With apologies to Bob Dylan for the headline, the wildest subway story in months kicked off innocuously enough with a Tweet from the MTA on Tuesday night. A recent spate of trains delayed because someone pulled the emergency brake seemed to be intentional.

Since then, we’ve learned, thanks to reporting by Aaron Gordon that this targeted attack has been happening for months and has delayed more than 740 trains since March. We’ve heard MTA officials speak out forcefully against this behavior during yesterday’s Board meeting while admitting they’re not sure what criminal penalties the culprit (or culprits) may face. We’ve learned about near-misses, and we’ve heard from a few passengers who may have unknowingly spotted the culprit in the act.

It’s possible, in fact, that one person in New York is single-handedly responsible for the subway’s just missing out on Andy Byford’s performance improvement metrics for the past few months. So even as subway service slowly but noticeably improves, one New Yorker has taken to intentionally disabling trains and disrupting the commutes of thousands of people. It’s straight out of a movie.

Here’s the story as Gordon succinctly summarized on Wednesday:

This person has an established M.O., the source said, and Jalopnik confirmed this by reviewing internal incident reports. There are at least three so far.

The suspect disrupts service primarily on the 2 and 5 lines from Flatbush Avenue in central Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan. He climbs aboard the rear of the train as it departs a station, unlocks the safety chains, somehow gets into the rear cab, and triggers the emergency brakes. Then, he disappears, most likely through the subway tunnels and out an emergency exit.

Despite striking on average once a week for several months, the person has not been caught.

On Thursday, we learned that a culprit — it’s not clear if there are more than one — was nearly caught. Gordon reports:

Jerrylee Heath almost caught him. He was standing right there. It was 3:51 p.m. last Sunday. Heath, a train supervisor on duty at Times Square, got a call from Rail Control Center, the operational brain of the New York City subway system, according to an incident report from that day. Someone waiting for a Brooklyn-bound train at Fulton Street in lower Manhattan alerted staff that they had seen someone riding along the back of a departing uptown express train. Maybe Heath could make it to the platform in time, if the person was still clinging to the back of the train.

Two minutes later, Heath was on the platform. As the train edged into the station, he spotted someone just inside the rear cab. The safety cables were detached, and the rear door to the train was open. It was him, the person who had been nefariously triggering emergency brakes for months with the sole intention, apparently, of being a pain in thousands upon thousands of butts.

Before Heath could take any action, the person pulled the emergency brake—even though by that time the train would have been either barely in motion or at a complete stop—jumped onto the track, and dashed from the direction the train came, back towards 34th Street. Without police present and Rail Control Center’s approval, Heath was not allowed to follow him, per New York City Transit work rules. For the next 18 minutes, Heath rode downtown, then uptown again, to see if he could spot the culprit. But at 4:11 p.m., he radioed to Rail Control Center to deliver the bad news. “The unruly person,” as he was called throughout the incident report, got away. Again.

I’ve seen the incident report from an April 19 occurrence. For around 30 minutes starting at 4:17, the culprit rode on the backs of a variety of northbound 4 and 6 trains before triggering the emergency brakes of a northbound 4 train near 59th st at 4:48. The person, the MTA has said, did not just pull a rip cord in a car, but rather cut the safety chains on the back of a train, used a key to open the doors to the operator room and set off the brake valve before running down the tracks. This is someone with knowledge of train operations, and some have speculated this person is halting service in order to tag the tunnels. The April incident alone resulting in 75 delayed trains along the IRT lines.

It’s hard to write fiction this wild, and while it’s not the first time vandals have pulled subway emergency brakes for sport, this is a specifically targeted attack by someone with some expertise in train operations. What happens is anyone’s guess, but subway riders know to look out for someone riding the backs of trains. It’s only a matter of time before he’s caught, and we’ll find out exactly why what Jalopnik is calling a subway supervillain is targeting our commutes. It’s a special kind of New York crime designed to inflict maximum annoyance on a lot of people; crowd justice for this culprit seems almost too kind.

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Reinvent Albany’s call to reform MTA governance is the topic of this week’s podcast.

Can the MTA be reformed from within without, as many New Yorkers wish to see, blowing everything up? That’s the question a new sweeping report from the good governance group Reinvent Albany seeks to answer.

A month after budget season wrapped, the watchdog agency published “Open MTA: 50 Actions New York Can Take to Renew Public Trust in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.” It’s a report that squarely lays the responsibility — and the blame — for the current state of the MTA on the shoulders of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and walks through the myriad ways the MTA has failed. From a Board with no real authority to opaque budgeting to a failure of legislative oversight to ethics concerns and conflicts of interest, the 150-page document lays out the case for MTA reforms through the lens of Cuomo’s control. Andrew Cuomo controls the MTA, and Andrew Cuomo will determine whether or not the MTA succeeds. Here, Reinvent Albany says, is the way to fix things.

In a way, the report is a contrast to Corey Johnson’s municipal takeover plan, and the document is blunt in noting that blowing everything up — wresting control of an important state power — from Andrew Cuomo is unlikely to succeed. So let’s fix things from within.

Since the report came out, I’ve pondered how best to cover it. After all, it’s not easy to distill a massive call for reform into a few hundred words. So for the fourth episode of the Second Ave. Sagas podcast, I sat down with Rachael Fauss, Reinvent Albany’s senior research analyst and lead author on the report, for a conversation on overhauling and fixing the MTA. We spent a lot of time discussing whether or not the MTA, under Andrew Cuomo is something that can be fixed. We delved into the way the MTA Board is more symbolic and used as a whipping post rather than a true policy instrument. We explored the need for the agency to implement better open data policies. And we examined how Joe Lhota’s multiple jobs and apparent conflicts of interest undercut public trust in the agency. It’s an in-depth talk about structural challenges and the ways to fix the MTA while recognizing that Cuomo will not willingly cede control.

You can check out the Reinvent Albany’s full report right here, and you can catch my conversation with Fauss via the player below and at all the popular podcast spots — iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Pocket Casts and your favorite app. If you like what you hear and have been enjoying the podcasts, please consider leaving a review on your iTunes.

As always, thank you for listening and thanks as well to Joe Jakubowski for sound engineering. I’ve been enjoying producing these podcasts but they take a lot of time and effort. I can keep doing them only through the generous contributions of my listeners so please consider joining the Second Ave. Sagas Patreon. Since this site runs entirely on Patreon contributions, I can keep it going only with your help.

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A memo issued in 2017 by then-acting NYC Transit President Phil Eng highlights how Gov. Cuomo’s Subway Action Plan involved a significant increase in overtime. The governor is now attacking that overtime for uncertain ends.

When I wrote up some thoughts in advance of Friday’s “emergency” MTA Board meeting on time-and-attendance issues, I cast the blame for the MTA’s skyrocketing overtime costs on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s shoulders. After all, it’s via his own Subway Action Plan that caps on overtime were lifted, and it’s via his own Subway Action Plan that management, based on a directive from the governor himself, is sparing no expense in repairing the subway.

