The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board recently released a Transformation Plan, recommending organizational change. The best decision it could make would be to grant New York’s mayor direct control of daily operations of the city’s transit system, including appointing its leader, while maintaining New York City Transit as a division of the MTA to ensure regional coherence and capital funding.
“Structure follows strategy” is a well-accepted business principle. Once an agency’s mission is clear, its organizational structure should be designed to make accomplishing goals as frictionless as possible. For instance, the New York area undeniably needs a regional transportation authority to ensure that commuters and city residents can travel back and forth with ease.
It is also true in organizational decision-making that size matters. The underwhelming MTA transformation report ignores the most compelling fact in the document. New York City’s system accounts for 83% of the MTA labor force. A division that represents more than 80% of an enterprise must have different standing than a handful of others that make up the rest.
The facts on the ground — and under it in this case — argue strongly in favor of a hybrid structure-what business leaders often call matrix management.
Residents of the five boroughs rely on the city for delivery of almost all government services. They are entitled to hold the elected officials closest to them responsible for vital functions, like the transportation system. State government generally sets broad policy standards local agencies must follow, and serves as an essential public banker, collecting taxes and directing money to support priorities. Infrastructure, like the many initiatives required to upgrade the subways and to support regional economic development, is perhaps the most important category of spending that relies on the state’s broad, multi-jurisdictional tax authority.
This proposal differs from the current structure in an essential way. Today the mayor appoints four MTA board members, assuring him access to information and a track for input, but the city exercises no operational control. A mayor can plausibly and unconstructively declare, “Not my job.” The governor controls the MTA, more than ever after changes pushed through the last legislative session, but the state is not responsible for any other major operation in the city, and the current subway emergency makes clear that it is not a priority of the governor.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s proposal to give the mayor full control of the subways and buses is the right idea, but he rides it too far. It ignores the city’s need to maintain a formal connection to the regional system — which has important financial as well as practical implications.
The inherent complexity of a regional system that contains a dominant division makes governance complicated. The proposal’s potential for mischief is clear. The rivalry between New York’s mayor and the state’s governor is institutional. It predates the feud between the two incumbents, and it will endure long after both are gone. But it is a political wrestling match with customs and traditions for resolving disputes.
The proposed alignment of responsibility is far superior to the current amorphous accountability that created our mobility crisis. The millions of New Yorkers who ride the rails and buses daily should encourage the governor and the MTA board he controls to adopt it.
Originally posted as an op-ed with Crain’s New York.