Harnessing in the Beast Called the MTA

For half a century the MTA has periodically rolled out a seventeen member board —like a Swiss Cuckoo Clock —all chirping for fare hikes and then abruptly disappearing for a few years. And while the cuckoo clock got fatter and fatter, transit infrastructure continued to age and services continued to declined. Albert Einstein, a NYC commuter during the Manhattan Project, famously said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Thanks to the emergence of social media, change to transit system is on the horizon. Riders are now capturing the MTA's dysfunction on video, and within moments, their outrage is viral on the internet, They also demand cutting edge technology. Subway and bus ridership has dropped, while for-hire cars, cabs and bicycle ridership is up. Coupled with a looming MTA deficit, both NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson have introduced separate plans to harness in the MTA bureaucracy and reconfigure a budget that's larger than those of eighteen American states.

During a recent WNYC radio appearance, Governor Cuomo said that the MTA needed a better management structure to rein in costs. "It's a 1960s-style holding company with a 1960s-style mentality." He said. "We have to consolidate the functions of the MTA, bring in a different culture, and make the board functional and operational so that we know that we're getting efficiency from the riders' fare."

Since January, the Governor has been riding a wave of triumph, as he introduced an alternative to the MTA's plan to repair Hurricane Sandy damage to the L train —one that won't shut it down for 15 months and leave its daily 250,000 Brooklyn riders in limbo. Like the 'Manhattan Project,' Cuomo brought together a panel of 'Einstein' type engineers from Cornell and Columbia Universities who recommended new technology from Europe that requires less-heavy construction. Cuomo's plan of repairing the two East River tubes won't disrupt city commuters and sacrifice a mother lode of revenue.

On February 26th, Cuomo introduced a 10-point plan, endorsed by NYC Mayor DeBlasio, in which the Governor would take over and streamline the MTA (link below). It includes centralizing the six MTA branches (NYCTA, LIRR, Metro-North, MTA Capital Construction, MTA Bus, and SI Railway), independently auditing MTA assets and liabilities, implementating congestion pricing in Manhattan as an additional revenue stream, making necessary changes to subway stations to combat fare evasion, and overseeing all major construction projects by the engineering deans of both Cornell and Columbia Universities.

Within a week of Cuomo's announcement, NYC Council Speaker Johnson devoted the entirety of his March 5th State of the City Address with a much more comprehensive transit proposal that calls for the MTA's breakup. "The MTA exists in a vacuum of accountability." Johnson said to a packed house at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Queens. "It is a Frankenstein monster of transit subsidiaries with a 3,000 person headquarters on top."

Johnson calls for the State to transfer the NYC Transit, MTA Bus Company, Bridges & Tunnels, Staten Island Rapid Transit, and the city’s  capital projects to a new entity controlled by the city's Mayor, called Big Apple Transit (BAT).

"We need municipal control," Johnson exclaimed. "We don't control fares, or what gets built. We don't even control bus routes. Municipal control means we decide how the system is run. Municipal control means goodbye to the MTA!" According to his a hundred page Big Apple Transit document, 90 percent of MTA ridership revenue comes from NYC's subways and buses (link below). So why should the state control the city's transit?

While both plans advocate congestion pricing, Johnson's adds all sorts of revenue streaming, including raising corporate taxes, sales taxes, and doubling the rates of parking meters. He calls for saving money from Capital Projects by using the same advantages that the City's School Construction Authority has, including exemption of subdividing building projects. He calls for changing MTA's costly scaffold laws and reexamining worker's safety and insurance requirements.

Johnson's plan also includes expansion of transit service, adding 30 miles of bus lanes per year, and all routes equipped with Transit Signal Priority switches by 2030. He advocates the expansion of city plazas, the addition of 50 miles of bike lanes per year, reducing the size of the city's vehicle fleet by 20 percent, reining in placard abuse and installing elevators at subway stations.

Baffling is why Mayor DeBlasio endorsed the Governor's plan with the power going to the Governor, rather than Speaker Johnson's plan that would put the Mayor's office in charge. But that's politics—

The last city official to make major changes to the transit system was Mayor Robert Wagner (a New Deal champion that built 123,000 units of affordable housing including Mitchell-Lama). In 1953 he tried to enable the Transit Workers Union (TWU) to organize workers in obtaining fair wages and working conditions within NY Transit Authority ( MTA's former name). NY's Republican Governor Dewey and his reps on the Transit Authority board blocked all Wagner's efforts. Yet, in 1956, Wagner worked with newly elected Democratic Governor Averell Harriman to appoint board members sympathetic to labor, and the TWU was allowed to organize the Transit Authority.

Today both the Governor and the City have limited power to modernize an ancient MTA infrastructure and system. I commend the proposals of NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Governor Andrew Cuomo, and hope their efforts will harness in the beast.

Governor's plan:

Speakers plan: