Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council, joins Seth Barron to discuss the state of New York City’s transit system and his plan to break up the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), allowing the city to take control of its buses, subways, bridges, and tunnels. According to Johnson, direct control of the MTA would enhance its responsiveness, accountability, and transparency.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on the show today, my colleague, Seth Barron will interview a special guest: Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council. Speaker Johnson joined Seth in the studio last week and we’re excited to have him on the podcast. Johnson’s been a member of the city council since 2013, representing parts of Manhattan, and he’s served as speaker since 2018. The focus of today’s discussion, though, isn’t politics, it’s Speaker Johnson’s proposal for the city to take control of its subways and buses by breaking up the MTA—the massive state-government agency responsible for public transportation in the region. More broadly—they’ll talk about Johnson’s vision for the future of New York City transit, the tragic rise in cycling deaths in the city, and his ideas on how to create a walking- and bike-friendly New York. Thank you to Speaker Johnson and his staff for stopping by the studio, and to Seth Barron for conducting the interview. That’s it for me, the conversation between Seth Barron and Speaker Johnson begins after this.
Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today, Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal. I'm joined today by a special guest, Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council. He's the council member for New York City's District 3, covering Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen. Johnson is also a leading, albeit early candidate in the race to succeed Mayor de Blasio in 2021. Corey Johnson is here to discuss transit-related issues. Speaker Johnson, thanks for joining us here on the podcast.
Corey Johnson: Thanks for having me, Seth.
Seth Barron: So, the MTA, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is a regional authority that handles public transportation for 14 counties across two states. And you've suggested that the MTA, which is the nation's largest transit authority, should be broken up and that New York City should take direct responsibility for its bridges, tunnels, buses and subways. What problems would this solve?
Corey Johnson: Well, I think we really need singular accountability. When Mayor Bloomberg ran for mayor in 2001 he said that we needed mayoral control of the school system because you had more than 30 fiefdoms that really didn't allow for any accountability going to the top and he ended up getting mayoral control of the schools. This is similar in that way. The real issue with the MTA is that it is set up to deflect any level of accountability. And so, you have a board, most New Yorkers, I think 99% of New Yorkers, probably couldn't name a single board member and couldn't tell you how many board members there are. There are actually 17 voting board members but actually four of them only have a quarter of a vote. So it's 14 voting board members. And then there are six non-voting board members to make 23 board members. And the governor controls that board and controls the MTA. But most New Yorkers don't understand how these decisions are made. And so what it would do is it would improve it. We would actually have control over our own destiny. Right now, the MTA covers New York City's subways, buses, the Staten Island Rail, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the Long Island Railroad, and Metro-North. This would say that we would control the subways and buses. We would still need the toll and fare revenue from the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and we'd still have the Staten Island Rail. It would mean that we could actually control the capital plan. Imagine what Andy Byford could do if he was unshackled from the dysfunction and bureaucracy of the MTA. New York City used to have municipal control of our subways and buses until Rockefeller took it away from Lindsay in the mid-to-late-1960s and we've been living under this dysfunctional public authority governance set up ever since. Other cities across the country have done this with success. You have Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles who just was able to pass a multibillion-dollar bond issuance to expand subway service in LA. We know LA is not a subway town, but they are at least investing in mass transit and infrastructure. Rahm Emanuel, at the end of the term that he just finished, was able to really turn around the L System there, in one of the bright spots for him and his mayoralty. And New York, the New York City mayor has no control of the city subway system. Four seats on a 23-seat board. The city council has no authority. We don't have any real oversight or budgetary authority over the subways and buses. 5.7 million people take the subways every single day. 2 million people take the buses every single day. It's almost 8 million people who are affected by the subways and buses and we deserve control over it. It is time for us to be a more globally competitive city. Cities across Asia and Europe and the United States have been transforming mass transit. And it is really the lifeblood of our economy and a recession could be on the horizon. If we don't invest in mass transit and infrastructure, we could be in deep trouble as a city. And so that is what I called for. I had a speech in March, my State of the City, where I call the municipal-control and I released the 104-page report detailing how to actually achieve it. It's not easy, I don't think it's going to happen in the short-term, but it's a long-term, outside the box thing that we need to talk about.
Seth Barron: Well, the governor hasn't shown a lot of excitement for the idea of giving up control of the MTA. And in fact he's recently strengthened his control over transit with congestion pricing. How would you leverage support for this idea in Albany and convince the state legislature and the governor to give New York City this control again?
