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)
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.