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Why Doesn’t New York City Have Full Control of Its Subways?

North America’s largest subway system is run by a board that’s disproportionately controlled by state government. A city-run system has merits, but so far only one mayoral candidate is interested in changing the status quo.

New York subway train at a platform.
New York City has the largest subway system in North America, but the mayor does not oversee the system. With an election looming, the next mayor could try and change the situation. Or not.
New York’s most iconic form of transportation faces an uncertain future. During the pandemic, like all mass transit systems, ridership on the city’s subways plummeted to unprecedented depths. At its worst, in April 2020, it stood at a mere 8.3 percent of 2019 levels. All-night service was canceled for the first time in history.

Federal support for the ailing system allayed the immediate funding crisis. The future of commuting, however, remains uncertain, and passengers have been slow to return. In June, ridership is still only at 40 to 60 percent of 2019 levels. In 2019, the city’s subway system averaged a daily ridership of approximately 5.5 million, or just under 1.7 billion annually. Some analysts project that previous levels of ridership, and the accompanying fares, will take years to recover (if they ever do). A study by McKinsey and Company, commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), predicted that only 92 percent of 2019 ridership would return by 2024.

“The bigger issue is now that people have gotten used to working at home, will they ever crowd themselves back into subways five days a week,” asks Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “Unless the new mayor cracks the code on helping the MTA to figure out a way to get more people back, it will be a very slow recovery.”

Despite these fraught circumstances, transportation policy hasn’t come up much during the 2021 New York mayor’s race, which comes to a head next week during the presumably decisive Democratic primary. The only candidate who tried to make an issue of the MTA was Andrew Yang, who put forward a proposal to transform the agency from an Albany-dominated public-private partnership to a municipally controlled institution.

Yang’s proposal took heat from his opponents, from academic experts and from transit advocates. A gaffe-filled press conference didn’t help clarify matters. The proposal hasn’t been brought up during any of the recent mayoral debates or forums (neither have any other transportation ideas). The election has moved on, and municipal control of the subways hasn’t been much discussed since May.

Is Yang’s abortive attempt to raise the idea of municipal control a signal that the idea itself is dead on arrival? Or is this just the latest salvo in a long-running battle that isn’t over yet?

“The guy who's behind Yang, Bradley Tusk, has been talking about this well before Yang was known by anybody,” says Jonathan Orcutt, policy director for the city’s Department of Transportation under Bloomberg. “He says this is the kind of thing, like mayoral control of the schools, where you have to keep talking about it until it ripens. Then we can probably get it done. It's not an accident that it's one of Yang's planks.”

The Lack of Accountability Is the Point

New York City’s chief executive exerts very little power over the MTA, which is a quasi-public corporation. Despite the fact that city residents provide the overwhelming preponderance of its user base and funding, the mayor only gets four seats on the agency’s 17-member voting board.

Myriad state-level taxes, including a chunk of revenues from the gas tax, go to support the MTA too, so the governor has appointees. But power is disproportionately weighted in Albany’s favor. The governor gets six seats and the power to appoint the board chair, who exerts control over the hiring and firing of high-level managers. The rest of the board seats are rounded out by appointments from the suburban counties that the agency services.
This setup is not clear to the average voter, especially because Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly insisted the system is not his responsibility. A 2017 poll, found that 40 percent of respondents did not know who to blame for the delays and breakdowns during what became known as the “summer of hell.” One-third blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio and 25 percent blamed Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“The mayor of New York has enormous power over surface transportation, but almost no power over the subways,” says Mitchell Moss, professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University. “The subways are under the control of the governor, but most New Yorkers think the mayor controls it.”

The confusing system of accountability is part of the MTA’s purpose. In the 1921 mayoral election, a guaranteed nickel fare was a winning campaign issue. It remained one for decades, as the cost of a ride remained frozen and the finances of the subway system fell into ruin. Enormous capital backlogs were the cost of this choice, and in the 1950s policymakers began moving the system away from direct political control to enable the agency to make unpopular policy choices (like fare increases) more readily.

The current state of affairs dates back to the 1960s, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller created the MTA to undercut Robert Moses’ transit-killing empire and backstop the fiscally troubled city’s transportation infrastructure. At the time, New York City was ravaged by population decline, capital flight and budgetary woes. The public-private corporation was also meant to permanently remove transit from the realm of politics, while Albany’s dominance ensured support from a more solvent and stable government.

