City Council Speaker Corey Johnson thrust himself into the debate over the future of the MTA in a big way on Tuesday during his State of the City speech as he called for the city, and not the state, to control its subways and buses. Instead of the MTA, Johnson envisions a Big Apple Transit Authority to oversee transit and the city’s bridges and tunnels while introducing top-to-bottom reforms and introducing congestion pricing to NYC.
“Municipal control means we decide how our system is run,” Johnson said during his speech. “We decide how we raise our money, and we decide how we spend it.”
The proposal to unwind the MTA is the centerpiece of a companion report [pdf] that stretches to over 100 pages and includes a truly comprehensive vision change New York City streets by prioritizing mass mobility over private automobile use. It calls for significant investment in bus prioritization technology and a massive increase in bus lanes; planning for a truly comprehensive network of safe bike lanes; and a reduction of private automobile ownership by 50% over 30 years.
It is, in nearly every sense, a rebuke of de Blasio Administration’s lackluster approach to transit and a welcome wrench thrown in the ongoing discussion over the MTA. As Bill de Blasio falls for Cuomo’s bait-and-switch on MTA reform while showing his willingness to cede more city input on transit to the state as part of the 10-point deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic proposal announced last week, Corey Johnson has created a vision for a more mobile New York freed from the tyranny of the car.
Inside the Plan
With 104 pages to get through, it’s going to take some time to digest this report, but my initial take is that it is extremely thorough and well done. We knew Johnson had been working on this report for a while, and I was worried that calls for local control would gloss over the issue of the lack of city taxing authority to compensate for lost state revenue. But Johnson and his team devote significant attention to the need for more city financial power, and he adroitly couples this call with a lengthy discussion on all aspects of transit reform, from capital procurement process to labor costs and work rules, and continued support for commuter railroads and regional planning.
I’ll have a more detailed examination of the ins and outs of the reports in upcoming posts. For today, let’s run through some highlights. As I see it, the proposal includes an easy part and a hard part. Let’s start with the har part — which is of course the local control of the buses and subways.
As I mentioned, Johnson begins with a call to bring New York City Transit, MBSTOA, MTA Bus, the Staten Island Railway, the former Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and a portion of MTA HQ under one entity city-controlled entity called Big Apple Transit. The BAT would be a city agency on par with NYC DOT, under the auspicies of a Mobility Czar (akin to today’s DOT Commissioner) and fully controlled by the mayor. A board would oversee the BAT, and the board would be drawn from New Yorkers who use transit. The BAT, Johnson said, would be modeled on the Water Board, run as part of the city budgeting process and subject to outside scrutiny. The capital planning process would shift to a 10-year scope with far more transparency than currently in place.
In terms of finances, Johnson gets very creative. The MTA would survive to retire its massive debt, and thus, revenue would flow through BAT to the MTA until the debt is gone. But going forward, BAT would issue its on bonds, a move Cap’n Transit was particularly fond of in early reactions. Congestion pricing and increase in city taxation powers to offset lost state revenue are required, and Johnson wants to exploit intricacies of the Trump tax law to impose levies that remain fully deductible for corporations under federal law. Again, this is complicated, and I’ll have more on that in upcoming posts. This is the crux of the proposal, and it lives or dies with the city’s ability to raise sufficient revenue without relying on fare hikes.
Johnson then runs through the litany of typical transit reform initiatives: end inefficient procurement; address labor costs; implement work rule reforms, etc. He promises to support regional planning and commuter rail (including free up additional money for commuter rail investment), and he issued a nod to sustaining and building out the Fair Fares program.
Now, all of that requires cooperation and willing partners in Albany. We’ll come back to that, but let’s run down the easy part. To one degree or another, the city could do just about everything else Johnson proposed nearly immediately. It is, he says, a “master plan for city streets” designed to “Bring cohesion to what is now a patchwork system of upgrades,” clear shots fired across the bow of the de Blasio Administration.
To that end, Johnson wants to focus on buses. He wants to install at least 30 miles of truly dedicated and physically separated bus lanes a year; introduce signal priority technology to at least 1000 intersections per year; and implement a bus network redesign by 2025. He calls for a comprehensive livable streets program with more plazas and shared streets, accessible intersections citywide by 2030, and at least 50 miles of actually protected bike lanes a year with a fully connected bike network by 2030.