Other than Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s hand-picked MTA Board enforcer, very few people at the meeting on Friday seemed to disagree. What I didn’t quite expect was a pubic blow-up between the labor faction on the MTA Board and the Cuomo faction with the transportation professionals caught in the middle. What started out as a ill-advised stunt by Schwartz due to a few bad headlines that would have blown over in time has exploded into an all-out war of words between MTA labor unions and Cuomo’s handpicked MTA appointees. Set against the backdrop of looming labor negotiations, it’s tough to say how this boiling dispute will play out, but it seems clear that at least between labor and Larry Schwartz or labor and Pat Foye, battle lines have been drawn.

To recap briefly: The meeting started out as I expected it to. Schwartz, an MTA Board member since 2015 and head of the Finance Committee since September 2016, began with a laundry list of specific cases of egregious overtime going back to 2010 when Andrew Cuomo was New York’s Attorney General. Schwartz, as Finance Committee chair, receives overtime reports on a monthly basis and why he waited until headlines started rolling in to raise the issue is a good question. He ended his diatribe with a call for an independent outside assessment of MTA overtime practices, and nearly immediately he faced significant pushback. A few Board members seemed to nod to his his idea, but Polly Trottenberg, in particular, objected to more outside consultant-like spending. The union reps were apoplectic.

Vincent Tessitore, the LIRR labor rep, went first. You just pointed fingers at every single MTA worker our system,” he said, blaming management for requiring more overtime. “Do you think our workers want to stay overnight? No, and when they want to leave, they’re ordered to stay overnight…I’m embarrassed for this board right now…You can’t call the[ workers] out like that.”

Norman Brown pushed a similar line. “If you don’t want them to work overtime,” he said to Cuomo’s MTA Board reps, “then don’t ask them to work overtime…Who do you think are going to be responsible for implementing all the genius ideas the Deans of the Engineering Schools and Alix Partners comes up with?”

But John Samuelsen, the former head of TWU Local 100 and current president of TWU International, spared few words, calling the increase in overtime a “management problem.” To Schwartz he said, “You’ve been on the Board for four years. What have you been doing?”

If you’re so inclined, you can watch Samuelsen’s epic rant in full. He was livid. “This is all high theater. This is all nonsense,” he astutely summarized at one point.

The most telling bits from Samuelsen’s comments were on a proposal for the MTA to use biometric devices to track time and attendance: “We’re going to get overtime to maintain the biometric devices in a state of good repair, and you’re going to come back to the board and say ‘There’s fraud in overtime maintaining the biometric devices.'”

Finally, he shifted his attention to the Subway Action Plan — which MTA CFO Bob Foran, NYC Transit President Andy Byford and a slew of other MTA management types correctly fingered as the key driver of overtime increases over the past two years. “The MTA came to the TWU and asked the TWU to lift the overtime caps. The company needed so much work done that they came to us and bargained to remove the caps,” he said. To raise these issues now, he continued, “that’s outrageous. Do they even realize how outrageous this is?”

After these fireworks, the finger-pointing continued for a while, but the animosity in the room was palpable. Most MTA Board members seemed hesitant to embrace yet another consultant agreement, but after the Board meeting, Pat Foye sided with Larry Schwartz (i.e., Andrew Cuomo). “I support the MTA proceeding with retaining special counsel to conduct an investigation of the timekeeping and attendance systems of the MTA and overtime abuse. We owe the taxpayers and our customers an explanation of how some have abused the system and ensure it never happens again,” the new MTA CEO and Chair said in a statement.

TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano put out his own statement: “The MTA already spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on outside consultants – more than $2.1 billion over the last five years! But Foye and Board Member Lawrence Schwartz will spare no expense blaming workers for their mismanagement. Workers don’t assign themselves overtime or write their own paychecks. Management does. Foye and Schwartz know that but are trying to pull of a Trump-like distraction. The MTA board should reject this farce of a proposal.”

Now, on the one hand, this is a lot of posturing, and the TWU made sure not to name Cuomo in their statements both during the Board meeting and in press releases over the weekend. After all, as recently as September, the TWU and Cuomo were buddy-buddy with the union providing a lot of support for the governor in his primary fight, and as recently as a few weeks ago, the TWU was instrumental in supporting Cuomo’s congestion pricing push.

Could the relationship have soured this quickly through a few missteps by Cuomo’s guys atop the MTA? It’s possible it could have. The press around overtime spending has been clear to point out that Cuomo approved the LIRR labor contracts that led to a few examples of egregious overtime use and that Cuomo pushed the Subway Action Plan. Cuomo can’t hide from those headlines, but he may use them to foist concessions on the unions during negotiations this year. Or he may be using Schwartz and Foye as fall guys so he can ride to the rescue with the promise of labor peace. It’s happened that way before, though Cuomo’s comments on Sunday during which he accused workers of theft and fraud crosses a line the governor hasn’t crossed before.

The main problems as I see it now are two-fold. First, Cuomo, via Larry Schwartz, has torpedoed morale among the rank-and-file at the MTA. Morale had already been low for a variety of reasons, including Cuomo’s heavy-handed management style, but now his hand-picked Board members are painting a workforce of tens of thousands in broad brush strokes thanks in part to a de minimis number of bad apples. In fact, Foye identified only five cases of outright fraud concerning overtime, which is notable for agency with over 74,000 employees.

The second main problem concerns overtime reform itself. The MTA needs overtime reform. The agency relies too heavily on overtime for too much work, and management doesn’t have a good handle on controlling overtime or rationing it properly. Overtime accounting — which working hours count for OT — often means that weekends, which is when most work needs to happen, count for overtime from the get-go, and thus, a 55-hour weekend work period means overtime pay for every single worker involved in the weekend shifts. Thus, overtime just grows and grows and grows. (For a very deep dive on the need to reform overtime and the roles both management and labor can play in that reform effort, I urge you to read this post published Sunday from The LIRR Today.)

Ultimately, what we saw on Friday shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. It was a careless move, thoughtlessly executed by Larry Schwartz, and one that throw a bomb into the already-delicate relationship between the MTA Board and labor with management left to pick up the pieces (and, as the agency heads did, mend fences with the rank-and-file). This isn’t reform by any means, and if this scorched-Earth approach is one that Cuomo plans to take with no regard for outcome or process, things may only get messier before someone serious about MTA reform takes over.

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When Andrew Cuomo wants results, things in New York tend to happen quickly. Case in point: MTA overtime spending and, in particular, the LIRR.

The Long Island Rail Road’s overtime spending issues have been a low-level concern for quite a well. Due to various work rules and pension calculations, overtime accrual can benefit workers in retirement, and Gov. Cuomo, who has pressured the MTA to sign off on labor agreements without management-suggested reforms that would combat high overtime costs, has grown tired of bad headlines about overtime payments. The Post recently reported on one LIRR worker who earned over $300,000 last year due, in part by logging over 3800 overtime hours, and the LIRR’s overtime costs have outpaced inflation over the past six years.

