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Plan for city control of NYC’s subway system unveiled by Council Speaker

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Corey Johnson’s call for reforming the “Frankenstein’s monster of transit subsidiaries” that is the MTA

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City Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled a comprehensive plan at his State of the City address Tuesday to place control of the New York City’s mass transit—including the MTA’s subway and buses—into the city’s hands.

Johnson, who has previously floated the idea, proposed the radical policy move in a 104-page report that envisions disentangling control from what has become “Frankenstein’s monster of transit subsidiaries” and consolidating control into a new city-led entity dubbed Big Apple Transit (BAT).

The shift in governance would give New York City riders and drivers—whose fares, tolls, and taxes already foot most of the bill for the system—greater transparency and accountability on how those dollars are spent on the city’s deteriorating transit network.

“Transit is the lifeblood of the city, and it is in crisis,” Johnson said at Tuesday’s address on LaGuardia Community College’s campus in Queens. “Our economy lives and dies on how people move around. If we want to survive, we’ve got to get this right.”

The Big Apple Transit agency—Johnson says he’s not married to the name and invited New Yorkers to tweet him suggestions—that the speaker envisions would have one clear figurehead in charge with accountability squarely placed on their shoulders: the mayor. (That’s in contrast to the current system led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who insists he does not run the MTA.) Johnson also recommended that a new deputy mayor be appointed to oversee city transit policy, and that BAT board members be New Yorkers who actually use mass transit.

The new structure would work to resolve issues of political interference and a lack of clear financial support that has plagued the current system, Johnson said Tuesday.

“Do you know the real reason your commute is awful? Because the MTA exists in a vacuum of accountability,” Johnson told the crowd Tuesday. “Give us greater fiscal independence and we will fix the system.” He proposed the state should transfer portions of the sales tax city dwellers pay to BAT for a “dedicated and stable” source of funding.

As with other municipal operations, BAT would be part of the city’s budget and be subject to a robust oversight and planning process that other city agencies undergo, the report notes. Additionally, BAT’s financial plan would be periodically reviewed by a third party engineering firm to ensure that the plans provides “sufficient resources to keep the system viable over the long-run” and prevent the “backsliding in maintenance and investment” that has fractured the transit system.

While BAT would inherit the MTA’s operating deficit Johnsons points to congestion pricing as an obvious source of revenue but has admitted that he is not convinced that Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan would allocate all of the toll money to the city’s transits needs. Johnson’s report explores a multi-pronged approach to ramp up the agency’s budget through ending inefficient procurement, identifying cost-saving strategies for labor costs, providing local taxing authority, and other measures.

Johnson would also establish an ambitious five-year master plan for bike, bus, vehicle, ferry, and pedestrian infrastructure for cohesive upgrades rather than the the “patchwork system” that exists today, his report notes. Such a plan, according to the report, would set out to:

  • Install of at least 30 miles of bus lanes per year.
  • Bring Transit Signal Priority (TSP) technology to at least 1,000 intersections per year.
  • Install bus lanes, bus lane cameras, and TSP on every single bus route by 2030.
  • Implement bus route redesigns and bus stop upgrades citywide by 2025.
  • Expand the City’s Plaza Program.
  • Quadruple the number of Shared Streets by 2025.
  • Redesign and make every signaled intersection accessible by 2030.
  • Require minimum design standards for protected bike lanes.
  • Install at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes per year.
  • Complete a fully connected bike network by 2030.
  • Increase bike ridership to 14 percent of trips by 2050.
  • Work to rein in placard abuse.
  • Overhaul commercial loading zones, truck routes, and parking policies by 2025.
  • Reduce private car ownership by half by 2050.
  • Reduce the size of the City’s vehicle fleet by at least 20 percent by 2025 and transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2050.
  • Prioritize green infrastructure in transportation projects.

“We must take control of our destiny, we must have municipal control of our mass transit system. I’m deadly serious about this,” declared an impassioned Johnson—who is a possible candidate for mayor in 2020—during the speech. “Taking control won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.”

Implementing such a plan would require much coordination with and approval from the state, and it’s unclear if lawmakers would sign on to Johnson’s ambitious plan. The Cuomo administration’s immediate response was that “the city already owns the New York City transit system” (not taking into account the byzantine process by which decisions about New York City transit are made). But one former MTA official did signal his support for the plan: Joe Lhota, who advocated for mayoral control of the subway system during his own run in 2013.