction via touting transit reforms. It gives her a transit platform to use, with the “Give the city back the subways” part an effort to counter Lhota’s earlier talk about breaking up the MTA.

As noted, the problem in the past with city control was that the fare became subject to political pandering to the voting public in general, while a weak-willed/naive mayor in the John Lindsay mold was unable to hold the line on recurring operating costs, so that salaries and benefits by the time the MTA took over were crowing out available funding for preventive maintenance. It’s easier to be a strong-willed MTA chairman, because en though he or she has to take the bricks and arrows for the governor, they do have a better ability to steer the system and its resources in dull-but-necessary ways because they serve at the pleasure of the governor (which doesn’t mean a mayor can’t do it, only that the possibility of getting one who can’t or doesn’t want to comes up every four years).

D.R. Graham April 12, 2013 - 1:48 am

I’m going to take this discussion to a new level for a change. For years it has been said that operating costs are out of control. To the contrary they are not really out of control. They still remain reasonable and affordable. The MTA uses this as a bargaining chip to avoid pay increases and to try to wiggle out of health care and pension costs. Honestly I can’t blame, but it’s a job performed by people and in comparison to the closest counterpart China is performed at the highest level in the world with great consequences to long term health (steel dust).

Having said that, the main problem is and has always been capital which has been swept under the rug as an issue for 8 years now. The reason is because it started to turn into a detrimental issue for Albany politicians. The Straphangers’ Campaign used to run ads in the subway pointing out that the fare box subsidizes an insane amount of capital in comparison to other subway systems nationwide. It’s true! Kalikow under Pataki got the ball rolling a lot harder on borrowing for building and maintaining infrastructure with the MTA. That’s when the state slowly started pulling out of funding the MTA’s capital program and then the city got in on the act and then we found ourselves where we are today.

If you recall the 2000 election ballot contained a question for borrowing billions on bonds to build the SAS. The No’s won. Yet still today the capital program is subjected to an insane amount of borrowing on bonds with billions of dollars in interest to be paid back over decades by the MTA and the fare box helps pay down that interest. This is why now more than ever the MTA has gotten out of the planning expansion unless the city and/or state push the idea themselves and back up the idea with money. Even though it’s a state run agency, the agency heads know how to tango the political dance to avoid having the politicians run the place to the ground and while avoid hurting pols in the voting booths and the front pages.

Larry Littlefield April 12, 2013 - 5:47 am

“The MTA arose out of politics as the city politicians insisted on a fare that torpedoed the subway system’s budget. The city wouldn’t or couldn’t pay, and politicians turned fares into an electoral issue. It was an economic disaster and one we do not want to repeat.”

Unfortunately we did repeat it. From 1995 to 2002, under Pataki. There were pension increases too, as in the 1960s. And money was borrowed (and still is being borrowed) for portions of the “capital” plan that are better described as maintenance or just operations, including the “reimbursible” part of the operating budget.

Ryan April 12, 2013 - 8:09 am

Quinn essentially calls for a proactive MTA instead of a reactive one

If she makes THAT happen, I’ll be happy.

Alon Levy April 15, 2013 - 2:44 pm

If she drops out of the campaign to avoid corruption charges spend more time with her family, I’ll be happy.

Eric Brasure April 12, 2013 - 10:30 am

Does anyone know numbers for how many people live within walking distance of a ferry stop? A ferry trip that begins and ends with a bus ride doesn’t seem to be a great driver of ridership.

SEAN April 12, 2013 - 1:03 pm

Newport, Weehawken & Edgewater have numerous housing complexes near the ferry & Hoboken is as dense as some Manhattan neighborhoods.

Eric Brasure April 12, 2013 - 1:44 pm

True, but the mayor of New York City doesn’t have a lot to do with them.

Ryan April 12, 2013 - 2:09 pm

Not unless he/she decides to annex Jersey City to NYC.

Eric Brasure April 12, 2013 - 11:35 pm

Great, thanks for that.

Tsuyoshi April 12, 2013 - 11:26 am

The primary justification given for not giving New York City control of the MTA is that city politicians are a bunch of pandering children — they have little interest in, or even understanding of long-term maintenence or growth of the transit system. And while I can’t agree that state/suburban control is actually better, that’s basically true.

I think the best thing you could do to alleviate that problem is to eliminate the driving subsidies (free parking, cars, etc.) for elected officials. When they actually have to deal with the same transportation system the rest of us deal with, they will think more carefully about transit.

The irony here is, Quinn herself is essentially not much more than someone who has mastered the art of pandering. She has no vision outside of distributing city funding in an electorally beneficial way. She knows how to buy off one small interest group without angering any other small interest group, and that is all she promises to do. It is exactly what she is trying to do here: notice how there are only small concrete costs to any of her proposals. Giving Quinn control of the MTA would lead to nothing substantial.

