Home MTA Politics The NYC transit system has a mayoral problem

The NYC transit system has a mayoral problem

by Benjamin Kabak

Mayor Bill de Blasio see here on something called the sub-way. (Photo via NYC Mayor’s Office on Instagram)

The mayor of New York City rode the subway last week, and it was a Big Deal.

In most cities similarly transit-dependent as NYC, the simple fact that the mayor took a took a 19-minute, one-way, nine-stop subway ride from his gym to City Hall wouldn’t even merit an announcement, but New York isn’t most cities. In 2019, in New York City, a mayoral subway ride warranted a special announcement in the mayor’s public schedule, a press coterie, an Instagram post, and a media availability session afterwards. In year six of the Bill de Blasio Administration, this brouhaha around a subway ride — something as necessary as breathing to millions of New Yorkers every day — is a clear sign that something, somewhere went wrong with our mayor’s approach to transit, and the mayor’s comments afterwards laid bare the depths of the problem.

The purpose of the Great Mayoral Subway Ride of 2019 was to drum up support for an MTA reform-and-funding plan reliant and congestion pricing, and the mayor seemed to view it as a personal fact-finding mission. To start the press conference, Streetsblog’s Gersh Kuntzman asked the mayor what he learned from his subway ride, and the answer is something to behold. “What I gleaned,” the mayor said, “is people really depend on their subways. They need their subways to work and they are frustrated.”

Marinate in that statement; soak it in. The Mayor of New York City learned last week that New Yorkers, his fellow citizens of this city since he moved back here for college in 1980 and his constituents since he first won a City Council seat in 2002, really depend on their subways. This too is what a bunch of out-of-towners visiting from Nebraska learn on their first trips through the New York City subways.

The mayor continued with his answer:

A lot of people I talked to said I don’t know when I’m ever going to get to work. Some days I get to work on time, some days I’m a half hour late, 45 minutes late, you can hear the frustration. And you can hear the urgency. And I will tell you, this was just going out there, talking to a bunch of New Yorkers, I wouldn’t have been shocked by any number of reactions. What I heard consistently was a demand for action and a belief that we need a plan, we need it to be voted on now. So my message to all the strap hangers was this is the last best chance to get something done. The Governor and I have a plan, it’s going to actually turn around the MTA – we need people to support it. And most people responded very favorably.

Is this new to the mayor? Has he bothered to look into constituent complaints about the subway that have grown exponentially in volume over the past two or three years? Does he know how New York City works?

The mayor’s initial answer speaks to a six-year problem transit and livable streets advocates have long had with the mayor: He does not seem to understand New York City. The mayor has long been a self-proclaimed motorist first and a transit rider/pedestrian a distant second. Practically speaking, this means the mayor has a vastly different relationship with travel around the city than most New Yorkers who haven’t had the privilege of free car rides and free parking in Manhattan for the bulk of their professional careers.

During his tenure, the mayor has implemented a disjointed transit and transportation policy at best. My views on the NYC Ferry system are well-documented in my past posts on this site and on Curbed, and the BQX leaves much to be desired as a signature transit proposal. The Department of Transportation has made some strides toward its Vision Zero goal, but the city has no overall policy for reducing private vehicle use and congestion while promoting more equitable means of travel or safer streets for people who walk, ride their bikes or take the buses or subways. We do not have a mayor devoted to an aggressive policy of prioritizing street space for high-capacity buses — which could include city-implemented physically separated lanes, a citywide signal prioritization efforts, aggressive enforcement of bus lanes and/or a reduction of parking placards that lead to private cars parked in what are supposed to travel lanes for buses. We do not have a mayor devoted toward building a bike network that provides safe spaces for low-income travel. Instead, city vehicle miles are up; placards are ascendant and abuse rampant; and the mayor cannot even maintain a reasonable pace for something as simple as bike rack installation, let alone bus route rollout.

