Corey Johnson, City Council Leader, delivered his State of the City speech presenting his proposal ‘A Case for Municipal Control and a Comprehensive Transportation Vision for the Five Boroughs’ telling us what every New Yorker already knows. “Smart, well-developed transportation policy can significantly improve economic conditions and enhance public safety and climate outcomes. Poorly crafted policy can be devastating.”
Statistics provided in the Executive Summary of the proposal reveal that subway and bus ridership has DECREASED from 2016 to 2017, while Taxis/For-Hire Vehicles have increased. Only 55.8% of New Yorkers take mass transit to work. Ask any New Yorker to explain this, and you will receive a litany of public transit horror stories. Perhaps for NYC the Bible verse should be edited to “It is easier for a New Yorker to ride through the eye of a needle than to get to work on time on a bus or subway!” Subway ridership has dropped 15% between 2012-2018 and continues to drop as does bus ridership. The MTA—Metropolitan Transit Authority—is responsible for our public transit and it is run by the State of NY.
We also know the streets of NYC are in terrible shape with potholes damaging cars and sometimes people. I fell in one running last year on W. 12th Street. In 2017, there were approximately 60,712 complaints regarding potholes and NYC is financially liable for damages to cars—in 2015 they paid $32 million. The City is also responsible for slip/trip injury on sidewalks, motor vehicle property damage as well as medical malpractice and police action. In 2017 the City paid out over $675 million, almost six percent more than in 2016.
Neither New York State nor New York City have been good administrators of either subways and buses or streets and sidewalks. The roads are congested and NYC streets are dangerous. There were 10,561 pedestrian injuries in 2017 and 108 fatalities from motor vehicles. Yet there was an increase in 2018 to 114 fatalities despite the Mayor’s Vision Zero initiative to reduce vehicle speed. You are not safe from bikes either. Many of us have had close calls with speeding bikers who ignore traffic signals or signs. Last year there were 315 pedestrians injured by bikes and one was killed. If you are disabled, a senior, a mother with a stroller or carrying suitcases, riding public transportation is difficult or impossible. The recent death of a young mother struggling to carry her stroller on mid-town subway stairs was possibly an avoidable tragedy. Out of 472 stations only 118 (25%) are somewhat handicapped accessible.
Johnson admits that much of the problem is attributable to poor communication between the State and the City with their separate systems and controls. He proposes that the City take over the transit governance to be run by a new mass transit system—the BAT (Big Apple Transit). The Mayor would be in charge. (Johnson hopes to be Mayor one day.) The BAT Board would consist of diverse New Yorkers who actually use public transportation. BAT would be part of the city budget reviewed regularly by an engineering firm to assure the financial plans are adequate to keep the system viable.
He advocates following the methods of the NYC Water Board, however moving water through the city’s pipes may be easier than moving people through 850 miles of subway tracks. There are problems with the Water Board as well, including contamination, incorrect billing and rude customer service.
The MTA would continue to service its current debt before the transit revenues could flow back to BAT and the commuter railroads. BAT could then issue bonds, not the MTA, and free the new system to make needed capital investments.
BAT would inherit the MTA operating deficit. Johnson believes Congestion Pricing is the magic bullet to raise the money to pay off the MTA debt, run the system and control traffic congestion. However the Proposal reveals that the $1.1 billion anticipated will not be enough funding and a 10 Year Capital Plan will be needed and approved by the State Legislature. Even with this, BAT will start out with annual budget deficits of $600 million anyway.
However BAT promises to reduce the costs of the current MTA procurement process. The explanation of how this works is unclear. It is suggested the BAT follow the model of the City’s School Construction Authority. Yet there has been much criticism of the school building process. In April there were hearings with parents to address school overcrowding and the School Construction Agency’s dysfunction that results in substandard education for many students.
BAT also would address labor costs of the MTA, suggesting they could be lowered through collaboration with unions reducing health care benefits, overtime and other cost saving areas. Yet reducing salaries and benefits of MTA workers could have a negative effect on their performance and hiring qualified personnel.
If enough money is not made by the above strategies, BAT would require the State to give the city authority to tax more, rather than raise fares. Revenues that are deductions to Federal taxes would be the vehicle especially for corporations who can still deduct items as MTA payroll mobility tax, the MTA corporate tax surcharges and the city’s two business taxes. These could help fill in the gap, along with other potential taxes, especially since the Federal government has been unwilling to invest in major infrastructure to date. But mining details in the report reveals BAT would raise sales tax in NYC from 8.875 to 9.25 percent.
Suggested revenue-raising policies such as raising the Transfer Tax for commercial buildings, eliminating business tax loopholes, collecting payments from schools and hospitals instead of taxes do not guarantee that these monies go to transit.
Corey wants shared control with MTA over commuter railroads, but the details would need to be worked out. He claims the BAT model could bring in $200 million more annually. He proposes a new organization for regional cooperation.
