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Max & Murphy Podcast: Should the City Run the Subways?

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Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits

March 6, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Should the City Run the Subways?

citycouncil r bay200New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has proposed a city takeover of the subways, part of a lengthy and ambitious new transit plan he announced at this first State of the City speech. The hosts discuss Johnson's proposals and some other recent New York political news, and get a surprise call-in from the Speaker himself.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Johnson Calls for Municipal Control of Subways and Buses, Pledges Congestion Pricing and 'Master Plan for City Streets'

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Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled an ambitious proposal for municipal control of the city’s mass transit system on Tuesday at his first State of the City speech at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.

“I am not here to be typical,” Johnson, who is considering a run for mayor in 2021, promised early on as he delivered a speech focused on nothing but transit, including a forceful push for replacing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state entity that controls the city’s subways and buses, with a new entity called Big Apple Transit (BAT), under the control of the mayor. While the complex proposal would need approval from state lawmakers and likely faces a challenging path to passage, something Johnson acknowledged, he also outlined various plans and ideas for city transit and use of public space that are under the control of the city.

The speaker, who just began his second year leading the 51-member Council, also revealed that he intends to introduce legislation to require the city produce a “master plan for city streets” in order to improve surface transportation and street safety infrastructure, make the city more hospitable to bikers and pedestrians, and reduce the number of cars on city streets. He also made a number of suggestions to speed buses up that the city can execute, and Johnson also proposed a new deputy mayor position to oversee transportation policy and programs.  

Johnson’s speech was accompanied by the release of a 101-page report titled “Let’s Go” that dives deep into the issues plaguing the city’s mass transit system, the history of the current bureaucratic system that control it, and a soup-to-nuts vision for transforming it over the next few decades.

“This is a ticking time bomb,” Johnson said, bemoaning the decline in subway and bus ridership in the last few years. “If we can’t move people around, New York City can’t function.” In many ways, the city’s mass transit system is the engine of its economy. In October 2017, City Comptroller Scott Stringer found that subway delays cost the city about $389 million every year in lost productivity and wages. Johnson emphasized that point on Tuesday as he criticized recent efforts to improve the MTA as “Band-Aid solutions to mortal wounds.”

Johnson pitched his own bold vision in direct contrast to what he said was insufficient new plans from Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, though he did not name them. The two recently released a ten-point plan to “transform and fund the MTA” that includes implementation of a congestion pricing scheme. Johnson said he was presenting his plan because no one was doing “anything real” to save the city’s lifeblood transit network.

Johnson said his proposed new transit agency would be funded through several dedicated streams including local congestion tolls if the state Legislature and governor fail to pass a comprehensive congestion pricing program this year. He indicated he had the votes in the City Council to make it happen. He also called on the state to give the city the authority to raise taxes on corporations that are fully deductible at the federal level.

The BAT would also not suffer from the issues that currently plague the bloated bureaucracy of the MTA, he said. “Right now, it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of transit subsidiaries with a 3,000 person headquarters layered on top,” he said of the state authority, run by a board with representatives of several officials, where the governor has a plurality of appointees and names the chair. The BAT, on the other hand, would be leaner, more efficient, and with clear lines of accountability with the mayor on top. “Under municipal control, we will do a full audit of every part of the MTA we take over,” he said.

Municipal control would also allow the city to better control the costs of subway construction, which are exponentially higher than other developed nations with similar transit needs, Johnson said. “Adding a single mile of subway track in New York City costs the same as sending a rover to Mars,” he quipped.

Though the city does not control the subways and buses, Johnson does plan to flex the Council’s authority to mandate improvements to streets and sidewalks through the proposed “master plan,” to be required every five years. Among its top-line mandates would be the creation of 50 miles of protected bike lanes every year with a "fully connected bike network covering the city by 2030"; installing transit signal priority at all of the city’s 325 bus routes by 2030, up from the 12 where it is currently in place; making all intersections with pedestrian signals accessible by 2030; and expanding accessibility for disabled New Yorkers to all 472 subway stations, of which only 118 are currently accessible.

He said the Council will develop a zoning proposal to facilitate those subway accessibility improvements at 300 stations located adjacent to underdeveloped land and offer a “density bonus” to developers for other station improvements.

“Let’s break the car culture. We have been living in Robert Moses’ New York for almost a century, and it is time to move on,” Johnson declared, taking aim at the infamous public official who was responsible for building a transit infrastructure network that favored wealthier car-owning residents and sidelined lower-income New Yorkers who relied on mass transit. Johnson also suggested that the city’s plan to rebuild a mile-and-a-half section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), a Moses legacy item, at a cost of $4 billion was misguided. “That’s almost two Mars rovers,” he joked, going on to say that there has to be a better way that isn’t so car-focused.

Johnson’s speech repeatedly appeared as a rebuke to Cuomo and de Blasio, who have feuded over subway funding for years but recently came together to support a congestion pricing program with few details. Cuomo has repeatedly tried to distance himself from the subway crisis, claiming that he does not control the MTA even though he appoints a plurality of its board members and its senior leadership and the board has never gone against Cuomo’s wishes. Cuomo is also fond of invoking Robert Moses when talking of his own infrastructure record. The mayor, in turn, has tried to wash his hands of the MTA’s troubles by blaming the governor, though de Blasio appoints four MTA board members and the city has more control over the buses than the subways, by virtue of its powers over the streets. De Blasio has taken little interest in reducing congestion and speeding buses, though he announced during his own recent State of the City speech several plans to address the bus crisis facing the city. Johnson’s go further.

And though de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic fatalities through street redesigns and other projects has been successful, the mayor continues to face criticism for not going far enough and for being an avid proponent of car culture. Case in point, he rarely rides the subways unless it is to promote a transit-related announcement and he drives 12 miles to the gym.

Both de Blasio and Cuomo's offices were quick to throw cold water on Johnson's announcement. "A City takeover of the subways is a worthy discussion that in a best-case scenario would take years to achieve," de Blasio spokesperson Eric Phillips said in a statement. "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."

Dani Lever, a spokesperson for the governor, tweeted, "A few facts -- NYC owns the NYC transit system and can cancel the MTA lease with one year's notice; the City's civil service staffs the system; and the Mayor has total veto over the State and City funded NYCT capital plan." 

Johnson made clear in his speech on Tuesday that his focus on mass transit was more than just about reducing train delays or traffic deaths. “This is a progressive issue. It always has been,” he said, as he spoke of the low-income New Yorkers who are most affected by failing transit and the heavy cost on the environment of the city’s car culture. “We need to change the way we think about big problems,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note - This article has been updated with statements from spokespeople for Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo.

Calling for More Savings, Stringer Releases Analysis of De Blasio Budget Plan

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Comptroller Stringer

New York Comptroller Scott Stringer released on Friday his analysis of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1 of this year. De Blasio had presented a $92.2 billion budget plan on Feb. 7, 2019, the first step of many that will lead to a budget deal between de Blasio and the City Council. As comptroller, Stringer is tasked with budget oversight and monitoring the city’s fiscal health.

During his presentation at his Manhattan office, Stringer expressed concern over de Blasio’s use of “one-time actions” to craft the budget and said the city ought to increase its savings “cushion” to 15% of total spending to prepare for an impending economic downturn. Savings are at roughly 11%, he said. Stringer said that de Blasio’s preliminary budget, which is far from the final product, would make for spending growth of 2.1%. The city budget has grown significantly and rapidly under de Blasio.

Stringer warned the city should be ready to take a budget hit from the state and while he commended the mayor for announcing a new savings plan -- de Blasio’s version of a Program to Eliminate the Gap, or PEG -- Stringer said it is not as ambitious as it should be and city agencies need a real “scrub” of their budgets and operations to identify more opportunities for efficiency.

