Most New Yorkers’ primary contact with government is on their ride to and from work or school every weekday, when they board public transportation in the form of a commuter train, subway car, bus or ferry, or drive on highways, streets and bridges operated by government agencies.
Given its importance to nearly everyone’s life, it is ironic that unlike the state prisons or the city school system, no elected official is directly accountable for the operation of the city’s transportation system.
The Metropolitan Transportation Agency, which operates the bus, subway and commuter rail system –meaning the Long Island Railroad, Metro North Railroad and Staten Island Railroad—as well as the major bridges and tunnels within the city is run by a board whose members are recommended by different power players, although the governor recommends the largest number and alone has the power to appoint all the other nominees. Meanwhile, the Port Authority—a bi-state agency run by appointees of the governors in Trenton and Albany—controls the airports and all the routes into the city from New Jersey while the state Department of Transportation oversees the interstate highways that run through the city, like I-95, I-87 and the Long Island Expressway.
There’s been a lot of argument over the past few months over what role the mayor should play in that transit mix. Fact is, the mayor has no control over the Port or state DOT and recommends for gubernatorial approval only four of the 17 MTA board members.
However, through the city Department of Transportation, the mayor does control the city’s streets and its many smaller bridges as well as the ferry system, and City Hall also runs the police department that is largely charged with enforces the vehicle and traffic laws in the city.
During the 2017 campaign, the candidates for mayor have each highlighted a few transportation issues. Advocates say a much longer list of transit challenges and decisions will confront whoever is in City Hall come January 1.
What the candidates say
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, the Republican nominee for mayor, devoted a television ad to suggesting Mayor de Blasio’s neglect contributed to subway delays and crowding. But De Blasio has argued for months that the transit system is primarily the governor’s responsibility, noting that the city agreed two years ago to contribute $2.5 billion to the MTA’s current five-year capital plan, an unprecedented amount. Gov. Cuomo and transit union leaders like John Samuelson of the TWU have said the city should provide half the funding for the MTA’s new, $800 million emergency repair plan.
Cuomo has proposed imposing East River tolls as a way to raise revenue to fund transit upkeep and improvements. De Blasio says a tax on millionaires could raise revenue without burdening working people who drive into Manhattan. This is the debate that dominates the transit conversation in the city this fall.
The mayor’s campaign literature is long on previous accomplishments and short on new ideas—save the very big idea of a millionaires’ tax (he calls that plan “A Fair Fix”) which his campaign website says would “raise $800 million annually to fund MTA improvements, and provide 800,000 low-income New Yorkers with half-priced MetroCards.”
De Blasio does, however, have a substantial list of transportation accomplishments to talk about: introducing Vision Zero and seeing a drop in traffic fatalities, launching a citywide ferry service, expanding CitiBike and the biking network, adding “select bus service” routes and filling lots of potholes. Last month, the mayor set out a modest agenda for reducing congestion, including pilot programs to test the impact of restricting truck deliveries on key streets during particular times of day, stricter enforcement of blocking-the-box rules, reconstructing key streets and calling for task forces to look for ways to improve the state-controlled highway system.
Malliotakis’ transportation platform revolves around a $1 billion plan for widespread installation of “smart light” technology, which adapts to traffic flow, at city intersections. Independent candidate Bo Dietl wants to freeze any expansion of the MTA until maintenance on existing assets is up to date and offers a number of ideas on how to better fund the transit system. He says he’d consider imposing a new sales tax on high-dollar professional services, a pied a terre tax or a restored commuter tax to fund transit, and also advocates using “green: bonds to finance infrastructure upgrades.
Another independent, Michael Tolkin, supports a $25 billion capital improvement plan for mass transit. Green party nominee Akeem Browder wants to encourage employers to subsidize workers’ transit spending, use existing car-focused infrastructure to host light-rail and other new transit offerings, and expand the bike network—including a system of “free community bicycle fleets.” Reform Party nominee Sal Albanese supports the MoveNY plan, which includes a form of congestion pricing, says he would champion state legislation to dedicate a small share of income-tax revenue directly to transit. Albanese wants to “expand bus service and SBS routes, designate more bus-only and HOV lanes, reduce the fare for Express Bus service, and – yes – extend our subways.”
