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.