5 takeaways from Corey Johnson's transit-focused State of the City

Speaker Corey Johnson delivers 2019 State Of The City address.
Speaker Corey Johnson delivers 2019 State Of The City address.
New York City Council/John McCarten/Flickr
Speaker Corey Johnson delivers 2019 State Of The City address.

5 takeaways from Corey Johnson's transit-focused State of the City

Johnson calls for municipal control of mass transit.
March 5, 2019

The subway is in New York City, but it’s not of New York City, at least when it comes to governance.

With ridership is falling and riders facing a fare hike, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Tuesday proposed a radical reshuffling of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It was the centerpiece of Johnson’s first State of the City address since taking office at the beginning of 2018.

A BAT signal for a transit crusader

“This will not be your typical State of the City address,” Johnson began his speech at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City, Queens. Instead of proposing “48 different solutions to 37 different problems,” he vowed to focus on just one: “Transit is the lifeblood of our city, and it is in crisis.”

Johnson has made transit issues a focus of his speakership, frequently being photographed riding the subway and using his brief foray as acting public advocate to launch a five-borough tour to hear riders’ woes. His major idea Tuesday: disentangle the subways, buses, bridges and tunnels from the complex, regionally focused MTA governing structure, and create a new governing body with mayoral control. Johnson is calling it Big Apple Transit, B.A.T., but admitted he’s open to other suggestions.

Johnson argued that the change is necessary, since the MTA is failing in its duties, providing just “Band-Aid solutions for mortal wounds.”

“The city’s population is growing. The city’s economy is growing. But subway and bus ridership is declining,” Johnson said. “Today, New Yorkers are abandoning the system and getting into Ubers and Lyfts. Tomorrow, it’s U-Hauls.”

Real policy proposals

Johnson promised all the details in a 104-page report handed out at the speech, “Let’s Go: A Case for Municipal Control and a Comprehensive Transportation Vision for the Five Boroughs.” But he teased a number of policy proposals on how to fund and fix transportation in New York. He reiterated his support for congestion pricing, with the revenues generated by tolling cars entering Downtown and Midtown Manhattan going towards funding mass transit. But also shouted a threat to any opponents of the plan in Albany: “If Albany doesn’t pass congestion pricing this session, the City Council will.” Johnson pulled a similar maneuver on a smaller scale last summer with speed cameras, when council attorneys argued that that the city has authority to toll local roads, despite prevailing wisdom to the contrary. He avoided a lawsuit then, but that prevailing wisdom of the state’s control over fees imposed on city residents would be likely to lead to a lawsuit over a more controversial congestion pricing plan.

Even then, congestion pricing might be a political walk in the park compared to his next proposal - to raise taxes on city businesses and direct the funds to transit. These taxes would be deductible at the federal level, Johnson argued, so it would get the federal government to indirectly pitch in on funding local infrastructure. But if you remember how hard it’s been for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to sell his idea in Albany of a millionaires tax to fund the MTA, you may get a sense of the political lift here. Johnson also suggested that the state direct a portion of sales tax revenue directly towards the transit system, which also seems like a tough sell to state legislators who aren’t known to readily give up any power of the purse.

Outside of funding, Johnson also suggested creating a new deputy mayor position to focus on transportation, requiring the city to forecast the capital budget for public transportation 10 years in advance, rather than the current five, and mandating a master plan for the city’s streets while setting aggressive benchmarks for installing bike lanes and pedestrian plazas.

Finally, Johnson proposed changing the zoning code to benefit real estate developers who would pay to install elevators at some of the more than 300 subway stops around the city that are inaccessible to wheelchair users. Developers would be able to build bigger than usual near these stops in exchange for helping to make the subway system usable for people who can’t climb stairs. Johnson, who briefly worked for a commercial developer before entering politics, has been careful to nurture the appearance of distance from the powerful sector.

Not under this governor

Johnson’s found himself adept at bridging the gap between the de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but the speaker may hit a wall when it comes to taking over the subways. One Albany insider laughed off the idea after the speech, saying there’s no way that the governor would give up control of the MTA – even though he publicly won’t admit to effectively controlling the MTA. Following the speech, Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever simply said, “The city already owns the New York City transit system,” which, while technically correct, says nothing about the governing structure that allows the city’s subway system to be controlled primarily by the governor.

While Cuomo himself has spoken recently about shaking up MTA governance, this plan isn’t likely to find friends outside the five boroughs – particularly because Johnson wants to take control of the bridges and tunnels, which bring in revenue from tolls.

Johnson seemed to anticipate the pushback, admitting the debate was only beginning. “State control is not working. The way we plan our streets is not working,” he said. “We can talk about the best way to fix this, but we actually have to start the conversation now.”

One unlikely ally agreed. Caught briefly outside the speech, former MTA chairman Joe Lhota, a Republican who’s close to Cuomo, said he loved Johnson’s idea. “I proposed this when I ran for mayor in 2013,” he said. “But then again, nobody remembers that.”

Council loves CoJo

Johnson seemed to be having fun with his 49-minute speech, talking in front of a cheeky slide show featuring jokes, emojis and, briefly, the infamous Pizza Rat video. On stage beside him was a life size replica of the Ditmars Boulevard subway station entrance (a rental, an aide said). And Johnson, who is gay, played two relevant hits by the band Queen in the auditorium – “Don’t Stop Me Now” before the speech, and “I Want to Break Free” after it.

The friendly crowd ate it all up, particularly the introduction by Johnson’s mother, Ann Richardson, who got cheered praising her “smaht” son in her clam chowder-thick Boston accent.

Johnson has notably good relationships with nearly the whole council, tracing back to his election as speaker in 2018 when he took the time to shout out all 50 of his council colleagues by name in his acceptance speech. The majority leader, Brooklyn City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, did the heavy lifting on Tuesday, methodically naming every single member of the council before the speech, plus a dozen or so former members in attendance, including former speakers Gifford Miller and Peter Vallone.

A lot was missing

It’s odd these days for any political discussion to not include a mention of Amazon, and it felt especially odd for a major speech given in the very Long Island City neighborhood that will not ultimately host a major office for the tech giant. But Johnson stayed focused in his speech, avoiding controversial topics like homelessness, the New York City Housing Authority or jails. He managed to criticize the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway rehabilitation project in Brooklyn Heights – which nobody seems to like – without proposing an alternative, which would also surely prove controversial.

Instead, the speech was a crowd pleaser, featuring big ideas about fixing the transit headaches that affect New York’s residents, workers and visitors. Johnson may be a Massachusetts transplant, but his love for the city was palpable, name-dropping Mos Def – which he pronounced, incorrectly, “Moss Def” – Barbra Streisand, the Lemon Ice King of Corona and the Brooklyn Bridge in a rousing conclusion. “We are the greatest city in the world!” he said. “Let’s do this, New York!”

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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