The ongoing debate over the 14th Street Busway is a prime example of de Blasio’s insufficient and non-supportive approach to transit promotion. The Busway, proposed for the L train shutdown that isn’t, could have been a model for a better way to move people across town. The current M14 routes maintain speeds below 4 miles per hour — or walking pace for healthy adults — and the traffic means that everyone who needs to rely on a bus can’t get anywhere particularly quickly. It’s an access issue and one that should get to the heart of the Mayor’s old “Tale of Two Cities” campaign rhetoric. But when Gov. Cuomo pulled the plug on the L train shutdown, the mayor threw the Busway to the wolves, and instead of strong executive support, it’s been up to local politicians who understand transit and transit advocates to fight to maintain these modest upgrades on one out of Manhattan’s 255 crosstown blocks.

Further afield, the mayor has constantly gotten outfoxed by the governor on issues relating to subway funding and governance. In fact, during the same press conference, the mayor played right into Cuomo’s hands. When defending the MTA reform/congestion pricing plan, the Mayor essentially ceded any say in MTA matters to the governor:

“This is a very bold plan…You know the estimate now is over $20 billion. That sounds bold to me – changing the entire governance structure of the MTA, finally assigning responsibility fully to the State and the Governor, a whole lot more checks and balances in terms of how the MTA does it’s work because we have all seen the problems. I think professionalizing the work and adding more transparency makes a lot of sense. So, this is perfectly bold.

“To the question of City revenue – clearly most of what happens with our subways and buses comes from straphangers, comes from tax payers, comes from New York City government, that’s where most of the revenue comes from already. But we didn’t have a governance structure that made sense. You think having four members on such a big board gets us anywhere? It hasn’t. So I would rather have – the equivalent I make is like mayoral control of education, I would rather have one person in charge, it clearly should be the Governor.

Later on, the mayor was challenged on this issue of gubernatorial control. Why, he was asked, is he more comfortable with control now if the Governor has presided over the MTA for the last eight years New Yorkers are not satisfied? He responded:

Because I don’t believe there has been clear, public acknowledgement of who is in charge. That is – you know better than anyone, the MTA structure was created for the purpose of making sure that no one was seen to be in charge. This is saying out loud, everyone understands, again, the equivalent of mayoral control of education, gubernatorial control of the MTA, full accountability, there have to be some checks and balances as always, but full accountability. And I think it changes everything.

There hasn’t been a clear, public acknowledgment of who is in charge because Andrew Cuomo rightly determined years ago that it benefits Andrew Cuomo to try to argue against reality and de Blasio went along with it because he couldn’t articulate an argument against the view that no one was in charge of the MTA. Through these words, de Blasio is essentially ceding any say in transit matters fully to Albany and Governor Cuomo. Before this proposal was revealed, Cuomo had full control over the MTA, but the city could exert a voice. In this instance last week after his very special subway ride, Bill de Blasio seems to be giving up even that voice on a local concern as vital as transit matters. It’s a state problem now, the mayor says, as he washes his hands of this mess. Whether city or state control would be best for New York City’s transit system is a separate issue worthy of a long post, but either way, Bill de Blasio isn’t too interested in fighting for his constituents to ensure Albany doesn’t keep mucking it all up again and again. Ain’t my issue now, he says.

To make matters worse, de Blasio undermined congestion pricing at the same time. He had already gone on record last week stating his belief that a millionaires’ tax, a plan that delivers none of the benefits of traffic control, would be best, and during his press availability, he spoke more on the watered-down congestion pricing proposal he support. He talked about how he has “taken the bridges out of the equation” and wants multiple hardship exemptions, a situation ripe for abuse on the same level as the city’s rampant placard abuse epidemic. He simply can’t speak to the benefits of reduced congestion in Manhattan or the need to envision a city without cars everywhere. It escapes his worldview and he will not try to understand this different perspective.

In a way, despite years of feuding, de Blasio and Cuomo are more alike than they would probably care to admit. They are of the view that what each determine to be the way forward is the only right one and no one can charge either man’s mind. For Cuomo, that leads to spending with dubious value and transit projects that cement his legacy as a builder. For the mayor, that means largely ignoring the need to defend New York City and its transit riders from a disinterested but meddlesome governor and ignoring the need to promote best and more efficient and equitable uses of city streets.