And so, Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s right-hand man and the chair of the MTA Board’s Finance Committee since September of 2016, suggested an emergency meeting. Since Schwartz is Cuomo’s direct proxy, when he says jump, the MTA asks, “How high?” The emergency meeting will be at held at 4 p.m. this Friday afternoon. MTA CEO and Chairman Pat Foye issued a statement on the meeting when it was announced late Wednesday: “The issues of excessive overtime and the inadequacy of the MTA time and attendance systems must be addressed, which is why last week I ordered an immediate investigation into these matters and why I am convening a special Board meeting on this issue this coming Friday. Overtime is an important and useful tool as we urgently seek to modernize our entire system but we must be sure it is being used effectively, accurately and appropriately.”

Now, general overtime spending and the LIRR time-and-attendance concerns are two separate issues. The LIRR issues The Post was willing to put firmly on Cuomo’s shoulders:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA, helped renegotiate the [LIRR labor] deal in 2014, averting a looming strike. That contract was renewed in 2016 with minimal changes, delaying any talks of serious reforms until last week, when that agreement expired, sources say. In 2014, Cuomo was happy to accept praise for stepping in to help hash out the contract over a seafood lunch in Midtown, with a subsequent MTA press release celebrating his role in the deal…But when asked on Thursday how he would ensure the next contract curbed overtime costs, Cuomo claimed he had no power to slam the brakes on the off-the-rails spending in a new deal…

In the 2014 contract, LIRR brass were seeking reforms to curtail payroll and overtime costs…Among them: scrapping the system that gives people with the most seniority first dibs on overtime and instead equalizing it among all employees based on attendance and overtime already worked, according to a federal report into the contract dispute. Other proposed measures included changing some double-time payments to time-and-a-half and eliminating extra pay given to conductors when they work on both a passenger and freight train in the same shift. None of the reforms was made, according to an MTA source.

If this sounds like a leader attempting to have his cake and eat it too, that’s because it is, and it’s a prime example of why good governance groups are skeptical of Cuomo’s faux-reform efforts. More on that shortly. Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, also sent a strident letter to MTA officials, bemoaning how “abuses in the attendance system demonstrate again that basic management control is lacking.” She has not — and will not — acknowledge how these “abuses” were essentially baked into the system when Cuomo approved the 2014 labor deals.

In the lead-up to today’s “emergency” Board meeting, the MTA first sicced its police force on LIRR workers, alleging that cops would enforce time-and-attendance practices. This drew an immediate backlash from the TWU, and the MTA hastily retreated on this Pinkerton-esque approach. Never mind that the MTA’s cops are among the most egregious abusers of overtime. We’ll see where enforcement goes after today’s meeting.

Meanwhile, back to “normal” overtime spending, a separate issue from LIRR bookkeeping. Here’s a quick snapshot of the MTA’s planned overtime spending and actuals with the total adjusted for inflation set to 2018 dollars during Andrew Cuomo’s entire tenure as governor (which coincides with his entire tenure as being responsible for the MTA). Figures are in “millions.”

As you can see, the MTA is consistently blowing past its overtime budgets, but the problem has seemingly increased significantly in 2017 and 2018. Last year, in fact, that MTA blew past its initial overtime estimates by $400 million. Why? Well, MTA Board materials point the biggest fingers at overtime spending due to Andrew Cuomo’s very own Subway Action Plan. His Emergency Order sets the stage for the MTA to spend without certain budget controls, and the governor’s demands that the MTA realize the goals of his Subway Action Plan have led to a steep increase in overtime spending. In both 2017 and 2019, the Subway Action Plan was one of the key drivers. Here’s what New York City Transit had to say in its Board materials: “Higher overtime expenses of $218.9 million (47.0 percent) were essentially driven by track, signals infrastructure, station maintenance and car equipment requirements, including Subway Action Plan (SAP) initiatives.” (The reports on 2017 expenditures said essentially the same thing regarding overtime and the Subway Action Plan.)

Will today’s emergency Board meeting focus on how Cuomo’s own initiatives are forcing the MTA to rely on increased overtime spending? I wouldn’t hold my breath. After all, Schwartz, the Cuomo confidante who called for this Board meeting, has been in charge of the Finance Committee since 2016 and has been receiving these OT reports monthly since then. Is he blaming the MTA for his own oversight failures? Why hasn’t Schwartz been aggressive in attacking overtime since he began serving on the Board when, as the chart shows, it was already clear the MTA couldn’t project or control overtime costs? It’s hard sometimes to look in the mirror.

Good governance group Reinvent Albany is equally skeptical. They called today’s meeting “political theater” and pointed to three key facts about overtime spending:

1. The Governor controls the day to day operations of the MTA via his ability to hire and fire the CEO of the MTA Patrick Foye. The CEO hires and fires the MTA agency presidents, including the president of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).

2. The MTA Board has no say over the day-to-day operations of the MTA and no involvement in day-to-day authorization or tracking of overtime.

3. There is no sudden overtime “emergency.” MTA management asks employees to perform overtime, all overtime is either at behest of management or approved in advance, and is carefully tracked. The MTA board and senior staff have frequently discussed overtime at MTA board meetings. There is no new information about overtime, just public embarrassment to the Governor and MTA caused by press coverage. Further, no public materials or agenda have been released for today’s meeting, showing that this response is being rushed and will not be a serious review.

I’ll give the final words to Reinvent Albany Executive Director John Kaehny: “The public will not trust the MTA until the Governor and his appointees acknowledge simple truths and stop with the political theater. The Governor controls the MTA through the CEO he hires and fires. Today’s ’emergency’ board meeting about overtime is a reaction to press coverage, not new information. MTA and LIRR management completely control the overtime process and know exactly what is going on. They ask employees to do overtime and track it carefully. What’s really going on is that the MTA hiring freeze and management pay freeze are creating dysfunction and shortages of skilled workers that are aggravated by work rules.”

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Speaker Corey Johnson laid out the case for municipal control of transit in March.

It’s been a little over two months since Corey Johnson unveiled his sweeping plan for city control of the subways and buses, and I want to revisit Johnson’s ideas and the reaction to his plan. The intervening weeks have been busy ones for transit in New York City, first with congestion pricing and Cuomo’s ramming his quasi-reform plan through Albany and recently with L train not-a-shutdown work and recent fare hikes. It is of course never a quiet day for transit news in New York City, but Johnson’s proposal simmers in the background, gaining traction in wonkish circles and awaiting his eventual mayoral campaign.

Yet, despite the prominence of the plan and the audacity of it, neither the mayor nor the governor have latched onto the idea. Now, I don’t expect the city to gain control of its transit network without a protracted negotiation with the state, and Bill de Blasio isn’t in a position to call for city control of transit at a time when the governor is begrudgingly owning leading the way out of the MTA’s current crisis. But their silence speaks loudly. Cuomo, as far as I can tell, addressed the plan once in an interview with the obsequious Alan Chartock on Northeast Public Radio’s WAMC, and the Mayor has said next to nothing.

