ANALYSIS: Andrew Yang’s ‘Plan’ For The MTA is Empty Promises that Won’t Work Anyway

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang with the backdrop of the Fulton Street busway behind him. Photo: Julianne Cuba
Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang with the backdrop of the Fulton Street busway behind him. Photo: Julianne Cuba

Is Andrew Yang taking his dream of municipal control of the buses and subways seriously?

The candidate who claims he’d get mayoral control over New York City Transit simply by asking has pivoted to suggesting that getting municipal control of the larger MTA could be accomplished without taking the entire superstructure apart, a claim that defies belief. Speaking at an event last month hosted by former Taxi and Limousine Commissioner Matthew Daus, Yang said there’s an easy way to get city control of the buses and subways, never mind the budget.

“The easiest way to do that, and this is a tall order in Albany, is simply to have the city recommend more than the four out of 21 board members, and then the financial structure could remain the same,” Yang told the audience of niche transportation interests.

Yang also mentioned how easy it would be with 11 members instead of four in an interview with Jewish family magazine Mishpacha, and similarly said that the MTA’s financial structure of fares and state taxes would still flow to the system without a hiccup if New York City had the majority of board appointments to the regional transportation authority.

Advocates were surprised by Yang’s naïveté.

“There’s a lot you would have to do with the legislature to make this work,” said Jon Orcutt, a former communications director at the TransitCenter and a former Bloomberg administration DOT official. “It’s not up to the mayor, it’s up to Albany — and they’re not going to give [the city] more board members if they don’t want to and if you don’t have a revenue scenario that’s going to work.”

Yang’s “easy” route isn’t fundamentally different than say, Eric Adams’s plan to add a Board member for every borough, except that the frontrunner’s proposal would mean the city would have two more voting members and a total of 11 representatives among the 21 voting members instead of 9 out of 19 voting members. Transit and government experts said they didn’t expect Albany to welcome Adams’s plan either, and although Yang admitted getting seven additional Board members would be a tall order, he told Daus’s audience that he could get the extra city representation because he has the ability to get on national news whenever he wants.

But both man’s plans ignore one central issue: the MTA Board lacks any authority to hire staff, hire or fire the chairman/CEO position or do anything but occasionally object to contracts or fare hikes.

Winning municipal control of the subways and buses, without some kind of devastating financial penalty attached to it, would already be a tough lift. But to put that kind of lift into an effort that only results in more appointees (for the governor to block) or more city representatives (who often have full time jobs that have nothing to do with actual MTA governance). When he’s brought up the idea of adding seven more Board members, Yang has never explained what those appointees would actually do that ensures that the city can control things like bus routes and schedules, subway schedules or the maintenance and capital work that keeps the transit system running. MTA staff, hired either by the governor or by executives appointed by the governor, still actually run the MTA’s day-to-day operations.

“[The Board] is a largely Potemkin institution. The governor runs the MTA and it should really be a state department, but it’s a public authority for bonding — the ability to borrow money, basically,” Orcutt said.

It should concern anyone who cares about public transit that Yang appears to believe that getting those seven additional MTA Board members is itself a plan (Yang’s website still doesn’t have a fleshed out transportation plan or any further discussion of the logistics of taking over the biggest piece of a debt-ridden public authority with a $9-billion operating budget).

Asked at the same Daus event what he would do if he doesn’t win control of the MTA, Yang suggested creating a transportation plan with the MTA Chair and the governor. There are many positive ways that a mayor could help create better transportation outcomes — like creating car-free streets for bus service — but Yang never said anything about that, pivoting to talking about how the city currently lacks an app that integrates bike share and mass transit.

“A goal would be to go to the chair of the MTA and the governor and say, ‘Here are the big asks from the MTA,'” Yang said. “And among those asks would be the ability to integrate what’s going on with the subways and buses with a genuine transportation plan or policy here in New York, because right now the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

But it might be better for Yang to talk about apps instead of actual transportation policies, since the biggest waves he’s made in that area was when he suggested to rip up the Flushing Busway, a literal example of the MTA and DOT working together on positive transportation policy.

Municipal control of the subways isn’t necessarily an impossible dream, or even a bad idea. But the heavy lifting to achieve something like that isn’t well-served by someone suggesting there’s a simple fix to the situation (more board members) that wouldn’t change anything. In 2019, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson put out a 100-page plan to totally remake the city’s transportation bureaucracy, including taking control of the buses and subways, and it was well-received in corners of the transit universe. Johnson’s report, which didn’t have any easy way out claims, is why his idea wasn’t dismissed out of hand. Yang’s subway control at this point relies on confident boasts that All In With Chris Hayes would want multiple segments on high-stakes negotiations with whoever is governor over the life of a Yang mayoralty.

But so far, Yang’s plan for municipal control of the MTA is sounding like the kind of plan that’s worked for Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook, not for New York City.