LET’S GO: A Case for Municipal Control and a Comprehensive Transportation Vision for the Five Boroughs

Executive Summary

Transportation is the lifeblood of New York. It’s the only governmental program most people encounter every day. Whether riding the subway to get to work, hopping on the bus to go to the doctor, taking a car to visit family, or just walking down the sidewalk to pick up groceries, transportation is ever-present in our lives. Smart, well-developed trans¬portation policy can significantly improve economic conditions and enhance public safety and climate outcomes. Poorly crafted policy can be devastating.

The City’s subway and bus service—our mass transit system—is run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the MTA) a state controlled entity that is overseen by the legislature. The City’s streets and sidewalks on the other hand, are largely controlled by the City.

The City’s subway and buses are in a state of crisis. Service interruptions are common and delays are frequent. Not surprisingly, the MTA is facing a crisis of credibility. Riders are losing faith, either spending hours each week leaving earlier and earlier just to make sure they’re on time, or abandoning the system altogether in favor of cars.

Our streets and sidewalks are also in crisis. We have too many cars on the road causing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, not enough space for more environmentally safe modes of transportation such as buses and bikes, and we don’t provide anywhere near enough opportunity for mobility impaired New Yorkers to navigate the City.

Making matters worse, the City lacks a coordinated and integrated transit strategy. The MTA and the City do not and cannot effec¬tively and comprehensively coordinate their activities. The reason is simple—they are separate systems under the control of different entities each with its own set of priorities. For New York City, the core of this problem is that the MTA is run by the State and its decisions are not always influenced by what’s in the City’s best interests.

It’s time for the City to take back control of the subway and buses so that we can establish and implement our own transportation priorities. This report closely examines the problems associated with the current MTA governance structure and proposes a detailed plan, including proposed operating and capital budgets and new revenue streams, for a City controlled entity to run our mass transit system. Recognizing that failures of government come from failures of accountability and responsibility, the report proposes three key elements for the new system: accountability, transparency, and oversight.

Understanding that the subway and buses are just one part of the City’s mobility equation, we also need improvements to other transit modes. This report examines the current state of City controlled transportation and proposes a comprehensive strategy to improve mobility on the City’s streets and sidewalks. For decades, the City has prioritized cars over people. We need to right those historic wrongs and bring equity to the City’s streets. Alternative transit options must be convenient, accessible, and appealing to break the car culture, and this effort will require integrated and streamlined planning for all modes of transportation.

Finally, the report studies and outlines the benefits and opportunities inherent in a fully integrated transportation system. A unifying policy underlying all forms of transportation under City control will allow us to make our transportation systems stronger and our streets greener, improving the economic prospects, and safety of New Yorkers.

Read the full report here.