“We need to break the car culture,” Johnson said to loud applause during his speech. This involves reducing city vehicle usage by 25 in five years and reducing citywide car ownership by half by 2050. These are laudable goals and ones that have for far too long been lacking city transportation planning. These are also goals, as I mentioned, completely within the scope of the city’s current powers.
The Political Reaction
A plan this large and in-depth demands a reaction, but it also demands careful consideration. Allies and opponents won’t materialize overnight, but many in New York chimed in today with various reactions. The Transit Literati who have grown sick of Gov. Cuomo and the opaqueness and problems of state control (me included) seemed to like the plan, but the notable reactions were from politicians saying not much of anything.
“The City already owns the New York City transit system,” a Cuomo spokesperson said. The governor is essentially daring the city to go nuclear in canceling the state’s lease of the subways, but this would leave the city with an inoperable asset and no funding plan. It’s a sniveling and conniving response at best.
Leroy Comrie, one of the State Senators tasked with MTA oversight, also didn’t seem amenable to the idea. “As a former city council member, I understand the desire for people to be parochial about their communities, but as a now-state official looking at the needs of the entire state and the impact of congestion on the entire metropolitan area, I understand we have to figure something out,” he said. I don’t know what’s parochial about good transit governance or the state’s largest city controlling how its residents and workers get around, and I question how much leeway we give Comrie, a five-year Senator and 18-year New York politician, to “figure something out” because he certainly hasn’t done much figuring out in two decades. I’m also still waiting to hear a strong case for extra-regional control of New York City Transit, but I digress.
Similarly, Carl Heastie, when told that Johnson wants the city to pass congestion pricing if the state does not, had a terse comment: “We believe [congestion pricing] falls within the purview of Albany.” If anything, these voices from Albany show that holding onto power simply for the sake of having power is important, and these men will give up a power they don’t really need and shouldn’t have easily.
Meanwhile, the mayor, who discovered the subways only last week, said essentially nothing, via a spokesperson: “While he appreciates the Speaker’s transit vision and contribution, the Mayor is focused on immediate actions to fix the broken subway system. Our subways are in the middle of a crisis that needs an immediate solution. The Mayor stands with millions of riders depending on action right now. We have four weeks to deliver sustainable revenue sources capable of turning this crisis around.”
A few advocates unfortunately echoed these sentiments. While the Straphangers Campaigned praised Johnson and issued a call for “serious debate,” others did not want to change the subject away from congestion pricing. “Let’s deal with getting the MTA funded first, and then we can discuss how and who controls it after we get through that hurdle,” Nick Sifuentes, head of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said.
In comments to Politoco, the Riders Alliance had a similar view and seemed almost annoyed by a truly comprehensive rethinking of transit. “We’ve worked for years to demonstrate to everyone that it is Cuomo’s MTA, that the MTA is in fact run by the state and controlled by the governor. We’re at the point now where that’s been acknowledged. Now the challenge is to get funding out of the state,” Danny Pearlstein, the group’s policy director, said.
My Take: A bomb thrown toward transit complacency
The mayor’s statement and those from the leading advocacy groups seem to indicate that too many are putting all their MTA eggs in the congestion pricing basket. They seem to view congestion pricing as an “immediate fix” to the MTA’s woes, and this is misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Congestion pricing will solve other city problems while providing a new revenue stream for transit investment, and it’s an outcome NYC desperately needs. It will not “fix” the MTA; only aggressive reform and careful oversight will do that. Congestion pricing has to be implemented carefully and properly to work, and tying it into some magical MTA fix will harm both the efficacy of congestion pricing and real MTA reform efforts.
To that end, this is a plan worth probing and likely one worth pursuing. At a bare minimum, a reorganized mess winds up more efficiency than the disorganized mess it replaces, and even modest gains in all the areas Johnson’s proposal tackles would realize huge benefits from the transit system and city at large. If this plan works, it could go a long way toward solving operations, governance and spending issues that plague the MTA. It’s certainly worth debating.
Ultimately, Corey Johnson threw a bomb into a complacent crowd of people who have had years to solve the problem and have done nothing, and they don’t know how to react. That crowd includes seasoned politicians, transit advocates and outside authorities on how the MTA is run. Corey Johnson has succeeded where Cuomo, de Blasio and countless others before them have failed: He has shaken up the status quo and introduced a viable, new proposal into the mix. We’ll see where it goes from here.