Meanwhile, shortly after the City Council Speaker unveiled his proposal, he joined me on my podcast to discuss his thinking and the whys and wherefores of it all, and a few days later, Polly Trottenberg, DOT Commissioner and MTA Board member, joined Ben Max for an appearance on Gotham Gazette’s What’s the [Data] Point? podcast. It’s worth delving into their various responses to see how the governor in Albany, the City Council Speaker, and the long-serving DOT Commissioner view their various roles in shaping the region’s transportation landscape.

On Chartock’s roundtable, Cuomo reacts dismissively

Let’s start with Cuomo. He’s the one currently in charge of the MTA, and even if he’s too busy fighting with the guy he brought into clean up the mess, the mess is his. On the one hand, you may think Cuomo would latch onto Johnson’s proposal as a way to rid himself of a pesky political liability, but this is Andrew M. Cuomo we’re talking about. During his only public comments on the Speaker’s proposal, delivered during a media segment with his good buddy Alan Chartock, Cuomo was dismissive. You can listen here, and the exchange follows:

Chartock: I was fascinated this morning when I read the New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has a plan to have the city take charge of the subways. Now let’s face it. Corey Johnson has risen to be Speaker of the City Council. He’s term-limited. I’m sure he’d love to be mayor and so now he’s saying the mayor should be that guy on the subway. So that’s not surprising I suppose. And it would take away control of the subways from the MTA and give it to the mayor. What do you think?

Cuomo: First of all, The New York Times loves to write stories; they’re sometimes loose with the facts. (Chartock chuckles.) New York City owns the subway system today; they lease it to the MTA. The lease can be canceled on one year’s notice. Just cancel the lease. You don’t have to take it over; you own it. Just cancel the MTA lease. All the hiring is done through the New York City civil service system. Why hasn’t a mayor taken it over? There are about 10 billion reasons, and that’s the 10 billion dollars the state gives to the MTA, primarily New York City Transit Authority, between operating and capital. If New York City took it over, they take it over. They don’t get the 10 billion in state funding.

Chartock: Well, why won’t they? They’ll say “Come on, governor. It’s not your money. It’s the taxpayer’s money. So give us the ten billion, and we’ll have the mayor run this thing, just like we do on education.”

Cuomo: No, you own it. It’s yours, you pay for it. God less you. (Chartock chuckles again.) Look, we fund Buffalo transit, Rochester transit, Albany transit. We don’t subsidize a local transit system or a regional transit system anywhere in this state to the tune of what we do with New York City because it’s the MTA and the state has participation. If you want to own, it’s yours. God Bless America.

Chartock: Well let me just pursue that, if I may sir, a little bit. Let me say, you have spoken in the past about the advantage of some sole responsible agent for these things and then you hold them responsible. New York City, for example, you gave that power to the mayor to fix the education system and you took that power away from the Board of Education that was moribund and everything else. Why wouldn’t that work here?

Cuomo: Yes, but New York City education is primarily funded by New York City. The state provides assistance the way they do with every local school district but it’s primarily funded by New York City. You want to take over the city subway system and you want to pay for the New York City subway system, God bless you. You want the state to take it over, and by the way, the state pays the lion’s share of the funding. Last capital plan, we paid $8 billion, the city paid $2 billion, because it’s a state agency. But if you want to take it over and you want to pay, that’s an option. And by the way, you don’t need state approval. Just call up the MTA today and say,” we’re canceling the lease, here’s your one-year notice.” (Chartock chuckles.) And then pay the bill.

Cuomo’s derision nearly speaks for itself, and it’s worse when you hear the half-informed contempt in his voice drip trough the audio. Johnson’s proposal discusses ways to reallocate the funds, ways to ensure regional transit is supported and ways to remove Albany from the equation. Cuomo doesn’t engage with the substance, and it’s not clear he even read the report before parrying with Chartock. I found this reaction quite unsatisfying and almost juvenile. Cuomo is in a position to be governor of New York state for as long as he wants, and it would behoove him to understand why local control of transit would be best for the state, best for the city and best for him.

Johnson discusses the philosophy behind his plan

Needless to say, during our conversation about his plan, Corey Johnson had more thoughtful things to say than the governor did in response. Calling for the buses or subways to come back under city control isn’t a new idea, and it’s one that sort of failed the first time around. So I wanted to understand from Johnson why this plan and why now. He spoke at length, as both a transit rider and policy leader, on the need to rethink transit governance:

This is the first time that an elected official with some level of prominence has decided not just to talk about it in a soundbite-like way, a one-off, two-off way, but to actually present a real plan that could be dissected, that could be modified, that could be added to…. We are in a crisis, and the crisis that we’re in stems from years of disinvestment, years of bad management, and also a lack of creativity on figuring out how to have a 22nd century mass transit system in New York City.

The reason why New York’s economy has grown decade after decade after decade is because of mass transit, is because of our subways and buses. If we want to continue to grow, if we want to be a center for economic activity and a lifeblood for the entire region, we need a mass transit system that works, and the current structure at the MTA is a system that was set up to deflect accountability.

We’re saying is there’s a better way to do this. There’s not just a better way to do it because of the day-to-day issues that riders face; there’s a better way to do it to actually be able to grow the system and expand the system, be creative with the system and do all sorts of things that other cities in Europe and around the United States have been able to do.

Johnson’s plan isn’t a simple cancellation of the lease, as much as Cuomo would like to rid himself of a problem that way. Rather, it involves rethinking governance to add a mobility czar in charge of subways, buses and streets, and then integrate planning and leadership across all of the ways New Yorkers use to travel around the city. It is not, Johnson said, “just looking at these things in their own silos, but actually saying how do you integrate subways and buses and bikes and pedestrians and safe and livable streets in a way that works for the entire city in a master plan-like way, not piecemeal, not one-off.”

No governor is going to choose New York City over the rest of the state. It’s not going to happen. But every mayor is going to have to ensure that the subways and buses run properly.

I don’t want to get too into the weeds on Johnson’s statements to me. After all, you can listen to the full interview, but I do want to look at Johnson’s approach and his reaction to the governor’s statements. In our discussions, the City Council Speaker mentioned Chicago and Los Angeles as examples of areas where mayoral control has led to more holistic planning, and he spoke about Andy Byford’s experiences in London, Sydney and Toronto. “We’re not creating something that no one’s ever done before, he said. “We’re modeling this idea off of what we’ve seen work in other places where you can have greater accountability, the flexibility to try new things, do new things, expand service.”