Corey Johnson: One of the concerns I think that we heard leading into the report that I issued in the speech was that currently the MTA is set up as really a regional system. Again, Long Island Railroad for Long Island, Metro-North for the counties north of New York City and the subways and buses in New York. And people said, "if you do this, how's it going to effect the regional transit? How's it going to affect the people who live north in New York City and people live in Nassau and Suffolk County?" And the plan that we released actually would not in any way take money away from those two other entities, which still are deeply important for New York City's economy and getting commuters who work in New York City into the city every single day. And we'd actually strengthen them financially by the plan that we set up. And so a part of that detailed proposal that I put together would not end up costing the city more money. One of the creative ideas that's really doable, if the legislature and governor had an appetite for it, would be not to raise taxes but to actually just dedicate a certain percentage, a small percentage, half a percent of the sales tax that we already paid to Albany as a municipality. Dedicating that into an MTA lockbox, which could fund the subways and buses. And you could do it in a way that would actually still keep Long Island Railroad and Metro-North, not just financially solvent, but they'd get more money than they get now under the current system and plan. And so part of what needs to happen is you need to get the public onboard, you have to sell this to the public. I think people would support this if there was detailed, not just quantitative, but qualitative polling on this to look at what New Yorkers know and feel about the subways and buses every single day. You can walk cross-town faster than taking the buses most days and people live through the subway nightmares. Depending on the day of the week, it's like playing the lottery. So I think part of what I need to do and what I've started to do is have conversations with rank and file legislators. This plan would need to go through the state legislature. I don't think it would happen if the governor was opposed to it. And so first it's about building support from the public, having conversations with legislators and eventually with the majority leader of the Senate. And the speaker of the assembly and also having conversations with the governor. Though I don't see this as a short-term mission, I think it's a long-term plan.
Seth Barron: Let's get down to brass tacks, though. A recent audit of MTA practices released last week revealed some pretty eye-watering details about how the agency spends money, especially on overtime. The agency spent about a billion dollars, just on overtime, just for buses and subways. Which represents, really, the entire revenue expected for congestion pricing, which is something else we can talk about. How would you hope to reign-in spending at the MTA given all the various parties that you have to deal with: labor, the public, management.
Corey Johnson: It's a great question and it was one of the things that we were contemplating and we thought through as part of that proposal that I put forward earlier this spring. Part of, I think, what has got us into this deep hole that we're in related to the MTA--when I say the MTA, I don't just mean the subways and buses. I also mean Long Island Railroad, as well, where some of these overtime issues have been most glaring. But what I think people have overlooked in many ways, and this goes to the real problem, is that the MTA set up these overtime rules. They knew they were negotiated with the unions, but the MTA signed off on these. And what I think you see, from some of the overtime numbers that have come out, is that there's probably been some under-hiring. You probably need to hire some more people in certain areas, whether it's mechanics or people that specialize in train safety, where you've seen some of the folks rack up an enormous salary over the course of a year. And so what you would need to do is you would need to actually renegotiate labor contracts. And I think that the TWU, the union that represents subway and bus workers, I don't think they're unreasonable. These workers are not getting rich. You would have to have a conversation about some of the work rules. You would have to have a conversation about health care. You'd have to have that conversation. I wouldn't want to prejudge what those conversations are. But what we've seen is that many of these unions are willing to compromise. But I'm not sure you can fault them, at least in this current overtime situation, based off of rules that the MTA agreed to put in place and the union has just been abiding by. There has been conversation about maybe there was something corrupt going on. I don't know if that is the case. There's going to have to be some outside law enforcement entity that looks at that. But I think you can have a reasonable conversation with the unions that are involved here to renegotiate these contracts. And this is a bigger issue. I think that this points, you talked about that billion dollars in overtime, you talked about how that's the amount that congestion pricing is slated to potentially bring in and its first year when it goes into effect in 2021. January 1st, 2021. Well the much bigger issue here is there has been just a runaway spending, not good contracting, really bad procurement. There wasn't design-build for many, many projects. And so you had projects like the Fulton Street station that were way over budget downtown. And you have East Side Access, which is supposed to connect Long Island Railroad at Penn Station to Metro-North at Grand Central. The cost overrun of that one project, East Side Access, is more than $10 billion and it's a decade behind schedule. The cost to resignal the entire subway, which is the thing that would most improve subway times and improve commuters getting around, straphangers getting around, is $9 billion. So the cost overruns alone on East Side Access would have paid to resignal the entire subway system. And it shows how broken the whole process is. All of these pieces: overtime costs, procurement costs, contracting costs, they all fit together. And it's why I think if you had municipal control, there would be one person to point to: the Mayor of the City of New York, who when these things are not going well, could and should be held responsible for that. Right now, it is set up to deflect any level of accountability. And the public is confused by the governance structure that was set up to confuse the public.