We’re stuck with Cuomo until he loses or decides not to run again, but the mayor’s term ends in 2021. When we have another choice, we pick someone who understand what transit means to New Yorkers and how best to shape a city so that mobility for all comes to the forefront. A subway ride for anyone, let alone the mayor who has to represent everyone, shouldn’t be a reason for a press conference; it should just be a part of the day, like it is for millions of other New Yorkers day in and day out.

You may also like


Larry Penner March 4, 2019 - 7:38 am

Just look at his record for his favorite Brooklyn Queens Street Car Connector and other Queens transportation projects.

It is wishful thinking that the Federal Transit Administration would pay for up to 50% of the $2.7 billion Brooklyn Queens Street Car Connector along with Amazon doing the same. Mayor Bill de Blasio, Queens Boro President Melinda Katz, NYC Economic Development Corporation and Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Street Car Connector all need to wake up and smell the coffee. NYC Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen claimed that the FTA New Starts program should help fund it because it is a “cool urban project” hardly justifies financial assistance. Mayor de Blasio later confirmed he is now counting on $1 billion plus in federal dollars.

In 2015, The Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector originally claimed it could be built for $1.7 billion. In 2016, the NYC Economic Development Corporation said $2.5 billion. Today, the estimated cost is $2.7 billion. How many more billions might it cost upon completion? It takes more than a simple planning feasibility study to turn it into a viable capital transportation improvement project. Four years later, work on the environmental review along with design and engineering efforts necessary to validate any basic estimates for the $2.7 billion construction costs is just getting started. What is the cost and funding source above the $2.7 billion base line price tag to pay for two new bridges over the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek as part of project scope? It is not ethical for project director Jessica Schumer to “lobby” her father Senator Charles Schumer for federal funding. Don’t count on riding the Brooklyn Queens Connector any time soon. Instead, try running simple limited stop bus service on the same route.

Consider all the competing needs that many believe are a far higher priority. Supporters of the $29 billion and growing full build Gateway Tunnel project are looking for $14.5 billion in federal assistance. ($7 billion for the no frills Portal Bridge, two new tunnels and rehab of the existing two tunnels). A majority of these dollars would come from the Federal Transit Administration New Starts program.

Assume the next MTA Five Year 2020 – 2024 Capital Program Plan starts out at $30 billion. First they intend to program $2.265 billion, bringing the total local share of funding for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 (96th to 125th Streets including two stations) up to $4 billion. This is necessary to leverage $2 billion in Federal Transit Administration New Starts dollars to support a total project cost of $6 billion! Another $1 billion each will be needed to complete fully funding the $11.2 billion LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal and $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track projects. The backlog of unfunded NYC Transit, LIRR and Metro North safety and state of good repair projects combine for an excess of $30 billion. How will the MTA find $19 billion more on top of $30 billion toward funding NYC Transit President Andy Byford’s proposed ten year $37 billion subway system recovery plan? Some want billions more to accelerate bringing more of the 471 subway stations into compliance with Americans With Disabilities Act. Others want billions more to increase the numbers of new and rehabilitated subway cars and buses

Next, there is a one seat ride from Manhattan to Kennedy Airport which could cost several billion.

Some Queens residents will be looking for $97 million toward the $231 million Phase 2 Woodhaven Blvd. Select Bus Service. These dollars may be necessary as NYC DOT has been unable for several years to secure $97 million in FTA New Starts funding.

Some support $2.2 billion to construct Light Rail between Jamaica and Long Island City on the old Lower Montauk LIRR branch. Others want restoration of LIRR service on the old Rockaway LIRR branch at $1 billion. Don’t be surprised when the MTA releases the final report for a feasibility study, which is already twenty months late. It may indicate a growing price tag of $2 to $3 billion or more. Than there is the Triboro X Subway Express (new subway line connecting the Bronx, Queens & Brooklyn for $2 billion); the Main Street Flushing Intermodal Bus Terminal $100 million and reopening the Woodhaven Blvd. Atlantic Branch LIRR Station $40 million.