City control of the fare system would be committed to ending the practice of funding transit on the riders’ backs. He proposes to have the capital budget follow the City’s process, with public hearings and public review, extending major projects from five to ten years. Installing bus lanes and cameras, route redesign and TSP (Transit Signal Priority) should improve bus service. Expanding the city Plaza program for pedestrian-only public spaces to further ”green” NYC, along with adding 50 miles of bike lanes and increasing bike ridership to 14% of trips are his goals.
Congestion would be reduced not only by making NYC too expensive to drive to, but addressing placard abuse and overhauling commercial loading zones, truck routes and parking. His proposal to get rid of the congested BQE says it should incorporate public opinion. Yet the city’s proposal to turn the Brooklyn Heights Promenade into a temporary six-lane highway during repairs was broadly denounced. Getting rid of it entirely could force its truck traffic and pollution into the streets. The goal to reduce private car ownership by half by 2050 may not be realistic. He plans to reduce the number of NYC’s vehicles, making them 100 percent renewable. The City would be required to use permeable pavements, and consider the installation of green infrastructure, especially in communities of color.
Well, it’s not easy being green. Many questions arise from just a cursory examination of these schemes. I interviewed a variety of people for their opinions. One doctor diagnosed the plan looking at these sick patients’ histories and wondered if the City would be any better than the State administrating the subways given that the schools were given to the Mayor under Bloomberg, not necessarily to their advantage. And NYC Public Housing is an embarrassing example of inept City control of public space. A driver for Access-a-Ride, well familiar with the disabled, felt that it was unfair to tax people whose handicaps make it impossible for them to ride the subways, and who have to drive in and out of the city for doctor’s appointments etc. Many of them are low-income seniors whose population increased 19% in 2017. Some residents of Greenwich Village felt it was outrageous for them to be taxed to return home to lower Manhattan if they had to drive uptown or to another borough or out of the state. A taxi driver complained the fees would make a trip to the Airport as well as local travel more expensive. He also suggested that residents of Manhattan be exempted from congestion fees and receive resident status as Staten Islanders who use the Verrazano Bridge have. All interviewed felt these congestion fees would fall hardest on the poor and middle class, struggling to make a living. Rich people in limos could care less. Taxing trucks and making it difficult to drive and deliver their goods in NYC will negatively impact the city’s economy and raise prices. Much of the current congestion is caused by endless construction on the streets, reducing traffic to one lane or less.
We have the money and technology in this country to address the pollution problem, but lack the will and vision to implement the vast changes we need. Planting trees alone would greatly improve air quality. Urban trees perform a number of important ecosystem services. Canada created urban forests in 86 cities that removed 16,000 tons of air pollution in one year, with significant health benefits. The EPA finds that congestion pricing can reduce pollution to 10% to 30%. A more equitable and fair congestion pricing system, combined with other energy–saving measures, are needed.
Both the state and city are culpable for the current situation. NYC owns the transit system and leases it to the NYC Transit Authority, an agency of the state MTA. Recently a piece of debris fell from a subway track onto a car, probably caused by a truck in a street hitting a subway support. After this accident the MTA did an inspection and declared the tracks safe. Two weeks later another beam fell on a car. The MTA Chief Safety officer Pat Warren said their method of inspection was looking down from the tracks, but perhaps now they should look up from below. Since the MTA has problems dealing with down and up or up and down, this subway circus must improve its act.
However before draconian changes, NYC and NYS should learn first to communicate with each other to solve the transit problem in the current system.
Last year Governor Como declared the subway system was in a state of emergency, and implemented the Subway Action Plan (SAP) that planned 30 strategies to improve cars, tracks, signals, power and customer communication. On March 18 the MTA announced that the plan was working. Subways have shown dramatic improvements with the lowest number of weekday delays in five years. Johnson’s Proposal grudgingly acknowledges there has been progress, although there is controversy over who is responsible, the MTA or the NYCT. Perhaps we should wait to see how SAP does before implementing BAT.
Establishing new bureaucracies as BAT is expensive but incorporating some of its good ideas could be possible, as appointing a Mobility Czar, a Deputy Mayor level position, with staff to coordinate the various transportation policies and activities. This could help communication between the city and the state. Also helpful is its proposal to eliminate the exemption from city business taxes for insurance companies that would have earned the city $550 million in Fiscal 2018.
However the Proposal has no clear timeline for its projects or financial strategies. Declaring war on cars and trucks (increasing due to internet shopping) including doubling parking meter rates, without safe and reliable public transportation is unbalanced and unrealistic, despite the need to remedy the crimes of the urban villain Robert Moses, the enemy of public transportation. The list of indictments against the MTA administration is long, but NYC government has wallowed in corruption and ineptitude. Neither has achieved fiscal stability or public trust. Most of the transit system’s problems stem from lack of funds. Mayor de Blasio in his State of the City speech proclaimed that a millionaires’ tax could generate $800 million and be the magic bullet to pay for improving the transit system, earning almost as much as congestion pricing. Yet his idea has been banished to page 46 of Corey Johnson’s proposal. Perhaps the Speaker needs to get stronger glasses, find it and make it a priority. We need all the help we can get.