Summary of Recommendations

A Vision for Municipal Control
GOVERNANCE:
  • A New Mass Transit System for New York City—the BAT. The State must transfer New York City Transit, the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority, the MTA Bus Company, the Staten Island Rapid Transit Operating Authority, MTA Bridges and Tunnels, and a portion of operations at MTA Headquarters to a new entity controlled by the City—Big Apple Transit (BAT).
  • Accountable Governance. The system needs one person in charge. Under the BAT, that would be the Mayor. Riders and taxpayers would know who controls the system and who to hold accountable.
  • Create a Diverse Board. Every BAT Board Member would be a New Yorker who uses our mass transit system, and there would be requirements that the Board be comprised of members with a diverse set of skills and expertise.
  • Model BAT’s Structure on the Water Board. The BAT would resolve issues of political interference and a lack of clear financial support by taking a page from the operations of a successful, capital-intensive municipal operation: the City’s water system. Like that system, BAT’s operations would be part of the City’s budget and subject to the same vigorous oversight and planning process that other City agencies currently undergo. Similarly, BAT’s financial plan would also be periodically reviewed by a third party engineering firm to ensure that these financial plans provide sufficient resources to keep the system viable over the long-run. These concrete steps will prevent any future backsliding in maintenance and investment to guarantee New Yorkers a reliable transit system.
FINANCES:
  • Address Existing MTA Debt Service. Recent federal tax law changes make it advisable to keep the existing MTA around long enough to finish servicing its current debt. To do that, fares, tolls, and certain dedicated taxes would first flow through the legacy MTA to service that debt before flowing back to BAT and the commuter railroads. Going forward, BAT and the commuter railroads would issue bonds, not the MTA. This would ensure that existing MTA debt will be responsibly addressed, while freeing the new system to make desperately needed capital investments.
  • Pass Congestion Pricing. The current MTA has an operating deficit that BAT will inherit. Congestion pricing represents an obvious source of revenues for transit. Not only would it raise a substantial amount of needed revenues, but it is necessary to control rising congestion. However, congestion pricing revenues alone will not be enough to address this inherited deficit. Including $1.1 billion in congestion revenues and assuming a 10 year capital plan that funds the FastForward plan, BAT will start out with annual budget deficits of just under $600 million. If the State Legislature fails to pass an acceptable congestion pricing plan in 2019, the Council can and should pass its own plan.
  • End Inefficient Procurement. Cost savings should be central to any effort to fill that gap. The MTA’s procurement process is inefficient and drives up the cost and length of time it takes to execute a capital project. BAT should receive many of the same advantages that the City’s School Construction Authority enjoys, including an exemption from Wicks Law, which requires building projects to be subdivided into smaller, more inefficient contracts; design-build authority which combines design and construction contracting to remove bottlenecks when redesigns are needed; the ability to qualify the lowest bidder on a project to ensure BAT gets not just fair prices, but also a contractor who can successfully execute an on-time job; and other contracting improvements.
  • Address Labor Costs. The MTA is also faced with growing labor costs. BAT would follow the City’s example in its recent work with labor unions to address health care costs. BAT would partner with labor to identify cost savings targets in work rules, health care, overtime, and other specific areas and share a portion of those savings with the workers.
  • Provide Local Taxing Authority. Even if cost savings are enough to fill the inherited gap, successful municipal control of the system would require the State to delegate an enhanced degree of taxing authority to the City and BAT. Otherwise, the only available revenue source would be to raise fares, which puts a disproportionate burden on working families. Considering how important physical mobility is to economic mobility, fares should not become the first stop to filling a revenue need—it should be the very last stop.
  • Increase Revenues That Are Fully Deductible. The best place to start the search for revenues is with those taxes that remain fully deductible from Federal taxes. While recent federal tax reform largely limited the ability of individuals to deduct state and local taxes, it has largely left corporations with much of their ability intact. This means that the Federal government will effectively subsidize about 20 percent of City tax increases. Considering the Federal government’s failure to invest in major infrastructure needs in the City and around the country, it only seems fair to focus on taxes that force the federal government to contribute, albeit indirectly. Therefore, taxes like the existing MTA payroll mobility tax, the MTA corporate tax surcharge, and the City’s two business taxes should be the first taxes considered to fill the gap. We should have a broader discussion of other potential taxes to consider, some of which are presented in the report.
  • Continue to Support Commuter Railroads. Municipal control cannot be done by short-changing the commuter railroads. In fact, the initial proposed BAT model shows that the railroads could end up with $200 million more in annual revenues, though exactly how existing MTA funding streams are shared between BAT and the commuter railroads should be subject to further research and negotiation. In addition, regional cooperation should continue through a new organization.
  • Reform the Regressive Fare System. Municipal control of the subway and buses includes a commitment to ending the practice of funding transit on backs of our most vulnerable populations through regular fare hikes. With expanded revenue au¬thority, the City would be able establish a sustainable and progressive funding scheme to ensure our transit system is available to all.
  • Improve the Capital Budget Process. Under BAT, the capital budget would follow the City’s process, including a lengthy public review period and multiple public hearings. This would provide an opportunity for real scrutiny and actual debate about the best ways to invest in the system. In addition, as the capital budget includes major projects with long-term completion dates the budget should crafted to look ten years out—not the current five.
Increasing Accessibility

Despite the urgent moral imperative to upgrade stations so that all New Yorkers can safely access the subway, zoning tools to require or incentivize new construction next to subway stations to include new station entrances and elevators are available only in select areas of the city. We must expand and strengthen zoning for station accessibility so that every development site by a subway station is evaluated for this potential and allowed a density bonus for including access improvements. This zoning action could ac¬celerate the cost-effective implementation of ADA accessibility at dozens of stations across New York and help us finally deliver on the promise of transit equity for our most vulnerable.

A Master Plan for City Streets

Establishing a five-year integrated plan for bicycle, bus, vehicle, ferry, and pedestrian infrastructure informed by a robust public en¬gagement process would bring cohesion to what is now a patchwork system of upgrades. Improving the City’s streetscape not only helps support mass transit by making sure buses can run more efficiently, but it also encourages the use of transportation alter¬natives that make our streets safer and neighborhoods greener. In order to achieve these goals, we need to set aggressive bench¬marks for success. As part of the Master Plan, we must:

