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Opinion

Opinion

'Blow Up the MTA'? Not Yet


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Council Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


With subway and bus riders so frustrated with poor service, it is understandable that city leaders are talking about changing the governance of the MTA and its New York City Transit (NYCT) division as a solution.

Most notably, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has come up with a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided plan to break NYCT off from the MTA and vest full responsibility for its funding and operation in a mayor-controlled structure he’s named Big Apple Transit, or BAT. BAT would run the city transit used by millions of New Yorkers every day.

The speaker and I, along with MTA Board member Veronica Vanterpool and moderator Charles Komanoff, appeared Wednesday evening on a panel to discuss his plan, part of the Theodore Kheel Fellowship Program at Roosevelt House at Hunter College.

The appeal of the speaker’s plan has been enhanced by Governor Cuomo’s pre-election (and continuing, although to a lesser extent) protestations that neither he nor anyone, really, controls the MTA and is responsible for improving how it operates.

But shifting from MTA to city government control would only substitute New York City-centric political challenges for regional ones, and could well make some of the system’s problems worse. Attention and effort would more usefully be focused on reminding the current MTA Board of its fiduciary responsibility to the agency, not to the Governor, demanding more transparency and requiring serious oversight by the State Legislature.

It is far easier to argue for city control of subways and buses than to get into the weeds of how to reform MTA procurement, why and how to install a new signal system, or the need for work rule changes in union contracts. But these are the dynamics that need change the most.

There are several reasons why a shift in control of subways and buses from a regional to a city authority would be problematic.

First, the separation of city buses and subways from the rest of the MTA’s assets runs counter to the long-term goal of creating a more integrated regional transit system. More than 1.1 million people commute into New York City to work. They swipe their metrocards half-a-million times a day. We need these workers to contribute to the city’s economy, shop, and pay sales taxes in addition to bridge tolls and fares that help support the buses and subways. We need to be thinking about how to better connect Westchester and Long Island transit systems (and yes, New Jersey and Connecticut as well) to the city’s, not allow them to exist in siloes.

Second, even if it were desirable, a new Big Apple Transit would not be financially viable. We have a Metropolitan Transit Authority because it serves, and derives revenue from, seven suburban counties in addition to the five boroughs of New York City.

The Payroll Mobility Tax and the dedicated regional sales tax are levied on businesses and activities in the region with suburban counties as well as residents and businesses paying a significant share. In particular, the PMT generates more than $1 billion per year for NYCT. This tax was vehemently opposed by suburban legislators when it was adopted in 2009 and it has repeatedly been subjected to various exceptions. The state Legislature agreed to make up some of the lost revenue from the exemptions.

Can there be any doubt that if NYCT were separated from the regional MTA the state Legislature would quickly and gleefully cease providing the lost revenue from the exemption from the PMT and might well suspend or redirect other regional taxes designated for the MTA exclusively to the LIRR and Metro North?

This could mean that city residents and businesses would be required to make up the loss of some of the $2 billion in annual revenue from sales taxes, ride-hail surcharges, mortgage transfer fees, etc. now devoted to the NYCT. Even if replacement of these revenues with local taxes were acceptable to the public(!), there is no guarantee that the state Legislature would grant New Yor City authority to impose them.

And the subsidy from general state revenue would be at risk as well. The governor has made his view on this clear: “If New York City took [transit] over, they take it over. They don’t get the state funding.”

Speaker Johnson’s proposal assumes that all regional and state subsidies to NYCT would remain in place and even then, he projects the city would need to come up with an additional $1-1.5 billion in revenue a year. The loss of any or all state and regional support, totaling almost $3 billion a year, could make the shortfall overwhelming and would require significant increases in fares and other taxes. And the shortfall would be even worse if there is a recession.Will city taxpayers and riders put up with absorbing all of that?

It is of course undeniable that the MTA Board structure obscures accountability. But it is necessary and appropriate for a regional transit system to have representation of all the impacted counties on its board.

Nonetheless, the Mayor has more appointees than anyone besides the Governor, who also appoints the CEO/Chair. After all the drama of the last year over service disruptions, the declaration of a state of emergency to expedite repair work, the announcement of the Fast Forward Plan, and the governor’s last-minute intervention and rejection of the planned shutdown of the L line for a modified plan, it is now abundantly clear that the buck stops with the Governor.

