Saturday, June 8, 2019
Transit should be controlled by transit riders
I was listening to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Ben Kabak's new podcast, promoting his proposal to transfer control of the New York City subways from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is controlled by the Governor, to a new board controlled by the Mayor (a post that Johnson plans to run for in 2021). Johnson's thoughtfulness and his desire for real solutions were refreshing in our political scene, and I appreciated his request for feedback on his proposal. And I have some!
In particular I was struck by Johnson's claim that a board that represents the diversity of the transit riding public would do a better job of serving that public. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm definitely not going to repeat the bullshit that a board needs people with technical or business expertise; that's what staff is for. The subways and buses should be managed in a way that benefits their riders, and riders deserve a say in how they're managed.
The thing is that the system doesn't just serve riders; it serves everyone who lives and works anywhere in the whole metro area. A bank executive who is driven to work isn't going to perform well if their employees can't get in on the train. An antiques merchant in Great Barrington is going to sell less if the weekend visitors from the city have less disposable income. Taxpayers need to know that our money is being spent well. Bondholders won't lend the MTA money unless they can make sure it won't default.
I wouldn't want the Kosciuszko or Tappan Zee bridge replacement projects to be managed by and for the exclusive benefit of drivers. In fact, the problem with these projects is that they actually are being managed by and for drivers. And you know, the problem with the MTA is that it is also being managed largely for drivers.
Johnson is right that the MTA is controlled by a group of people who don't ride transit, but he fingered the wrong group. The Governor clearly doesn't ride transit, but a lot of transit policy is not set by him, but by the State Legislature. As I've written in numerous posts, the State Assembly and Senate are almost completely dominated by drivers and people who are driven everywhere.
Under Johnson's proposal the State Legislature would have almost as much control as they do now, because under our constitution they are the only entity in the state with the power to tax. State laws also have the power to overrule city laws. Even if Johnson can persuade them to implement his plan, they can change it at any time.
To the extent the city government would have control, the City Council would have more power than this "BAT Board," because they have to pass the budget, and can pass certain laws constraining what the Mayor can do. The Council has gotten much better over just the past twelve years, thanks in part to Johnson's leadership, but as Streetsblog documented recently, they still cannot be counted on to reliably prioritize transit riders.
Today the MTA Board today is at worst a fig leaf covering the Governor's management and the Legislature's budget priorities, and at best an advisory panel. On top of that we have another panel, the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which is appointed by elected officials based on patronage, and elects representatives to the MTA Board who have no voting rights. Johnson's proposal does not give this "BAT Board" the power to tax, so the real power would remain with the power brokers in the State Legislature.
Having the State Legislature or the City Council control the transit system would not actually be a problem if we had a truly representative system. Even the State Legislature is dominated by representatives of districts with heavy transit ridership. Unfortunately, the system is corrupt and favors elite homeowners who drive. They also subscribe to an ideology of driving as emancipation, and make deals to favor "upstate" that ignore the sizable population of current and potential transit riders outside of New York City.
The focus some advocates place on the non-representativeness of the MTA Board, in particular on the predominance of white men, winds up distracting us from the non-representativeness of the State Legislature, where some of the loudest opposition to transit funding and fair pricing for road use comes from nonwhite and female legislators like Charles Barron, Kevin Parker, Toby Stavisky and Deborah Glick. Last week when first term Senator Jessica Ramos said not only that she doesn't have a driver's license but that "car culture is something that we need to start rethinking as a society as a whole," that statement was notable for how unusual and brave it was.
So yes, we should transfer control of New York City Transit's subways and buses back to the City government. But no, we should not create a whole new authority to run them, or a "mobility czar" to oversee buses, trains, ferries, bridges and streets. We should just make them all part of the Department of Transportation. If we need to borrow money for them, we should use the City's bonding ability.
And no, we should not create a whole new board with no real power. If people want to transfer the New York City Transit Riders Council from the MTA to the city, fine. We don't need another one.
Similarly, if for some reason the City can't borrow enough money using its own bonds, I could see us setting up a temporary authority to issue bonds. Those of you who have read The Power Broker know that the authorities that issued bonds to build projects like the Manhattan Bridge were set up to dissolve once they paid off the bonds. The genius idea that allowed Bob Moses to wield power for decades without ever winning an election was to insert a clause in the law that created the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority allowing it to issue new bonds. Removing that unjustified power from the Transit Authority is an essential step in restoring democratic control to our subway system.
The bottom line: municipal control is a good idea, but a new authority is not the way to do it. It should be done by direct executive power. Representation is a good idea, but an unelected board is not the way to do it. It should be done through our elected representatives to the City Council and State Legislature.