“Any institution is a product of its time,” says David Bragdon, executive director of the Transit Center, an advocacy group. “The MTA was formed when the city was broke, mismanaged and losing population. The state was stronger in all those respects. Now the city has been gaining population and is actually fiscally in better shape than the state. The conditions today are the opposite of the 1960s.”

In a 2019 reflection on the MTA, Gelinas argued that it served its function well for decades, convincing lawmakers to route state-level revenues to the battered transit service and push through fare hikes in the face of political opposition. In recent years, however, the agency’s performance does not look so impressive.

After ridership hit a post-World War II peak in 2015 it began falling, as delays plagued the system and alternative forms of transportation arose. Costs have skyrocketed while revenue has not, with the predictable outcome that infrastructure goes without maintenance and debt levels are projected to rise to $47 billion by 2023.

There have been rumblings about a return to municipal control for years, as the transit system’s needs intensified. In 2009, Michael Bloomberg’s team considered it as an issue he should run on in his second re-election campaign. In 2013, Republican candidate Joseph Lhota championed a version of the idea. In 2019, City Council President Corey Johnson (then a potential mayoral contender) released a detailed plan for a transfer of power. Yang cited Johnson’s proposal when rolling out his pitch.

“It makes a lot of sense,” says Gelinas. “Look at London, where Transport for London controls the congestion charge, the buses, the streetscape, the bike system.”

Proponents of a municipally controlled MTA, are making the opposite argument of their mid-century predecessors. Instead of insulating transit policy from politics, they say, it is important to give riders and voters a clear line of accountability. That provides a means of pressuring the agency to make hard choices, and a clear means to punish politicians if they fail to keep the trains running on time.

If the next mayor of New York City wants to oversee the city's subways, he'll need New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to agree. But it's unlikely that Cuomo, known for micromanagement, would give up a say in how state resources are spent.
(Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS)

Is Municipal Control Actually a Good Idea?

For the most part, critics attacked Yang’s ideas not on the merits but because they found him fuzzy on the policy details and his strategy for implementation politically unrealistic. It does seem unlikely that any governor, let alone one known for micromanagement, would give up a say in how state resources are spent.

There are also critics who say that local leaders have not shown themselves capable of handling a task as monumental as the largest transit network in North America.

“The city has a flawed record in the biggest systems it controls, schools and NYCHA [the public housing authority],” says Moss, who is director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management.

“It's not a good idea to give this government, which has been incompetent to educate people during this pandemic, any more role in mass transit,” he says. “The MTA has at least run the subway during the pandemic. If subway riders were treated the way the Board of Education treated the parents, there would have been a revolution.”

Bragdon argues that while Yang’s proposal was short of key details, the idea is a strong one. Not only are city politicians more responsive to local voters, they also have other powers within their control that can help juice ridership. Zoning to allow more housing near subway stops and creating rapid bus routes to get further out riders to stations faster, could help the overall system’s functioning.

“I don't see the schools as analogous; look at the other infrastructure services where New York City provides superb service,” says Bragdon. “New York City does a very good job with the water system, with the sewer system. The city controls the streets, the city controls zoning. And the city is accountable to the voters.”

As New York’s transit system embarks on its pandemic recovery, difficult choices will have to be made. Many MTA observers do not have a lot of faith that an agency dominated by state-level interests will be able to execute the complex and unprecedented changes that transit authorities will face in an era of hybrid work, where fewer people have to commute every day. The state-dominated system was failing riders in an era of plenty, why would it do better today?

For Gelinas, who is sympathetic with the idea of municipal control, the political challenges nonetheless seem insurmountable. In normal times Cuomo wouldn’t give up power. Today congestion pricing is about to be implemented with similar levels of state oversight, bringing in more money to the agency’s coffers. That’s further disincentive against giving up control.

But she doesn’t even see that as a Cuomo problem. “The state would never transfer taxes down to the city level,” sighs Gelinas. “The city is so economically powerful that no governor or legislature will willingly give up political power over it. Does Andrew Yang really want to spend his first six months fighting over this, and losing?”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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