And what, I asked him, of Gov. Cuomo. Is this about him? After a long, pregnant pause, Johnson spoke. “Even if our current governor was not the governor,” he said. “I still think this would be the right proposal and right plan, and he is not the first governor that has been in charge of the MTA where things have not gone well for the public. Governor Pataki did all sorts of irresponsible things as it related to diverting MTA funding and not investing in the system in a way that was meaningful. So it’s not really about any governor, it’s not really about any mayor, it’s just about setting up a system that works for whoever the governor is and whoever the mayor is. No governor is going to choose New York City over the rest of the state. It’s not going to happen. But every mayor is going to have to ensure that the subways and buses run properly.”

I think about those last few sentences frequently as it seems to get to the crux of Johnson’s argument for local control. The governor won’t side with New York City for political reasons, but the mayor has to answer for local concerns. Johnson elaborated a bit when I pushed him more on Cuomo’s dismissive reaction:

I want to work with the governor, and the way to get things done in a way that benefits the 8.6 million people who live in New York City is to not have a public tit for tat with the governor.

New York City is a city that gives more to the state than we get back. And so there is a symbiotic relationship that exists between New York City and the state. The state funds plenty of programs that they don’t have direct authority and control over and you could work in safety valves where if things were not going well under this new authority, the state could intervene and take control in an emergency, if you had a fiscal crisis again, if you had a mayor that wasn’t doing well and it was screwing up the regional economy…To actually talk about those things, you actually have to have a substantive, thoughtful, comprehensive granular conversation on the details of it.

…When he’s gone, when we have a different governor and a different mayor and when the good times are here and when the bad times come, the system is set up to deflect accountability, to put a lid on creativity, to have any talk about expansion, to have accountability on a day-to-day basis, and that is not a good thing. So it has to be de-personalized. It can’t be about Andrew Cuomo, it can’t be about Bill de Blasio, it can’t be about Corey Johnson. It has to be about what is best for the governance and accountability for the future of New York City 20 years from now, 50 years from now, a century from now. That’s the type of planning that we need to do. That’s the planning that government typically doesn’t do. We do it on electoral cycles, every four years, and that’s what we need to move away from.

At the least, Corey Johnson is thinking on a far deeper level about the theoretical models for control and growth while Gov. Cuomo hasn’t shown the willingness to engage yet. Hopefully, he can get there. But there is a third party involved in this discussion, and to that end, let’s turn to Polly Trottenberg’s comments.

A non-committal response from the NYC DOT Commissioner (and MTA Board Member)

Polly Trottenberg spoke of the city’s role with regards to the MTA in a recent Gotham Gazette interview.

Shortly after I interviewed Corey Johnson, Polly Trottenberg made her appearance on Gotham Gazette’s What’s the [Data] Point? podcast, and the conversation was a good one. I’ve been critical of Trottenberg’s boss for dragging his — and the city’s — feet on street space prioritization, and I wonder if a stronger DOT commissioner could force the mayor’s hand more frequently. But Trottenberg hit the right notes.

“We’re certainly looking to reduce auto usage in the city and particularly to provide alternatives,” she said in response to a question about the city’s current plan. “Providing alternatives is what we very much focused on. If you want to get people out of their cars, you have to have good subway service, you have to have good bus service, you have to have safe protected bike lanes. What we see in New York is that when there’s good bus and subway service, people get out of their cars. When the MTA added those few subway stops on Second Avenue, we saw a real drop in traffic on the Upper East Side When you provide the alternatives people take them.”

Trottenberg’s words ring true: When the city makes alternatives available, people use them. After all, car owners are in the minority in New York and those who feel they have to drive are more than willing to leave their cars at home as soon as a better alternative comes around. But, as Trottenberg noted, “we have stopped growing out our subway system.”

She set an aggressive goal of three new stations per year. “Given the growth and economic dynamist of New York City, we should be opening three subway stops every year,” she said. “That’s the pace, if not faster. That’s how London and Paris and other big global cities are growing out their systems.”

Why New York isn’t building subway stations at that pace is the big question. We know work costs too much; we know work takes too long; we also know there isn’t an impetus from Albany to address these problems. So what then does Trottenberg, a high-ranking city official in an administration that hasn’t exactly embraced Johnson’s call, think of the Speaker’s plan for city control of transit? She danced around the question in her podcast appearance:

They’re certainly ambitious…We are a city that’s very consultive. We have our local elected officials, we have our state elected officals, and lots of folks get interested in these projects…Transportation projects are keenly felt by people in their daily lives. I don’t want to pretend it’s not a big deal when we put in a bus or bike lane or really make radical changes in the street. People feel deeply about that stuff for it and against it…

I think there’s no question we have a great leader in Andy Byford. I think we have to give him the resources and support he needs for what is clearly starting to be a real turnaround for the subway system…I do think the MTA board is a non-transparent and not particularly transparent construct. I think the city has a role to play. We are a big investor in the MTA. It most directly impacts the lives of our citizens, and I’d like to see the city’s priorities really considered and be more a part of what the MTA is focused on.

When it comes to the MTA, the governance questions are a lot deeper than just the board…You really need to take a deeper look at how the whole capital plan comes together, the role of our legislature, the business community…By the time you get to the board the process is sort of cooked. I’d like to see the MTA and city leading up more closely to whatever happens on Board day.

I wouldn’t expect Trottenberg to embrace a politically controversial plan from the outset, but that’s a non-answer if ever there was one.

So where does this leave everything? I hesitate to say battle lines are being drawn because they’re not yet and probably won’t be unless and until Johnson’s plan becomes the centerpiece of an ongoing policy discussion or mayoral campaign. But it’s clear that the current term-limited administration is content to sit this one out while the governor will take his typical “not my idea” approach to someone else’s good idea. That is, he’ll deride it on principle without engaging on substance until it becomes politically expedient for him to shift his tone.

And that’s where things will stand. It’s likely the best and perhaps only way to truly fix the MTA and take control of our transit future will be city control of the buses and subways. The path from here to there, while clearer today than it was before March, remains muddled with countless games of politics yet to unfold.

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Andy Byford spent Friday evening helping passengers with L train-related travel queries. Can the governor coexist with a strong NYC Transit head? (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

Few people in the New York City transit space really trust Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Sure, he delivered on his promise to shepherd congestion pricing through the legislature, but his top-down approach on setting priorities and moving mountains only for his whims leaves much to be desired. He orders those he controls to do his bidding, and he doesn’t like to listen to other ideas from people who may know better. Hence, a fixation on ultra wideband communications technology, last-minute meddling on the L train plans and a backwards Laguardia AirTrain, among many other problems.

Cuomo’s problem seems to stem from one of ego and arrogance. When faced with the reality that he is in charge of something — in the MTA’s case, a position he was dragged to kicking and screaming — Cuomo wants all the credit and none of the blame. The ideas on grand infrastructure are his so he can celebrate the ribbon-cutting. After doing it with the Second Ave. Subway, he is following the same path by ordering a review of East Side Access years after it would have made a difference. As governor, that’s his prerogative, but it leads to a more-than-healthy skepticism from those in the field.