Many neighborhoods are looking for introduction of either Select Bus Service; Bus Rapid Transit; Limited Stop Bus to Subway or Express Bus Service to Manhattan. There is still the need to bring many of the 78 Queens subway and 21 LIRR stations back up to a state of good repair.

Initiation of the environmental review for the proposed Brooklyn Queens Street Car Connector is just the first step of any potential capital transportation project improvement. The journey for a project of this scope can easily take 10 to 20 years before becoming a reality. Given the increasing uncertainties of project financing, growing costs for utility, sewer lines and water main relocation and other more urgent needs, it appears that a new limited stop bus route along this corridor would make more sense. A limited stop bus route could be implemented within two years. All you would need is several dozen buses and additional operating subsidy to supplement shortfalls from farebox revenue. NYC Transit can purchase new buses for less than $1 million each to support this new service. Don’t count on riding the Brooklyn Queens Connector any time soon.

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.)

Rob March 4, 2019 - 8:42 am

what does it say abt the riders who voted for him?

Larry Littlefield March 4, 2019 - 9:42 am

Alternatives were worse?

I might have preferred Quinn. Lhota would have been a mixed-bag, just like DeBlasio — I’d say they were tied for second. The rest? Disaster.

The bottom line is because the Republican Party has become what it has become what it has begun, they are no longer an alternative. So they’ve got us. And they know it. Screw us over, and if anyone complains, they just yell “TRUMP!”

The New Times had a couple of articles a few years ago reviewing their endorsements over the decades. For President, they endorsed the Democrat, almost all the time. But for Mayor, they almost NEVER endorse the Democrat. They weren’t stupid.

Al March 4, 2019 - 12:16 pm

No worse than it says about those who vote for a governor who treats transit like the red headed step child of the state.

Larry Littlefield March 4, 2019 - 2:26 pm

The alternatives to Cuomo were even worse too.

And how about that choice for President in 2016?

They’ve got us, and we’re getting abused.

SEAN March 4, 2019 - 2:42 pm

Larry, may I suggest a great interview piece to read? “How conservative media became a safe space” by Sean Illing. It came from http://www.vox.com a few months a go, but still worth your time.

Larry Littlefield March 4, 2019 - 9:46 pm

Lots of people heading off for safe spaces these days. In fact, sometimes I get the feeling the person they really don’t want to hear from is me!

SEAN March 5, 2019 - 4:40 pm

Actually I was serious, it’s worth your time to read. It is eye opening on several levels from the political to the social.

Larry Littlefield March 7, 2019 - 9:36 am

I did read it.

I said the same thing about Generation Greed, which overlaps Trump (the Man of his Generation) and Fox News.


But there are plenty of people of all political persuasions who don’t want facts that are not in perfect alignment with their self interests.

Larry Littlefield March 7, 2019 - 9:44 am

By the way, Fox News has brainwashed my own mother.

For years I would tell her that later born generations were being left worse off. She said he didn’t see it. My parents were good parents, and their kids and grandkids were doing well. So she was insulated.

That changed after 2008. My brother and sister’s families faced some tough times. Children of their friends faced worse. The whole city where they live — which they were forced to move to during the 1970s recession in New York — is having trouble.

So she went looking for an explanation other than “We, the generation that came of age in the 1950s, and those who followed, most of the boomers who came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, really cashed in at the expense of our children’s collective future.” (And in other families their individual future).

Fox News provides it. An excuse. That’s what people over 60 really need now. Some individually, most collectively.

Donald Trump is THE MAN of his generation.

AMH March 11, 2019 - 12:40 pm
dicey March 4, 2019 - 1:42 pm

It’s almost like first-past-the-post voting and the two-party duopoly it enforces creates ridiculously counterproductive dynamics and needs to be replaced as a voting system with instant runoff voting, stat. Who wants to vote for an enemy just to hold a friend accountable? It makes no goddamn sense. Are we sick of living in a dystopian amusement park yet or nah?

dicey March 4, 2019 - 1:43 pm

this reply was meant to be a reply to Larry per his reply to Rob.

Larry Littlefield March 4, 2019 - 2:27 pm

I don’t know what the alternative is.

I admire Tom Golisano for starting a third party, but within few years it was taken over by multiple squabbling factions of wanna-be politicos.

sonicboy678 March 4, 2019 - 3:28 pm

Honestly, with the way the Blue and Red play, there’s just about no room for others. Changing that is far easier said than done, as the main two tend to devour (or lambast) the ideas of the smaller parties.

SEAN March 4, 2019 - 2:34 pm

Ben says: “The NYC transit system has a mayoral problem” – no
– it has a contact with reality problem & regardless if that is excepted or not, that is the unresolved truth.

Duke March 4, 2019 - 4:13 pm

“City vehicle miles are up”

More consequentially, so are privately-owned vehicle miles. That’s what app-based services that make it easier than ever before to pay someone to give you a car ride somewhere will do. Along with cheap gas and a strong economy.

MattyQ March 5, 2019 - 3:09 am

As an outsider looking in, why on earth does the city not have control over its own subways and buses? There is no fare integration, common operating systems or any other meaningful connection between the commuter railroads and the subway/buses, so why not split the responsibilities? It seems absolutely crazy.

sonicboy678 March 5, 2019 - 9:34 am

To make a long story short, money.

For what it’s worth, OMNY appears to be shaping up to be the medium for the railroads and the subway/buses.

Larry Littlefield March 5, 2019 - 10:29 am

Back in the 1960s the city was going broke, and in exchange for political support Mayor Lindsay cut a deal to allow transit workers to retire at age 50 after just 20 years of work. The result was fiscal disaster, and an end to maintenance of the system.

The city also had ownership of a bunch of tolled bridges and tunnels, which were throwing off a surplus, but these were controlled by pro-auto bureaucrat Robert Moses.

So the city cut a deal with state Governor Nelson Rockefeller to fold its bridges and tunnels and the city transit system into a broader regional authority. So the Mayor wouldn’t be blamed for the subway politically.

That regional authority immediately began pouring money into the commuter railroads, leading to further rot for city transit.

This was turned around when Mario Cuomo was state Governor for 12 years, but the transit system started getting plundered again as soon as he was gone.

OLDER and WISER March 5, 2019 - 12:24 pm

Proof positive of the sway the commuter railroads have had over Buses and Subways at MTA HQ was the design of the BSC. The design team was evenly divided between Metro North “subject matter experts” and Accenture consultants.

They made no bones about building the BSC as a one size fits all blunt instrument based on the practices and protocols in effect at Metro North at the time. The suggestion was even made that if the MNRR prototype proved inadequate for NYCT, then Buses and Subways should re-engineer the way they do business as needed to be compatible with the new BSC back office umbrella.

To this day its not clear the BSC has ever fully grasped the order of magnitude difference between what sufficed for MNRR and what is needed for complex organizations like RTO & Car Equipment, with so many decades of NYCT Comptroller consent decrees and other arbitration rulings inextricably baked into their back office procedures.

$500M savings? Maybe, as long as you don’t count the extra man-hours NYCT people still have to expend in order to function in the era of the BSC. Dogs will always have issues when being wagged by their tails.

EgoTripExpress March 5, 2019 - 11:20 am

For generations NYC electeds have been men and women who viewed transit as slumming. The “Steve Cuozzo Generation”. They may have ridden the bus or train as kids, but now that they’re adulting—and more importantly now that they’re political bigwigs—it’s beneath their dignity to be seen in one.

One thing I always respected about Mike Bloomberg was that he regularly rode the subway and didn’t need to “glean” the notion that transit is important. Without him we’d have no Janette Sadik-Khan, no protected bike lanes, no pedestrian plazas, and (love it or hate it) no 7 train extension. The Cuozzos, the Coumos, and de Blasios of the world would’ve made sure of that.

Pedro Valdez-Rivera March 6, 2019 - 8:55 am

Another photo op I supposed, after using his gas guzzling SUV from Manhattan to the Park Slope YMCA. I’m not surprised there.


Leave a Comment