Yes, the Board needs to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities, be more transparent and exercise better oversight, but merely switching ultimate responsibility from one elected official to another will not change the fact that, so long as public transit is a public responsibility, it will have political leadership that shies away from making tough decisions.

To properly maintain and improve 24-hour bus and subway service, fares need to be regularly and steadily raised. Service needs to be suspended on some lines for periods of time so they can be properly maintained and repaired. A Board appointed by the Mayor will not find these decisions any easier than one controlled by the Governor, especially if it has to generate even more revenue because of the absence of state and regional tax support.

It is clear that one of the main drivers of NYCT cost growth is personnel. Why will the Mayor be any more likely than the Governor to resist the power of the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) and other labor unions? Notwithstanding Governor Cuomo’s intervention in 2014 to forge a contract settlement with transit unions – with no productivity initiatives or fringe benefit savings to offset wage increases – TWU head John Samuelson is already threatening a strike in response to recent exposés on overtime abuses and related criticism. A Mayor would be even more susceptible to these kinds of threats.

Disjointed regional transit planning and administration, possible loss of substantial state and regional funding, a fraught environment in which to implement fare increases, raise taxes, and negotiate labor contracts – these are the likely results of “blowing up the MTA.” Better to focus on practical, feasible steps to make the MTA work better right now. Reinvent Albany recently published a report with 50 Actions New York Can Take To Renew Public Trust in the Metropolitan  Transportation Authority that contains many worthwhile proposals. Among the most significant:

-The MTA Board should vote on policy decisions, not adopt them de facto though contract approvals.

-The Senate and Assembly should create committees dedicated specifically to oversight of the MTA, not treat it as part of the general Transportation or Authorities Committee jurisdiction where the MTA region are not well-enough represented.

-MTA Board members should be subject to a real, thorough vetting and confirmation process.

-There should be much more open data on contracts, project progress, budget and capital planning.

-The MTA fiscal year should be moved to begin in July instead of January, so state budget actions can be taken into account in financial planning.

-Procurement should be streamlined so there are fewer incentives for change orders and cost overruns.

Instead of devoting time and attention to the idea of putting different people in the seats on the deck of the Titanic, let’s work on getting the ship into stable waters and smooth sailing by insisting on competence and accountability from the crew we have.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

 

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We Can Help Thousands More Residents of Affordable Housing Register to Vote


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


No one’s socioeconomic status should limit their capacity to make their voice heard at the ballot box. But more must be done to ensure that low-income populations across the nation are registered to vote and can participate in the democratic process.

We can help address this issue in New York by taking more information directly to residents in and around their own apartment buildings. Managers of affordable housing developments can play a significant role in connecting tenants with the information needed to register to vote.

That is why NYSAFAH is launching a non-partisan voter registration initiative that will target residents of affordable housing developments that are managed by our members. Through this effort, we can help thousands more low-income New Yorkers register to vote by the end of this year.

NYSAFAH is the state’s trade association of affordable housing developers, managers, architects, planners, and others who help build and preserve homes for low- and middle-income New Yorkers.

Our first priority is to deliver quality housing for New Yorkers. However, being good stewards of affordable housing often extends beyond the day-to-day maintenance of four walls and a roof.

Our members also impact the lives of their residents by helping them access social services, participate in recreational programming and engage in other activities that contribute to strong families and healthy living. We believe that working to increase rates of voter registration can become an important part of that broader mission.

As part of our new initiative, NYSAFAH will partner with the New York City League of Women Voters to advance a coordinated outreach campaign that is driven by direct engagement with residents. This outreach will include voter registration drives held at buildings in which residents live. At these sessions, managers will provide non-partisan guidance and information with the goal of maximizing voter registration among the resident population.

NYSAFAH members collectively manage hundreds of buildings across the five boroughs, with tens of thousands of residents overall. This makes for an even greater opportunity to have a real impact on boosting rates of voter registration among low-income communities throughout New York.

As we make progress on this front, we will also be taking an important first step toward advancing the broader goal of increasing voter participation – when more of us vote, we all benefit from a stronger democracy.