What happens though when Cuomo finds someone competent and qualified to work under him and that person starts getting some of the credit? As we’ve seen, things can get ugly fast, and that’s what may be occurring as New York’s two Andys — Cuomo and Byford — try to co-exist uneasily in the transit space.

It’s not too hard to pinpoint when the relationship went south. After Cuomo stepped in with his L train plan, Byford embraced the idea of a less shutdown-y shutdown but, as the head of New York City Transit, wanted to ensure full transparent accountability. Byford promised an independent assessment of Cuomo’s new scope of work that would be completed before the full work started. Well, the full work started this weekend, and the only result of Byford’s words were a power play by the Governor who removed the L train work from NYC Transit’s scope and placed it under the purview of Janno Lieber and MTA’s capital construction division. The independent assessment never happened; the timeline and full scope of work remains murky; and the construction kicked off in earnest on Friday night. Talk about being sidelined.

Since then, it’s been a rocky few months. Cuomo has pushed forward on the ultra wideband project while Byford has tried to hold the line on a traditional wired approach to communications-based train control (my views on the project in a recent City & State roundtable), and Cuomo and Byford had something of a stand-off when Cuomo insulted MTA workers during public comments at a lobbyist breakfast earlier this year. Byford was defending his staff and people while Cuomo was trying to score political points.

It was hardly a surprise then to see a few articles appear in the New York press regarding the Byford-Cuomo relationship. The first was an Emma Fitzsimmons special in The Times which indicated that colleagues feared Byford may quit. She wrote:

Andy Byford, the transit executive who was hired to rescue New York City’s floundering subway, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have increasingly clashed over management of the system, and several of Mr. Byford’s colleagues said they feared he might quit. The two men did not speak between January and April, even as Mr. Byford was seeking to move forward on a sweeping $40 billion plan to overhaul the subway in the next decade.

If Mr. Byford, who was hired in November 2017, were to step down, it would be a major blow to efforts to improve the system, which has been plagued by antiquated equipment, cost overruns and rising complaints from riders about chronic mismanagement…Mr. Byford’s colleagues said he was troubled that he did not have the support that he believes he needs from Mr. Cuomo to carry out ambitious plans for the system. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, in turn has felt that Mr. Byford has been reluctant to embrace new technology and needed to understand the governor’s role as the elected official most responsible for the performance of the subways.

Nolan Hicks of The Post ran a companion piece that seemed to downplay a Byford departure but highlighted his frustrations with Cuomo. Let Andy Byford do his job, Hicks’ sources were saying to the governor. “I think he really wants to be left to the do the job he was hired to do. He knows what needs to be done here, he’s done it in three other world cities and he’s got a plan to get these things done,” MTA board member Andrew Albert said.

“Let the man do his job” seems to be the message everyone wants to send to Gov. Cuomo, and it is the right one to send. Byford is here to do a job, and it would benefit Cuomo to let him. That would of course require Cuomo to tamp down on some of his baser instincts. It’s grating on our governor that Byford got The New Yorker treatment and a 60 Minutes puff piece last year, and it goes against his political instincts to share credit. “I feel that every sentence that praises Andy Byford shortens his life-span with Governor Cuomo,” one of The Post’s MTA’s sources said. “Every time, I hear a compliment for Andy Byford, I see another knife in his back.”

But in this case, it behooves Cuomo to put this behind him and share credit. The governor will be viewed as the politician who brought in the right people to fix the MTA’s mess, and Byford can be given enough free rein to do his job and do it successfully with the support of the powerful governor. It ought to be a win-win situation if Cuomo can help himself.

Whether Cuomo can help himself is a different story. In the wake of the reporting on Byford, Cuomo took to Alan Chartock’s radio show to defend himself, and he defending his lack of communication with Byford on the air. “There’s a chairman who runs the authority. In this case it’s Pat Foye, and I deal with the chairman.” he said. “It’s very rare for me to deal with a division head directly.” Shortly after the radio appearance, MTA sources told me Cuomo had in fact been on the phone with the heads of the MTA’s Division of Operations Planning to discuss signal timers and the efforts to speed up trains. So his claim that he doesn’t talk to division heads seems more like a flimsy attempt to defend the silent treatment he’s given Byford than anything based in the reality of how he governs.

Ultimately, though, I believe the stories had their intended effect: Byford said to both The Post and The Times that he doesn’t plan to go anywhere, and this weekend, he was front and center helping customers navigate around the L train work. “I love New York, I love this job, I believe in this system, I believe in this agency, and I’m here for the very long haul. The governor and I are partners in this fight and I want to stay in this job until it is done,” Byford said.

Meanwhile, if Cuomo listened, he heard an outpouring of support for his NYC Transit chief who he tabbed to fix the subway’s problems. Cutting bait now to install another “yes man” who refuses to challenge the governor when appropriate would undermine the progress Byford has made, and I have a feeling that message may just sink in. Instead, Cuomo will have to do what the rest of us learned to do in kindergarten: share. He can share that credit, and the city and MTA will be better off for it.

Categories : MTA Politics
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It’s time for another new episode of the Second Ave. Sagas podcast, and I’m very excited about my guest this week. Joining me during his farewell tour for his Signal Problems newsletter for a long discussion on all things covering transit is Aaron Gordon, a familiar name in these parts.

Gordon picked up the transit beat a few years ago with The Village Voice and launched “Signal Problems” as part of his ongoing coverage. He’s spent countless hours digging into faulty signal timers, the ongoing L train repair mess, and ferry ridership, among others. Now a writer with Jalopnik, Gordon is retiring his newsletter shortly, and the transit beat will be poorer for it.

Gordon and I sat down for a long discussion over the weekend, kicking things off with a conversation on Andy Byford’s future, and we covered the slow-motion improvements as Byford works to improve the system while navigating a thorny governor. We also talked about covering transit, frustrations with the FOIL process and the experiences a transit beat writer can enjoy riding along with the speed limit test train. You can listen to this week’s episode via the player below and the popular spots — iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Pocket Casts and your favorite podcast app. If you like what you hear and have been enjoying the podcasts, leave a review on your favorite podcast site.

As always, thanks for listening and thanks as well to Joe Jakubowski for sound engineering. I can bring the podcasts to the public thanks to contributions from my readers so please consider joining the Second Ave. Sagas Patreon. As always, this site runs entirely on Patreon contributions, and I can keep it going with your help.

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New Jersey politicians are arguing for exemptions to congestion pricing, a call that should be resisted by the Traffic Mobility Review Board. (Photo via flickr user Elvert Barnes)

In the week following Albany’s approval of congestion pricing, I wrote a piece for Curbed New York warning against an exemption-laden plan. The argument is a simple one: Small carve-outs can have a big impact on the effectiveness of both the revenue generation and traffic reduction pieces of congestion pricing, and the Traffic Mobility Review Board tasked with formulating the fees and structure of the plan should resist the political pressure and lobbying over fee exemptions as it works to formulate a plan throughout the next eighteen months.

