NYC Speaker Pushes for Municipal Transit Control

This image of New York City Speaker Corey Johnson enjoying a hot beverage on the subway is included in a 104-page report by Johnson that calls for New York City to wrest control of the transit system.

QUEENS, N.Y. (CN) – In his first State of the City address Tuesday, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled a radical plan to take municipal control of the transit system.

“Our economy lives and dies on how people move around,” Johnson told the crowd assembled at LaGuardia Community College in Queens.

“So if we want to survive, we’ve got to get this right. But the question is, are we? Are we getting it right? I think all 8.6 million of us know the answer to that question: No, we are not.”

The topic of the speech was no secret beforehand: Johnson tweeted photos of himself on the subway on the way there, the stage boasted a prop subway entrance, and a 104-page report detailing Johnson’s points had already been released. 

Introduced to the stage by his mother, Ann Richardson, who got a standing ovation, Johnson proposed that the MTA be left with authority over the suburbs and capital construction, while all city transit entities get taken over by a new agency called Big Apple Transit.

“Municipal control means saying goodbye to the MTA,” Johnson said, describing the agency as “a Frankenstein’s monster of transit subsidiaries with a 3,000-person headquarters layered on top.”

While the MTA has 17 board members, just four of these were nominated by New York City’s mayor.

“This is sadly a feature, not a bug,” he said, excoriating the MTA for its tangle of bureaucracy and its existence in a “vacuum of accountability.”

 “The confusion was built in so the public wouldn’t know who to blame,” Johnson added. “You know who they want you to blame? The women and men who work for the MTA. … Let’s be serious. They are not the reason your commute is awful.”

Johnson also touted congestion pricing, to cheers from the audience, and urged the Democratic-led state Legislature to pass the measure this session.

“If Albany doesn’t pass congestion pricing this session, the City Council will,” he said. “We need congestion pricing now.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a congestion pricing plan and a weed tax to help fund subway fixes last month in a rare show of agreement. Many details of a congestion pricing plan, such as how much drivers could expect to pay for entering Manhattan’s central business district, remain unclear.

Johnson noted that the City Council has the authority to pass a local law to toll the city’s roads, “and we are prepared to do it.”

But congestion pricing wouldn’t cover all the transit bills, Johnson continued. “We’ve let the system crumble, and it’s not going to be cheap or easy to fix it,” he said.

Laying out a three-point plan for additional funding, Johnson said the city could first take advantage of the “generosity” that President Donald Trump’s federal tax code change shows corporations.

Since some of the city’s business taxes are still fully deductible at the federal level, the City Council could raise those taxes, use the money to fund the subway, “and the federal government will pick up more than 20 percent of the tab,” Johnson said.  

Johnson is also calling for the state to transfer a portion of existing sales taxes to the BAT, and for businesses to chip in more. “You help out,” Johnson said, “and we’ll get your people to work on time” 

Colorful statistics and analogies peppered Johnson’s speech. He criticized the MTA’s high construction costs, saying that “adding a single mile of subway track in New York City costs the same as sending a rover to Mars.”

He also touted the city’s new Fair Fares program, which intends to provide half-price transit cards to New Yorkers who live in poverty, while voicing criticism of private cars.

Both for the safety of New Yorkers and to help curb the devastation wrought by climate change, Johnson called it time “to finally break the car culture in New York City.”

The speaker called for faster buses, a more accessible transit system, and the addition of at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes per year.

Cuomo’s office responded to Johnson’s speech with a terse statement: “The city already owns the New York City transit system.”
Though it’s the governor’s consistent position, it is misleading: The MTA is a state entity that Cuomo controls.

De Blasio’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

After a rally-style shoutout of things he loves about New York, such as its four Chinatowns and Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater, Johnson left the stage as the first notes of a cannily chosen song floated out of the speakers: “I Want to Break Free” by Queen.

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