And after all, this just makes sense. When it comes to engaging with residents, why not start with a renewed effort to give them more of the tools they need right at home?

We have already received a great deal of positive feedback from NYSAFAH members who are excited to embark on what we all believe will be a crucial initiative for our state. Our team looks forward to seeing thousands more New Yorkers registered to vote – and we hope that this work can serve as a model for future initiatives to keep advancing the ball.

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Jolie Milstein is president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH). On Twitter @NYSAFAH.

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T-Mobile-Sprint Merger Will Help Those Who’ve Been Left Behind in the Digital Age


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Mignon Clyburn, the author, left (photo: @MignonClyburn)


Wireless broadband should reach communities of color at the same time it reaches most of the U.S. population.

Why do I say this…or is the question really, why am I still saying this in 2019?

While serving nine years as a Federal Communications Commissioner, I saw firsthand how wireless broadband access expands access to jobs, enriches education, and deepens political engagement. Losing out on wireless broadband opportunities today increases the risk of us losing out on just about everything the future holds.  

In a recent roundtable discussion at New York Law School about “5G,” the next generation of wireless technology, I spoke about how both government and industry need to keenly focus on ensuring that underserved communities receive the anticipated benefits of 5G sooner rather than later. And, in my view, approving the T-Mobile/Sprint merger is one of the best ways to ensure inclusive broadband deployments. 

T-Mobile, which I am currently advising, has long been an ally of underserved consumers. You find their stores in markets other providers avoid, and the company has doubled down and broadened access to key communications and technological services.

Consider T-Mobile's investments in MetroPCS, the prepaid brand it acquired in 2013, and you will find an unwavering commitment to cost-conscious communities. And that's not all—T-Mobile has helped hundreds of thousands of Americans, including thousands of New Yorkers, build a credit history by enabling, and in many cases encouraging, a transition from prepaid to postpaid phone plans. T-Mobile has bridged the gap between Metro and postpaid phone plans, allowing Metro customers to have a comparable experience to those on postpaid plans.

The merger with Sprint will enable a massive new investment by T-Mobile—nearly $40 billion, to be exact—to create an inclusive, nationwide 5G network and services that will greatly improve access to broadband for all New Yorkers, not just the wealthy.

In my time at the FCC, I worked on expanding wireless service in underserved neighborhoods because I recognized early on that broadband connectivity offers an ever-present stepping stone for upward mobility. Now in 2011, I opposed the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger, in part because AT&T already controlled 44 percent of the market. But unlike that deal, the T-Mobile/Sprint merger will combine the two smallest nationwide providers and strengthen a maverick that can better compete against two dominant players.

From Bed-Stuy to Buffalo, the combined company’s expansive deployment plan promises to bring us closer to bridging the digital divide, and it will do so in an affordable way.

The companies have pledged to offer the same services T-Mobile and Sprint currently offer at the same prices for three years or until better plans that offer lower prices or more data are made available. This means that competition will quickly heat up and prices will likely come down as other carriers feel the heat.

No one stands to benefit more from this fierce competition than those currently underserved. Research, including the work of Brookings Institution expert Nicol Turner Lee, shows that lower-income Americans are the most likely to rely on wireless as their primary or sole means of connecting to the internet. The 5G network enabled by the T-Mobile/Sprint merger will allow customers who can’t afford expensive in-home broadband to access broadband-equivalent speeds on their phones.

While at the FCC, I was proud to have strengthened the Lifeline program, which subsidizes wireless service for those who otherwise could not afford it. T-Mobile and Sprint have not only committed to continue supporting this important service in New York and across the country, but they will also maintain support for programs like Sprint's 1Million Project, which provides service and devices to worthy high school students.

The New York Public Service Commission has already approved the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, and I hope that those who are still reviewing the transaction at the federal and state levels will not stand in the way.

The status quo is not acceptable. What is needed is for a proven wireless industry disruptor to expand on a larger scale, bringing wider and better connectivity opportunities to New Yorkers as we move into the 5G era. For those currently on the wrong side of the digital divide, change cannot come soon enough.

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Mignon Clyburn served as Federal Communications Commission Commissioner from 2009 to 2018, and is currently an adviser to T-Mobile. On Twitter @MignonClyburn.

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