Already, we’re seeing this lobbying unfold in predictable ways. Unions representing police officers have laughably called for a blanket exemption for all personal vehicles of any NYPD personnel stationed within the congestion pricing zone. Considering cops are the biggest offenders and non-enforcers of NYC’s traffic and parking laws, this demand hardly comes as a surprise, but it should be resisted at every turn. We’ve also seen New York politicians undercut the goals of congestion pricing by securing legislatively-mandated toll rebates for certain constitutions, and I’ll come back to that shortly. I instead want to focus on the reaction from New Jersey and how it underscores the way in which local politicians treat transit riders as second class citizens even when they far outnumber drivers.

What New Jersey Wants

New Jersey leaders have been making noises about congestion pricing for the past three weeks. We first heard Gov. Phil Murphy complaint reported by The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. The Garden State governor is worried — worried! — that congestion pricing will cause New Jersey commuters to abandon their cars and use transit (which is of course the point), and he’s also worried congestion pricing will make traffic worse. “The solution cannot be one with the unintended consequences of making traffic worse and increasing reliance on the regional rail partners without their receiving additional support,” he said a few weeks ago.

At first, Murphy’s comments seemed to strike the right balance between concern for an overburdened and underfunded New Jersey transit network, but in recent days, he and other New Jersey politicians have shifted their focus back to drivers. In an eye-opening piece in The Times, Emma Fitzsimmons took a deep dive into these complaints and the “revenge” politicians in New Jersey want to enact on New Yorkers:

The mayor of Jersey City suggested that New Jerseyans should toll New Yorkers entering their state. A congressman is calling for federal legislation to guarantee that drivers — who already pay tolls to cross between the states — are not charged twice. Others believe a lawsuit could be filed to stop the tolls. “We are a little confounded about why suddenly New York would turn around and take a two-by-four to New Jersey,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents a slice of New Jersey suburbs near Manhattan and plans to introduce a bill he hopes will pressure New York to give his state’s drivers a break.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said he would fight any effort to double toll drivers using the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest span. “I won’t stand for it,” he told reporters, though he stopped short of summoning what he called a full “Jersey attitude” like other leaders seeking payback…

Drivers already pay as much as $15 to use the Lincoln and Holland tunnels or the George Washington Bridge to enter Manhattan. Some might switch to New Jersey Transit, the state’s commuter railroad and bus network. But the system is often no more reliable than the subway and also suffers from years of neglect. For that reason, some New Jersey leaders, including Loretta Weinberg, the Senate majority leader, argue that it would only be fair for New Jersey Transit to get a cut of the revenue from congestion pricing…

[Gottenheimer] plans to introduce a bill this week that could cut federal funding to New York or the transportation authority if New Jersey drivers are forced to pay two tolls for one trip into Manhattan. “I don’t look at it as retaliation,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “I look at it as encouraging continued cooperation.”

Fitzsimmons also tracked down some New Jersey-based Facebook commenters who have “threatened” not to drive into New York City any longer (which is, of course, the point). In a way, it’s quite the tempter tantrum from our neighbors to the west, but it also underscores how politicians view their constituents primarily as drivers and then secondarily, if that, as transit riders. In each case, these politicians object to an additional fee being levied on drivers and seem to focus on transit investment as an after-thought. That’s not the right way to look at things.

Each year, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council releases a hub-bound travel report, counting the number of people who enter New York City’s Central Business District and breaking it down by modality. This is convenient for us now because it overlaps 1:1 with the congestion pricing zone. Here are the latest numbers from 2017, and you’ll see that far more people from New Jersey rely on transit to reach Manhattan than on cars. The columns are, from left to right, “Entering,” “Leaving” and “Total.”

Considering these numbers, why are New Jersey politicians being so blind to the benefits of congestion pricing? By limiting the number of cars that enter Manhattan, the hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents who rely on buses will have shorter trips into the city, and the surrounding communities will see less pollution due to fewer cars, say, on the Lincoln Tunnel helix or jammed throughout the streets of Weehawken. Plus, most of these New Jersey residents then have to use New York City’s streets and its transit network once they arrive in Manhattan, and these commuters and visitors will continue to enjoy the benefits of increased New York City transit funding and fewer cars on city streets. These people count, and they are more of them. New Jersey politicians would do well to remember that as they fight against a rational congestion pricing.

What New Jersey Can Do

Ultimately, New York City does not exist as a place for New Jersey drivers to have unfettered free access to limited city streets. New York City and New York State can determine its own transportation and transit future, and if drivers form Missouri have to pay, so too must drivers from New Jersey who make the choice to drive into Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean New Jersey can’t do anything.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the claim that New Jersey’s own transit system may not be able to handle increased passenger loads due to mode shift following implementation of congestion pricing in early 2021, but that’s also a good 20 or 21 months away. New Jersey has plenty of time to get its house in order. It can reconfigure lanes heading into the Lincoln Tunnel to ensure buses have more space and priority. It can also begin the process of building out its PATH service and tackling the problems with New Jersey Transit. But it must focus on bolstering transit and not being overly protective of drivers.

For years, regional transit wonks have tried to raise alarms over New Jersey’s approach to spending transportation dollars. When governor, Chris Christie shifted millions away from rail and New Jersey Transit to widen the turnpike and engage in other road-related work. It’s not New York’s responsibility now to fund New Jersey’s transit deficits, and if the Garden State politicians are concerned about capacity and reliability constraints, they need to start working on these issues today while congestion pricing is in the planning stages. Ultimately, if NJ Transit fails to meet demand in a post-congestion pricing world, that blame will fall squarely on the shoulders of politicians who aren’t listening when there’s still time to act. Threatening federal action or imposing higher user fees on New Jersey roads as revenge seems laughable, but at the least the latter could be a rational step toward funding New York’s transit investments.

Unfortunately, our own governor seems amenable to negotiating with New Jersey on some limits on the impact of the fee, and New Jersey’s State Senate President Steve Sweeney appeared to back that up in a statement. “After conferring with Governor Cuomo on the MTA’s efforts to implement Manhattan’s central business district tolling, I am confident that we will have a voice in the process that will allow us to protect the interests of New Jersey’s motorists. We will work in a coordinated way with the MTA, New York State, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and with other jurisdictions to develop a fair tolling system,” he said.

Whether it’s an elimination of a potential double-tolling scenario for drivers using the George Washington Bridge and heading south or a waiver related to tunnel usage, exemptions should be resisted. If New Jersey drivers want to use New York City streets, they can pay to do so. That is, after all, the entire point of congestion pricing.

It’s Not Just New Jersey

While New Jersey is raising the biggest stink right now, they’re not the only ones making moves to limit the impact of traffic-reduction fees. Assembly rep. Jeffrey Dinowitz announced a full rebate of all Henry Hudson Bridge tolls for any Bronx resident regardless of whether the final destination is within the congestion pricing zone or not. This is a mistake, and it’s designed to encourage more driving at a time when New York City needs to limit auto usage for both environmental and productivity reasons. Certain Queens drivers are getting toll breaks as well, and politicians are pushing for exemptions for motorcycles, so-called “green” cars, Staten Island drivers and Queens residents (as I explored in my Curbed piece).

