New York’s Mayor Doesn’t Run New York’s Subways. Should He?

New York’s Mayor Doesn’t Run New York’s Subways. Should He?


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It is a peculiarity of New York City history: The mayor does not control the subway that is so essential to the city’s success.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has some influence over the transit system, but he is largely at the whim of state leaders who have controlled the subway since 1968. Now Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, wants to change that.

Mr. Johnson introduced a plan on Tuesday as part of his State of the City speech to wrest control of the subway from the governor and state lawmakers, many of whom live far from the city and rarely, if ever, take the subway.

“We must take control of our destiny,” Mr. Johnson said. “We must have municipal control of our mass transit system.”

Mr. Johnson, a Democrat who is likely to run for mayor in 2021, released a 100-page report calling for the creation of a city-controlled entity called “Big Apple Transit” to oversee subways and buses. The idea of the mayor taking charge of the subway has long been debated, but Mr. Johnson’s report is the most comprehensive proposal in years.

New York City is unique in having its transit system run by state leaders. In Los Angeles and Chicago, the systems are mostly controlled by the mayor, allowing those leaders to set their own priorities and to undertake major upgrades. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has overseen a comeback of its aging subway. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti helped win support for a $120 billion ballot measure to expand the rail system.

But some argue that it makes sense for the state to control New York’s subway since it is part of a much bigger regional transit network. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a sweeping agency that oversees the subways, buses, commuter railroads and key bridges and tunnels.

The debate over the subway’s future comes as state lawmakers in Albany are deciding whether to approve new revenue streams for the subway. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pressed for congestion pricing, a proposal to toll drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan to raise billions of dollars for the transit system.

Last week, Mr. de Blasio threw his support behind congestion pricing and announced a plan to fix the system with Mr. Cuomo, with whom the mayor has frequently clashed. Their joint plan called for reforms of the transit agency and for new funding from taxes on recreational marijuana and internet sales. Mr. Cuomo has argued that he does not have enough control of the agency and that one person or entity should take charge and be accountable to the public.

The authority is governed by a board that typically has 17 voting members, including six members chosen by the governor and four by New York’s mayor. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat in his third term, selects the board chairman and has a role in hiring the agency’s top leadership.

The city once ran the subway, but the state took over the struggling system in 1968 in a power grab by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. Officials wanted to preserve the 20-cent fare and hoped that the tolls on bridges and tunnels would subsidize the costs of the subway.

Mr. Johnson has drawn attention to the fact that he regularly takes the subway, unlike the mayor and the governor. Mr. de Blasio occasionally takes the subway while Mr. Cuomo rarely uses the system. Mr. Johnson has focused attention on the subway, pushing for congestion pricing and half-price MetroCards for poor New Yorkers.

Transit advocates praised Mr. Johnson’s ambitious plans for the system, but urged subway riders to focus on convincing their state representatives to support congestion pricing before the April 1 budget deadline.

“We need congestion pricing in the upcoming state budget so we have billions of dollars to fix the subway now,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Riders Alliance, an advocacy group. “Then we should have a nuanced conversation about how to make sure the subway never falls apart again.”





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