IMPROVE BUS SERVICE:
  • Install of at least 30 miles of bus lanes per year. Every new bus lane should be camera enforced and physically separated from traffic along appropriate corridors where camera enforcement proves ineffective.
  • Bring Transit Signal Priority (TSP) to at least 1,000 intersections per year. The City must speed the activation of TSP across the entire bus system, to ensure the bus network takes full advantage of the proven benefits of TSP wherever feasible.
  • Install bus lanes, bus lane cameras, and TSP on every single bus route by 2030. Every redesigned bus route must feature a combination of bus lanes, bus cameras, and TSP by 2030 to ensure that no riders are left behind.
  • Implementation of route redesigns and bus stop upgrades citywide by 2025. We must double the pace at which NYCT is currently running the redesign process to fully complete and implement new routes and upgrades, including bus shelters, benches and Real Time Passenger Information (RTPI), by 2025. In the absence of municipal control, the City must partner with NYCT to achieve these goals.
CREATE LIVABLE STREETS:
  • Dramatically expand the City’s Plaza Program. Expanding the program to consider all publicly owned land has the poten¬tial to dramatically expand the amount of safe, pedestrian-only public spaces throughout the City, foster and cultivate interest in public space investments, and create opportunities for the installation of green infrastructure to improve air quality and public health outcomes, among other benefits.
  • Quadruple the number of Shared Streets by 2025. The City should prioritize and dramatically expand its Shared Streets program to increase the number of pedestrianized streets that restrict vehicle access to at least a dozen corridors by 2025.
  • Redesign and make every signaled intersection accessible by 2030. DOT should install Vision Zero safety and accessi¬bility features—including pedestrian islands, signal-protected crossings, wider sidewalks, accessible pedestrian signals (APS), detectable warnings, curb ramps, and bus and bike lanes—to improve intersection design and make every single intersection with a pedestrian signal accessible to seniors and people with disabilities by 2030.
ENCOURAGE SAFE, SUSTAINABLE TRANSPORTATION:
  • Dramatically expand the City’s Plaza Program. Expanding the program to consider all publicly owned land has the poten¬tial to dramatically expand the amount of safe, pedestrian-only public spaces throughout the City, foster and cultivate interest in public space investments, and create opportunities for the installation of green infrastructure to improve air quality and public health outcomes, among other benefits.
  • Require minimum design standards for protected bike lanes. Nearly a quarter of the City’s “protected” bike lanes in¬stalled in 2018 reportedly lacked a physical barrier, offering cyclists “just green paint and prayer.” Without clear design standards and minimum thresholds for a “protected” lane that include physical barriers to protect riders from vehicles, we cannot hold the City accountable to meet bike infrastructure goals.
  • Install at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes per year. Informed by new design standards for true protected lanes, the City should significantly increase the installation of this critical, life-saving infrastructure to at least 50 miles per year.
  • Complete a fully connected bike network by 2030. Annual goals for protected bike lanes must all contribute to the achievement of this long-term goal to serve every square mile of the City’s street grid with bike infrastructure by 2030.
  • Increase bike ridership to 14 percent of trips by 2050. We can make significant strides in reducing emissions through investments in bike infrastructure.
REDUCE CONGESTION:
  • Rein in placard abuse. Legislation currently before the Council would help to reduce the number of placards, bring order and accountability to the system, increase enforcement, and target the most dangerous parking practices by requiring enforcement officers to call for towing of any vehicle blocking a bike lane, bus lane, crosswalk, or fire hydrant.
  • Overhaul commercial loading zones, truck routes, and parking policies by 2025. A failure to sufficiently address the commercial loading zones, truck routes, and parking policies that help keep our City running will only foster chaos on our streets and frustration among businesses and residents.
  • Reduce private car ownership by half by 2050. Reducing the share of car trips should remain the City’s central goal when it comes to managing vehicle traffic and reducing emissions.
ADDRESS CLIMATE ADAPTATION:
  • Reduce the size of the City’s vehicle fleet by at least 20 percent by 2025 and transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2050. Aiming to bring the entirety of the City’s fleet to 100 percent renewable energy sources and reduce the overall number of fleet vehicles on the road over the next few decades will help the City “lead by example” as the Clean Fleet plan suggests.
  • Prioritize green infrastructure in transportation projects. The City should be required to test and study the feasibility of permeable pavements, as outlined in DOT’s 2016 Strategic Plan, and consider the installation of green infrastructure in every single capital project it pursues, particularly in communities of color.
Rethinking the BQE

Before spending $4 billion to reconstruct a 1.5 mile stretch of highway, the City should study alternatives to the reconstruction of this Robert Moses-era six lane road, including the removal of the BQE in its entirety. A study and planning effort to overhaul the BQE should start with public engagement and be accompanied by sufficient plans to improve public transit options and mitigate the im¬pacts of truck traffic in each scenario, particularly in environmental justice communities throughout the City. The reimagining of the BQE should be coupled with a truck route redesign initiative.

Read the full report here.