Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: Don’t divorce MTA totally from the state

April 9, 2019 Raanan Geberer
Rush-hour commuters use the Atlantic Avenue subway station. AP Photo/Todd Plitt
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Everyone has known for years that the MTA has big problems, but, as usual, officials have differing proposals on how to make it better.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wants to break up the state-sponsored agency and transfer city trains and buses to a mayoral agency he has named ‘Big Apple Transit.” Johnson points out that the state appoints the majority of MTA board members, but he believes that the agency’s decisions should be made by those who are themselves straphangers.

On the other hand, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have released a 10-point plan to reorganize the MTA. Among the plan’s components are an independent audit, a committee of independent experts to renew the agency’s Capital Plan, and agency-wide management of construction, legal services, engineering, procurement, human resources and other support functions. (Currently, MTA’s divisions, such as MetroNorth, the NYC subway system and the Long Island Rail Road, operate as separate entities.)

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Both Cuomo and Johnson, by the way, seek increased use of design-build contracting for MTA projects to avoid use of multiple contractors and bloated bills. In design-build, a single contractor has responsibility for the entire project, as opposed to the typical practice in which a designer and contractor are appointed separately.

In addition to Cuomo’s and Johnson’s perspectives, there are others who basically agree with reform efforts, but feel, in the words of the statewide nonprofit group Reinvent Albany, that one of the main problems is Cuomo’s “endless political meddling and sidelining of the MTA’s and New York City Transit’s political staff.” They point to what they say is the state’s underfunding of the MTA, Cuomo’s borrowing of MTA funds to fulfill other budget needs (until the legislature passed a “lockbox” law) and more.

In general, I would say that it doesn’t matter that much who runs the MTA, as long as it’s run efficiently and that local input is sufficient. Unfortunately, neither of these factors have been certain in the past.

Let’s see what the MTA itself has to say. In his “Fast Forward: The Plan to Modernize NYC Transit,” Andy Byford, the head of MTA New York City Transit (the MTA department that supervises the city’s subways and buses) said, “Many of our signals are more than 50 years old. Our bus routes are from the Cold War. Our bureaucracy is from another time.”

Byford also admitted that “A series of high-profile incidents through early 2017 exposed an accelerating decline in the punctuality and reliability of New York’s subway system.” He was light on details, preferring to concentrate on the shiny new improvements he wants for the future.

However, advocacy groups such as the Riders’ Alliance and the Straphangers’ Campaign can certainly fill readers in.

Personally, I would reject those who want to totally divorce MTA New York City Transit from the parent-body MTA.

The idea that “the bus and subway systems serve the city, the Long Island Rail Road and MetroNorth serve the suburbs” is simplistic. There are entire areas of Northern and Eastern Queens, for example, where the subway system does not penetrate and people rely on the LIRR.

Furthermore, there are many transit hubs where subway trains meet the suburban railroads — for example, the LIRR’s Atlantic Center terminal, where thousands of commuters transfer to New York City subway lines. To facilitate smooth transfers between the two entities, it’s best to have coordination in design management, crowd control and security.

For years, one narrow tunnel under the subway tracks at Flatbush-Atlantic avenues was divided by a fence, with crushing crowds of subway commuters on one side and a handful of LIRR riders on the other. Those days should not return.

In addition, “run-through” rail traffic, in which LIRR or MetroNorth trains would switch onto subway tracks, could possibly be implemented sometime in the future, and this strategy would work best with one overseeing agency, rather than with two separate entities.

In general, I like Cuomo’s idea of the MTA’s different departments coordinating back-office efforts. This will serve untold millions of dollars, from the different branches ordering paper, computers and supplies together to using the same personnel office. Subway cars are different, but the LIRR and MetroNorth use the same type of cars—why not order them at the same time from the same car builder?

Even though I don’t believe the MTA should be totally disconnected from the state, I share Speaker Johnson’s concern about having more straphanger input on the agency’s board. To accomplish this, I would revisit an old proposal of former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz: Have voting representatives from each borough on the board.

When these five new representatives combine with the representatives from Long Island and Westchester, they will form an effective counterweight to those representatives who were appointed by the governor, and the days of state domination of the MTA will be over.

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