But the principle of city control over city transit is important, because you can only get maximal benefit from transit if the transit is coordinated with land use. If we are to have any hope of not simply having one always playing catchup with the other — impeding development through fears of inadequate transportation, and impeding more transit through fears of inadequate development — we need decisions about transit and land use to be made by the same entity.

Boris April 12, 2013 - 3:59 pm

I really wish the point about connecting land us and transportation planning would be reiterated more often. Coordination between city agencies and the MTA is very poor. The city needs a comprehensive plan that treats land use and transportation as interdependent, with real legal consequences for failing to follow it. Then it wouldn’t matter who controls the MTA.

Think twice April 12, 2013 - 12:12 pm

I think “The Power Broker” and “722 Miles” should be required reading for every Mayoral candidate.

Sam K April 12, 2013 - 12:40 pm

im all about ideas, and albanese has the best (def not perfect, though) ones right now. i didnt hear quinn talking about cbtc or protected bike lanes. transit advocates could raise albanese’s profile but they are taking the cautious route which isnt getting us anything but the same old same old

Bolwerk April 12, 2013 - 12:53 pm

I’m not sure “transit advocates” is a very coherent group. Arguably, the most powerful transit activists are the “cars for me, buses for them” crowd. And the second most powerful are the “subways for me, buses for them” crowd. And there is the “I can walk/bike, fuck the transit-dependent plebes” crowd.

That’s why Quinn gets attention for this cruft, while someone with real ideas like Albanese gets ignored.

Sam K April 12, 2013 - 1:43 pm

Good points all around!

Bolwerk April 12, 2013 - 12:47 pm

No subway expansions in the boroughs, no light rail -> no meaningful reform. Ferries are fine, but hardly a panacea, and SBS is just a modest improvement toward what all the buses should basically be doing anyway.

I agree with mayoral control, just so there is someone to blame, but her proposals are more of the same. What is she really doing here? Promising the TWU more bus driving gigs.

She doesn’t deserve the attention she is getting from this, and we should pray to Yahweh or Athena or Wotan or whoever that her campaign crashes and burns – in a Weiner-like display of theatrics – and she can retire to the countryside with the other soccer moms.

Justin Samuels April 12, 2013 - 2:44 pm

Her campaign has somewhat crashed and burned. To save it, she is having to put out her own ideas, like putting the MTA under mayoral control.

She had banked on being Bloomberg’s handpicked successor. But that isn’t working out.

Bolwerk April 12, 2013 - 3:24 pm

Quinn pretty much shares Bloomberg’s police state ideology, but isn’t as intelligent. Charisma doesn’t come into the picture with either of them.

Alon Levy April 15, 2013 - 2:45 pm

She’s even worse on that regard. Bloomberg, for all his pro-Israeli hawkishness and his hatred of civil liberties, supported the freedom of speech of the BDS people. Quinn tried to ban them from running a conference at CUNY.

Jemima April 12, 2013 - 2:22 pm

Quinn’s justification for this is to shorten the commute to/from the outer boroughs. Very noble. Most of middle-class New York lives in the outer boroughs because housing costs are affordable there. The price we pay for affordable housing is a longer commute. It’s a given. But, as Bklyn Heights became more accessible to Manhattan, housing costs went up and luxury housing is now being built there like crazy. Some of the ads for this housing actually characterizes Brooklyn Heights as ‘the new lower Manhattan, just a subway stop away.’ The easier the commute from a community to Manhattan, the higher the housing costs are in that community. This may be a stretch, but if you read between the lines of Quinn’s justification, read “boon to real estate developers.” Real estate developers are some of Quinn’s bigger contributors. I suspect that some of them are drooling over the possibility of building luxury housing in, say, the Bronx along the Concourse (by the way, there’s great housing stock already there), or in Queens. Luxury housing is all they know how to build.

Maybe it’s because I’m part of the ABQ movement, but I’m suspicious of any proposal Quinn comes up with. On the other hand, this proposal may just be Quinn’s way of finally trying to suck up to the outer boroughs. I’m not sure she even knew the Bronx existed before she decided to run for mayor.

Boris April 12, 2013 - 4:06 pm

The ultimate solution to the affordable housing problem is to build more housing – a lot more housing, enough to drive down the price. This can only happen with major transit expansions and creation of medium height, mixed density developments in what are now majority single-family home neighborhoods. In fact, the only way to save affordability of outer neighborhoods is to build up, in certain carefully selected areas, such as on blocks immediately around transit stops.

Also, affordability in outer borough, car-oriented areas is pretty much a myth, because what you save on housing you spend on automobile dependency.

AG April 13, 2013 - 1:11 am

in all reality… I don’t recall Quinn saying anything original in any policy.

JJ April 15, 2013 - 8:12 pm

Quinn is easily the biggest hack who has ever run for office

She’s so unqualified it’s laughable … a buffoon of the highest order , it’s obvious that she can be bought


Leave a Comment