The road ahead
City Limits surveyed advocacy literature and talked with a handful of transportation advocates to find out what they believe is on the transit to-do list for the next mayor. These issues were at the top of the list:
Paying for a better transit system
Nine years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed in his quest to establish a congestion pricing mechanism, political momentum is building for some new tolling regime. The MoveNY plan had laid a solid foundation before this year’s transit crisis hit, and now Cuomo is on board—although he has outsourced details of the plan to a task force. Meanwhile, advocates are growing impatient with de Blasio’s objections to congestion pricing as he pushes for the alternative millionaires’ tax approach. “The reality is that both proposals have merit—but the mayor’s specious argument that congestion pricing is regressive does not,” Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, argued in op-ed published earlier this week. Councilmember and Transportation Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez, meanwhile, says the MTA needs not one but several new funding streams—the millionaires’ tax, tolls, new bonds and a set-aside from state income-tax revenue. The future of any funding approach is likely to hinge on the 2018 statewide election, which could test the depth of Cuomo’s commitment to the idea and alter control of the state senate. Related to the question of how to pay for the system is whether and how to subsidize fares for low-income people—a policy idea called “fair fares.” On the cost side, Rodriquez has called for more transparency and for steps to bring the price of MTA capital projects more in line with what equivalent work costs in other cities.
More than 2 million people ride the city’s bus system on an average weekday, compared with 5.6 million who take subways, but buses play an underappreciated role in stitching across the gaps in city’s subway and rail map—and the have the potential to do more, if they weren’t so maddeningly slow. “The single biggest issue the next mayor has to target is bus service,” Sifuentes tells City Limits in an interview. Veteran transit advocate Gene Russianoff says the city should make buses faster in order to make them a more attractive option for New Yorkers, chiefly by shaping the street system around accommodating buses: giving them traffic signal priority for turning, more exclusive lanes, off-board far collection and all-door boarding throughout the system. De Blasio unveiled a “Bus Forward” strategy last month that will expand the number of routes and riders served by Select Bus Service and, each year over the next decade, target two to three major corridors each year for improvements like dedicated bus lines and traffic-signal priority that will help all buses. But advocates say the city needs to do more, and faster, to improve buses—if only because it’s the one part of the MTA system the mayor can meaningfully affect because of his control of the streets.
The L-Train shutdown and the role of the private car
The vital L-train will shut down for 15 months beginning in April 2019 for repairs to damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. This creates a huge challenge for the system but also, according to advocates, an opportunity. “We’re going to be faced with losing a subway line that a quarter of a million people are using every day. It brings this question to the fore: Who are the streets for?” White asks. Among the ideas proposed for dealing with the shutdown is turning a large slice of 14th Street into a mixed-transit corridor that reduces private vehicle traffic in favor of dedicated bus lanes, protected bike paths and room for pedestrians. “We’re in a very fertile moment right now. There’s such widespread frustration with the state of our transit system and our streets. What is coming to the fore and I hope continues to come to the fore is this fundamental issue of what’s the role of the private car in the city?” De Blasio’s issuance of more parking placards to city workers, his opposition congestion pricing, even his high-profile SUV rides to the gym all smack of a car-centric way of thinking that many advocates hope will change.
Deepening Vision Zero
There has been a significant reduction in traffic fatalities in New York City since the mayor, keeping a campaign pledge, committed the city to the Vision Zero campaign in early 2014. The number of traffic fatalities is down from 285 in fiscal 2014 to 211 in fiscal 17, which ended in June; that’s a 26 percent decrease. Stepped-up traffic enforcement is clearly part of what’s changed the city’s traffic safety profile: The city wrote more than 686,000 moving-violations summonses last year, up 19 percent over the past two years. To get closer to zero will require more work to protect pedestrians: Most of the progress under Vision Zero has been in preventing people behind the wheel from dying, and the number of pedestrians killed on the streets didn’t budge from 2016 to 2017. Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul Steely White wrote in Gotham Gazette this week that the city DOT currently takes three years to complete a traffic calming project. Speeding that up will be essential, White says, to pushing the number of traffic deaths down even lower. Rodriguez says better protecting bike lanes is part of that picture.
Should the city continue with the plan to expand ferry service, which launched three lines this year and is due to add two more in 2018? Should there be—as Rodriguez proposes—a seamless method of payment linking subways, buses, ferries and bikes? Should the BQX streetcar be built? Does the city need a new “air train” from LaGuardia Airport to Willets Point, as Cuomo has pursued? Does the city need to do more to control private buses like the one involved in a deadly Queens accident in September? Is there a level playing field for yellow taxis, green cabs and for-hire vehicles? What can be done to make parking work better?
The sheer array of challenges and questions embodies a larger truth, advocates say: that a comprehensive approach is needed to make sure all the elements of the city’s transportation work in sync toward broad goals of making the city more sustainable and equitable. “When the mayor thinks about this,” Sifuentes says, “it has to be holistically.”