Budget Watchdog: Mayoral Control of MTA Would Be ‘Miserable’

Council Speaker Corey Johnson defended his call for mayoral control of the MTA. Photo: Jeff Reed
Council Speaker Corey Johnson defended his call for mayoral control of the MTA. Photo: Jeff Reed

A celebrated budget watchdog is warning that mayoral control of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — an idea championed by Council Speaker Corey Johnson — would not improve transit and would make life “miserable” for the city’s chief executive.

Carol Kellermann, long the moving force of the Citizens Budget Commission, said on Wednesday night that she has “serious misgivings” about the idea — the main plank of “Let’s Go!,” Johnson’s vaunted new plan for fixing New York City’s troubled  transit.

Carol Kellermann, second from left, said mayoral control of the MTA would create headaches for the mayor — and suck up valuable time. Photo: Jeff Reed
Carol Kellermann, second from left, said Corey Johnson’s proposal mayoral control of the MTA would create headaches for the mayor — and suck up valuable time. MTA board member Veronica Vanterpool (to Kellermann’s left) and Charles Komanoff (to her right) were also on the panel. Photo: Jeff Reed

Running the MTA would lead to “too much pressure on the mayor” because it would occupy most waking hours, added Kellermann, citing constant labor negotiations, Twitter-fanned status crises, long-term repair issues and, of course, budget battles. 

Johnson was on hand to hear Kellerman’s remarks, which came as part of a panel, “Should We ‘Blow Up the MTA?” at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. He defended mayoral control as the only way to fix the “failed” MTA.

Indeed, Johnson is basing a likely 2021 mayoral run on his transit plan, which he likened to Mayor Bloomberg’s successful bid for control of the city’s schools. Most New Yorkers, he said, think the move has led to improvements.

Streetsblog contributor Charles Komanoff was also on the panel. Photo: Jeff Reed
Streetsblog contributor Charles Komanoff was also on the panel. Photo: Jeff Reed

And Johnson did not flinch from Kellermann’s basic argument the mayor would become bogged down in MTA affairs — and even relished the notion, as he again excoriated the MTA’s current regional structure as one “set up in a way to deflect accountability” for the ills of city transit.

He also blasted the MTA for costly projects that serve too few people, such as the East Side Access tunnel for the Long Island Rail Road.

East Side Access will serve only 100,000 riders a day, but already has cost taxpayers $11 billion — money that would have been better spent on fixing antiquated subway signals, in Johnson’s view.

Johnson also pooh-poohed Kellermann’s concern about labor contracts. The mayor already “has to negotiate dozens of contracts,” Johnson said, adding he’s not worried about tussling with the Transit Workers Union and other unions that work for the MTA.

In a counter thrust, Kellermann said that rather than arguing about mayoral control or other schemes to restructure the MTA’s dysfunctional governance, New Yorkers should focus on improvements that “need to be done now,” such a replacing signals and reforming procurement.

  • “In a counter thrust, Kellermann said that rather than arguing about mayoral control or other schemes to restructure the MTA’s dysfunctional governance, New Yorkers should focus on improvements that “need to be done now,” such a replacing signals and reforming procurement.”

    These things both have nothing to do with each other and everything to do with each other. Kellerman doesn’t seem to want to engage with the substance of Johnson’s report though. How disappointing.

  • Agreed. Johnson’s proposal exists entirely because the “things that need to be done now” are not getting addressed by current management, and his proposal is essentially to get those things done through a different management structure residing under city, not state, control. Kellerman makes no acknowledgement that the state-based management structure has failed at addressing needs and quite literally plans to continue failing to address those needs.

  • The problem with this analysis is that the concept of “mayoral control” of the MTA does not mean micromanaging by the mayor himself/herself. The mayor would no doubt appoint a commissioner who would be directly responsible for the day-to-day matters concerning the MTA; and that commissioner would answer to the mayor.

    Also, if this would make the mayor’s life “miserable”, that is completely irrelevant. Policy should be made based on what is good for the City’s residents, not what is good for the mayor’s quality of life.

  • Right! The signals and procurement reform don’t happen because the governance is so badly in need of an overhaul, and the need to overhaul the governance doesn’t mean we can’t also proceed with signal upgrades and procurement reform. The entrenched powers that be don’t seem to want to engage with a proposal that upends the status quo as much as Johnson’s has.

  • In fact, Johnson’s policy explicitly empowers a mobility czar, answerable to the mayor of course, who would be the person tasked with these day-to-day matters. Kellerman’s analysis seems misguided or just wrong.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Kellerman is probably more worried that:

    1) The city was screwed by the rest of the region financially when the MTA was formed and would be screwed again as it was dissolved.

    2) Johnson would cut a deal for that 20/50 pension (or 20 and out) in exchange for political support, or the state legislature would impose it as part of the deal.

    Why she didn’t say so is beyond me.

  • Seth Rosenblum

    What would probably make sense would be to have the head of NYCTransit(or whoever the new czar is) report into the DOT commissioner. It doesn’t make sense that we can’t create holistic plans that make changes to both our transit networks and our streets.

  • Seth Rosenblum

    Is there a video of this panel? This feels like very limited coverage of a transportation discussion between 3 noted experts and a de facto mayoral candidate.

  • Jo Jo

    I agree with Johnson. Let the mayor take control. The LIRR eastside access tunnel was a great idea, but way too expensive to do and therefore the money was blown to benefit only a small portion of the ridership which is not a practical use of the MTA budget. The head of the MTA must use common sense and not use their budget money for big splash projects which do not move the entire MTA system forward for the entire ridership.

  • Andrew

    Compare to Transport for London, which manages the Underground and some of the rail network, the tram and light rail lines, the bus system, streets, taxis, cycling, ferries, the main intercity bus (“coach”) station, and the congestion charge.

  • NYrByChoice

    We had Mayoral control from the 1930s to the 1970’s. This is why the MTA was created. It hasn’t worked well for schools, why would it for transit?

  • First of all, the TA (which predates the MTA, and is now a subsidiary of the MTA called New York City Transit) was created in the 1950s. That was when City control over the subways ended.

    The problem then was the unwillingness on the part of the mayor to raise the fares, as the five-cent fare had become sacrosanct.

    The pressure not to raise fares would still afflict any mayor, but not to the same extent, as we have had many fare increases, and there is no one single price point that is as untouchable as five cents was.

    The point of mayoral control is that the subway is the backbone of the City, so it should be run by someone who is charged with working exclusively in the City’s interests. Our subway should not be run by an official who represents the entire State, and who therefore acts to appease voters with nothing but contempt for the City.

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