Seth Barron: People have criticized Mayor de Blasio for... He started out strong with a Vision Zero, but it seems like the benefits of that have maybe plateaued. And now bike deaths are up this year. He appears to have just given up on congestion pricing and let the state takeover. So, in a sense, he ceded control of the city streets to the MTA. If you were mayor, or if you were in charge right now, what would you do to make the city streets safer and to make traffic flow?
Corey Johnson: Well, one of the things that I put forward a few months ago, as part of the speech where I call it the municipal control of the subways and buses, I also called for a master plan of New York City streets. And what is a master plan? Right now we plan our streets in a really piecemeal a way. I live in Chelsea, you know the neighborhood well, Seth, and the first protected bike lane in New York City was on Ninth Avenue Between 14th Street and 23rd Streets. And when it went in, people said, "this is going to screw up the neighborhood. You can't have it." We know these bike lanes actually save lives, protected bike lanes save lives. And so the master plan would set aggressive benchmarks: 50 miles of protected bike lane a year to be newly built, 30 miles of protected bus lanes a year. That would actually, I think make it safer for pedestrians and for cyclists. And it would speed up bus times across the city. So I think that's what, that's what the immediate thing we should be focused on is actually building the infrastructure, getting buses moving. People keep calling out, and it's important to call out this really appalling and sad fatality number for a cyclists, which were up to, I believe, 19. Way more than we actually had for the entirety of last year. But pedestrian fatalities are up 20% this year as well. So it's cyclists and pedestrians. We live in, really, a walking city. A lot of New Yorkers get around by walking to the subway, to the store, to their kid's school, to the park. And we need to make our streets safer. So those are some of the immediate things that can be done. And again, not to bring this back to the MTA, but it is related in some ways, which is, it makes no sense that the MTA controls the buses that ride on city streets. But the city of New York controls the streets that the buses run on. It shows a total disconnect. Andy Byford, before he came to New York City, he was able to turn around the systems in Toronto and London and in Sydney. And in London, the person who runs the tube, their subway, is also the person that plans the city streets and those buses that run on the streets and the bike lanes and pedestrianization. That job is under one job. It's really sort of a transit-mobility czar. And so as part of the speech that I gave, I called on creating a deputy mayor position that would actually run the subways, the buses, and the city streets. We don't have that right now because of this disjointed, dysfunctional system that is set up. So those are some of the things we could do immediately to make our streets safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and to get buses moving.
Seth Barron: That brings up something that I wanted to ask you about. You're a Manhattanite. You represent Manhattan, and you said the city is very much a walking city or maybe a biking city. I read that maybe 45,000 people commute to work by bike. That's a lot. But it's still only about 1% of the workforce. If you were to become mayor, you'd be representing, 8 million people, 8 and a half million people in the outer boroughs, many of whom are very dedicated to their cars. And you've said you want to fight the city's "car culture." So that seems like an uphill battle. Hw do you approach this? How do you talk to people in the outer boroughs about that?
Corey Johnson: I don't think they're mutually exclusive. I've called for breaking the "car culture" and I should explain what that means. Breaking the car culture doesn't mean you're going to eliminate cars and it doesn't mean that in places that are transit deserts, I'll give examples, like Mill Basin or Fresh Meadows or places that are beyond the last subway stop on these lines, that we're going to say "you can't have your cars" or "you can't park your cars." But what we're going to say is, "it's time to not allow cars to be the king of the road." And there's a variety of reasons why we shouldn't have cars be the singular priority. Number one, they're inefficient, they're bad for the environment, they are unsafe in many ways. You see the number of fatalities for pedestrians and cyclists and they don't move the most number of people around. And so when we have a climate emergency, which is what we have right now, you actually want to prioritize pedestrian, cyclists, mass transit users, people who are carpooling, rapid bus transit, all of these things that I think for far too long haven't been prioritized. And so breaking the car culture means I think putting pedestrians first, though putting cyclists second, putting mass transit third, and private automobile use is still going to exist in New York City. But right now, after, what is it, when was the car invented? Seven decades ago, eight decades ago? Whenever it was, for that long, cars have really been our singular priority. Now it's time to reshuffle that a little bit. We're not going to eliminate cars, but it's time to say, let's also have other things that still get people around in a safe way that are good for the environment, that are part of our culture in New York City. Let's prioritize those as well. And that is what breaking the car culture is about. That's what this master plan is about. That's what municipal control of subways and buses are about. The most number of people get around every single day by our subways and buses. Almost 8 million people, as I mentioned earlier, and I don't even know how you would even add up the number of people who are walking every single day in New York City. Right now, they don't seem to be the priority. It is time to make those folks the priority. While at the same time recognizing there are parts of New York City where people do need cars, are going to use cars. That's still going to exist. It is a neighborhood by neighborhood conversation, but I still think we need, really, a network of bus lanes. A network of bike lanes. Further pedestrianization. You can do all these things in a way that's not mutually exclusive.