Stringer also announced that he has removed the Department of Education from his “agency watch list” — a tool the office introduced last year to most closely track efficiency of spending in select city agencies of concern — and the Department of Buildings has been added. DOB, he said, has hired 132 new construction inspectors — a 62% increase in spending — while construction accidents rose 252%. The other two entrants on the watch list, the Department of Correction and the agencies that perform homeless services, remain.

Stringer pointed out, as de Blasio had, that city and state tax revenues have fallen recently, raising significant red flags as budget season unfolds. The state budget appears to be on shakier ground than the city’s, and a state spending plan is due by April 1, which will influence the city budget that is decided thereafter. The comptroller said the city should prepare for the state to shift the burden.

“The first place Albany goes to save money is New York City,” said Stringer. “We are not doing enough to prepare for this scenario or this reality.”

De Blasio and Stringer both recently testified in the state capital at a joint legislative budget hearing. During his testimony, de Blasio asked legislators to help him fight back against proposed cost shifts and cuts that Governor Andrew Cuomo had outlined in his January executive budget.

Stringer said on Friday that the city’s projected accumulated surplus is $1.4 billion less than at the start of this fiscal year despite the $400 million added to it, and most of the addition to the surplus this year was due to “one-time shots,” which are resources the city only collects once and can’t count on in recurring fashion.

After nine years of surplus and economic expansion, Stringer said the city should prepare for an economic downturn as the federal tax stimulus wears off. As the unprecedented growth streak has continued, de Blasio, Stringer and others have expected tougher times year after year, but they have not yet arrived. This year could be different, depending in part on how New York taxpayers have and continue to react to the new federal tax code.

As he called for the larger budget cushion -- something Stringer has pushed for years and de Blasio has mostly dismissed, citing large reserves -- the comptroller said preparation is key in order to protect low-income families, city workers, and social services that could be the biggest victims of city cuts.

On his agency watchlist, launched last year in an effort to reform spending at certain city agencies, Stringer congratulated the Department of Education for making its way off after reducing travel costs and consolidating redundant programs. He said DOE showed conclusive evidence of more efficient spending.

But the Department of Buildings made its way onto the list after hiring the 132 new construction inspectors, a 78.6% increase that yielded only a 32% increase in inspections. Meanwhile, there was a 252% increase in construction accidents, Stringer said, and a 166.7% increase in construction fatalities from fiscal year 2014 to 2018.

“We needed to hire inspectors, but they must be deployed in a way that gets results, and that's not what we are seeing here, so they have joined the watchlist,” he said.

The Department of Correction and five different city agencies that spend on homelessness remain on the watchlist. City spending on homelessness has increased from $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2014 to a projected $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2020, with the majority of spending going to shelters and other funding to prevention and services, with little impact in reducing the city’s homeless population — with 60,620 adults and children living in shelters as of Thursday, according to the city, and 580,000 New Yorkers living rent-burdened and on the edge of homelessness.

“This is really a crisis that is not being managed,” said Stringer. “There’s a lot of contributing factors.”

De Blasio has repeatedly said that he has not made the progress he’d hoped on homelessness but has also made the case that his administration’s efforts have stopped the problem from getting much worse, and that the city has finally stabilized the decades-long growth in homelessness, including through a significant increase in anti-eviction programs as well as rent vouchers for those leaving shelter.

Correction remains on the watch list after spending has nearly doubled since fiscal year 2014, partly in an effort to decrease violence on Rikers Island, though that violence has increased while the overall jail population has decreased significantly. According to the comptroller, the city currently spends $300,000 per detainee every year, up from $117,000 in 2008, and in the same period the number of violent incidents has more than tripled to 1,354 per 1,000 population. Meanwhile the number of detainees has decreased by 36%.

The comptroller also announced Friday that he has sent a letter to de Blasio’s office asking for a full financial accounting for ThriveNYC, the mental health program run by First Lady Chirlane McCray that has recently come under media and City Council scrutiny. Stringer expressed concerns about the transparency and effectiveness of the funding, and said he wants to determine where exactly the $250 million in annual spending is going.

by Brianna Zimmerman, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this article.

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