To the Editor:

NYC Council Speaker and 2021 mayoral candidate Corey Johnson is correct that City Hall can actually regain control of both the NYC Transit subway and bus systems. (“Council Speaker: Time for City To Take Control of its Transit System,” Crystal Lewis—March 15). All have long forgotten that buried within the 1953 master agreement between the City of New York and NYC Transit is an escape clause. NYC has the legal right to take back at any time control of its assets. This includes the subway and most of the bus system.

In 1953, the old NYC Board of Transportation passed on control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets, under a master lease and operating agreement to the newly created NYC Transit Authority.

It was subsequently amended over time to take over various NYC private franchised bus operators.

In 1971, the passenger operations of the former B&O Rail Road Staten Island Rapid Transit Railway Company were sold to NYC for $3.5 million. Later that year, NYC passed on control to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA created a subsidiary, the Staten Island Rapid Transit Operating Authority. It is managed by the MTA NYC Transit’s Department of Subways and Staten Island railway.

In 2005, NYC transferred management of the seven private franchised bus operators (Command Bus, Green Lines, Jamaica Bus, Triboro Coach, Queens Surface, NY Bus and Liberty Lines Bronx Express) to the MTA. The MTA subsequently created MTA Bus, which is separate from NYC Transit Bus.

Regaining total control comes with a number of financial liabilities. City Hall would have to negotiate with both the Governor and State Legislature over how much of the MTA’s $40-billion long-term debt and billions more in employee pension, health insurance and other liabilities come with the package. NYC would also inherit a series of union contracts and work-rule agreements.

You also have to develop a plan for turning over management for billions in hundreds of ongoing capital improvement projects that are already underway. Don’t forget current purchases for several thousand new subway cars and buses.

A significant portion of the $12 billion worth of capital-funded projects contained in dozens of grants from the Federal Transit Administration would have to be transferred from MTA to NYC. This would involve the de-obligation and re-obligation of funding contained in active grants from MTA to NYC.

There would also have to be an update to the MTA Federal Transit Administration Bi-Annual Certification for thousands of Federally funded assets currently being maintained by the MTA to NYC. This document submitted every two years certifies that any asset worth over $5,000 is being properly maintained and remains in active transit service. All of these assets have to meet their promised useful life.

NYC Transit bus and subway are the largest transit operators in the nation with a fleet of 6,400 subway and 4,400 buses. MTA Bus with a fleet of 1,300 buses is one of the top 10 bus operators in the nation. It is the equivalent of attempting to manage a Fortune 500 corporation.

Does NYC have the technical capacity to take on such an undertaking to support creation of the new “Big Apple Transit”? Today’s NYCDOT technical capacity as it relates to subways and buses is weak. It is primarily in the management of bus lanes, bus shelters, bus stop signs, select bus service, bus priority signalization, bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and street-calming projects.

Perhaps NYC should take it one step at a time. Try attempting to manage the Staten Island Rail Road. Regain control of the 1,300 MTA Bus fleet. After developing technical capacity to run these two, next try running the #7 subway line. The #7 subway has its own stand-alone fleet and yard which makes it the perfect candidate. NYC should first attempt to successfully manage all three over a five-year test period. If successful, perhaps then initiate a serious discussion about regaining control of the other 95 percent of NYC Transit subway and bus assets.


(Mr. Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, NYC Transit, MTA Bus, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road and NYC Department of Transportation).

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