Seth Barron: How about congestion pricing? Do you see that as a revenue play or as a means to restrict cars?
Corey Johnson: I think it's both. Initially this was proposed under Mayor Bloomberg. Not even in his last term, I believe it was in the second term that he proposed this. And that was way before we had run up to the Summer of Hell in 2017 with the subways and buses. And traffic speeds in New York City, car speeds to get around town, were much higher than than they are now. And so at that point in time it was about congestion. It wasn't even about the revenue associated for the subways and buses, though that was going to be something that would be part of the plan. I think it became much more of an urgent matter when we saw significant disinvestment in the subways and buses. We saw speeds going down. We saw Uber and for-hire vehicle companies' explosive growth in New York City, and we've seen our population go up over the last decade or so. So those things have brought us to the point of, I think, needing congestion pricing. Though, I think, a lot of New Yorkers would tell you, folks that live in downtown Brooklyn, folks that live in western Queens, folks that even live in South Brooklyn, would tell you that congestion is not just a problem below 60th street in New York City. It's a problem all over New York City. This current congestion pricing scheme does two things: I think it is going to disincentivize cars from coming into the central business district in Manhattan. So, hopefully, you'll have less cars, less pollution, faster speeds for buses, a safer place for pedestrians and cyclists. But you're also going to have significant revenue that will come in that will be dedicated to the MTA, to improve mass transit for the people who use our subways and buses every single day. So I think there is a dual benefit in some ways and that is what you're going to see. But again, congestion exists outside of this area, as well. And we're going to have to kind of see what happens. What I mean by that is, we're not really sure what's going to happen. The FDR and the West Side Highway are not part of this plan. What will happen to those highways that run around the island of Manhattan? What's going to happen traffic-wise there? What's going to happen just north of the zone, when you get to the Upper West and Upper East Sides, what's going to happen in those places? We're not sure yet. And we're going to have to be nimble and figure out how to adjust, once we see the effects of congestion pricing after it's implemented and put into effect.
Seth Barron: So one final question on that point. There's supposed to be a congestion pricing board...
Corey Johnson: Yeah.
Seth Barron: that's going to make these decisions, but no one's been named to it.
Corey Johnson: (laughs) Yes.
Seth Barron: What's your Dream Team? Who would you like to see on that board?
Corey Johnson: On that board? Well, first I'll say, the whole setup is a little bizarre. Where you have this transit mobility review board, is what they're calling it, which is going to put in place what the exemptions are, what the income limit is for people who live inside the zone that would be exempted. Is it less than $50,000? Is less than $70,000 for an individual or a household? So those are the things that this board is actually going to contemplate. I think you should really put on experts. You should put on people that really understand this issue in a real way.
Corey Johnson: I think Charles Komanoff is a really thoughtful, smart guy who has been talking about these issues for a long time. He's an academic, currently. I think there are other people you could consider. There are actually people that are currently on the MTA board who I think could be good folks. Veronica Vanterpool, I think, has been a really outstanding MTA board member. And there are other folks that would be able to basically look at the finances. You should look at actually potentially former finance commissioners for New York City, other folks that are involved in transportation planning. So I would want a varied group of people that are not looked at as being overly political but come at it with a real substantive, thoughtful approach to how to implement it to what the exemptions should be. And I'm not sure there should be many exemptions at all. I don't want this thing to end up like a piece of Swiss cheese by the end of the day. And I think that is the group that you would want to make up this unnamed board. But the other crazy thing about this is, I'm of course, glad that congestion pricing was part of the April budget agreement between the state legislature and the governor. Though this board is, as you mentioned, Seth, unnamed, it will not be in paneled until November of 2020 after the general election and it will have six weeks to make these recommendations for an implementation date of less than two months later, January 1st of 2021. And so people were afraid of the political consequences that could be put in place that could come to them, depending on what those exemptions are, what the actual fare is. And so they sort of kicked the can beyond the next election so that people aren't really going to be sure what it is. We'll see what it looks like. And that is why you need sort of nonpolitical experts to make up this board that ultimately makes these decisions.
Seth Barron: Well, lot of a lot of proposed solutions here. We like that. Solutions that are nonpartisan in nature. We'd love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal #10blocks. If you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Baron, Speaker Corey Johnson, thank you so much for joining us on 10 Blocks.
Corey Johnson: Great to be with you. Thank you, Seth.
Photo: Manhattan Institute