Congestion pricing and crafting the proper plan was always going to devolve into a tough political fight, and we’re seeing the contours of it take shape. It would serve politicians well to remember that even if a few people have to pay the fee, the benefits — and the number of people who enjoy those benefits — far outweigh this new cost. As the climate changes around us, we don’t have time as a society to waste arguing over the edges of a congestion pricing fee, and as a city stuck in a transportation rut, we need to clear streets of cars and repurpose them for a higher and better use while funding transit. That’s what congestion pricing does, and exemptions should be resisted.

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Escalators underneath 45th St. will take LIRR riders into the East Side Access caverns. (Photo via MTA Capital Construction)

When the MTA Board begins its meetings on Monday this week, the Capital Program Oversight Committee will hear its quarterly update on East Side Access, and for the most part, the project seems to be humming along. The opening date for the long-awaited arrival of the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central remains on pace for December of 2022, and the project seems to be adhering to its re-basedlined $11.2 billion budget.

At a top level, project management seems to have improved as change order requests and processing times have dropped while the heavy construction work — including the complicated Harold Interlocking rebuild — is proceeding apace. At this point, work on the last heavy contract has begun, and testing will begin in earnest later this year. East Side Access remains a boondoggle amidst New York City’s recent spate of 21st Century boondoggles, but with recent estimates showing the work is approximately 80-85% complete, it’s a boondoggle with an end in sight.

It is, thus, awfully strange that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his ninth year in office, has decided that now is the time to review the East Side Access project in an effort to speed up completion. He’ll yet again turn to his trusted panel of Columbia and Cornell engineering professors who threw the L train work into chaos, but the Governor’s ultimate end goal — another project for which he can attempt to play savior? A ribbon-cutting before his next reelection campaign? — remains elusive. Let’s try to unpack it.

A budget maneuver and a project review

The East Side Access review arose in the context of the budget negotiations which ushered in congestion pricing and a slew of MTA “reforms” that drew less-than-stellar reviews from good government groups. The legislation was a simple paragraph clearly engineered by the Governor. It reads:

For purposes of an independent review of the project commonly referred to as “East Side Access”, the metropolitan transportation authority shall establish an outside expert advisory group to review such project and make recommendations to accelerate its completion. Such outside experts shall include members of the outside independent review team established to review the project commonly referred to as the “L-train project”. Such review shall be completed as soon as practicable for consideration by the metropolitan transportation authority board.

That’s the entirety of the mandate. It involves once again gathering a panel of local academics who may or may not have expertise in the management and scoping of a massively-complex, multi-year, multi-billion dollar project and asking them to overhaul the whole thing with a decade into construction and with just 15 percent of the work left. To say this is shutting the barn door after the horse escapes is an understatement.

The lower level platforms, seen here in late January of 2019, are coming into view as East Side Access is projected to open in late 2022. (Photo via MTA Capital Construction)

In comments after the budget was passed, Cuomo added some color to the request. He put out a rather milquetoast statement, relying on one major exaggeration concerning construction timelines, as local reporters unpacked the three-sentence order for a project review. “East Side Access is one of the biggest challenges facing the MTA,” the governor said. “It has taken over 50 years and the price has increased 11-fold. The project is still about four years from completion and operation. We recently had great success by having outside experts review the L Train tunnel project where their recommendations made a dramatic difference, bringing cutting edge technology and different design ideas to the MTA. The budget that just passed directs the MTA to conduct a similar process on the East Side Access project to see if there are any new ideas that could expedite construction or reduce cost. It can only be a net positive exercise.”

At this stage, it’s worth noting that ground-breaking for East Side Access in its current iteration was held in 2007, and while parts of the tunnel had been built in the 1960s and the project had been in the discussion and planning stages on and off over the decade, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say it’s taken 50 years of work to get to where we are today. It’s taken over 20 years though from when then-Senator Al D’Amato and then-Governor George Pataki began to pressure the MTA to plan for the project and helped fund the initial assessments and engineering work. That by itself is far too long, and Cuomo could make his point effectively without bending this timeline. But I digress.

At a subsequent luncheon in front of the Association for a Better New York, the governor yet again focused on his favorite rhetorical trope — his eventual death — and added some very Cuomo-esque color, most of which again stretched reality:

East Side Access project—started in 1969. Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay got together, I love that headline, “Mayor and Governor unite to start transit tube.” Yeah, you see how well that worked out, right? 1969, this is the cost estimates of the East Aide Access. Starts at $75 million in the 60s, it’s now up to $11 billion. 2012, it was $8 billion. How do you go from $8 billion to $11 billion? That is $3 billion, 2012, you’re already into the project for 50 years. How can you be that wrong? You can’t be. And, how can it take so long? At this rate, I don’t think I’m going to be alive for the opening of the East Side Access. I think my grandchild will be there at the opening. Somewhere in the decade of 2040…

With the East Side Access, before I die, we’re going to bring a new team in, the same way we did with the L train, we’re going to have them overlook all the construction, all the design, and see if there’s a better way to do it. East Side Access will be transformative when it’s done. It allows the trains from Long Island to come right in to Grand Central. It will be phenomenal, but we have to get it done and we need a new set of eyes to do it…

Over the next four years, I am willing to put my name on the line and tell you exactly what we are going to get done…East Side Access is going to be open or you can bury my heart in the East Side Access.

Whether the governor’s last line on East Side Access is a promise or a threat remains to be seen. What is true though is that Cuomo’s tortured attempts at proving a point aren’t accurate. Cuomo’s own MTA continues to assert that East Side Access will open in 2022 when Cuomo, who currently has no grandchildren, will still be the governor. It won’t be in 2040 or 2030. The end, as we can see from recent photos, is literally in sight. So what’s going on here?

A tortured timeline and missed budgets

To address that question, let me teach a quick history lesson. As long-time readers know, the tale of East Side Access (which you can peruse via my archives) is one of poor project planning and management. The MTA initially projected costs at $4.3 billion with a completion date of 2009 if construction began promptly after scoping documents were prepared in 1999. Costs grew as the start of the project was delayed, and when funding came through in 2006, the agency estimated it would cost around $6.3 billion and be finished in 2012. Clearly, the executives at MTA Capital Construction, who are now long gone from their jobs, never really knew what they were talking about in the early going.

The project hasn’t fared much better since work began as unanticipated complexities and a lack of inter-agency coordination plagued work from the start. The timeline slipped from 2012 to 2016 to 2019 and finally to 2022 while the budget increased rom $6.3 billion to $7.3 billion to $8.3 billion to $9.7 billion to $10.2 billion to its current price tag. Newsday ran down the cost estimates and timelines last year, and it is a textbook example of bad planning.

No one will ever make the mistake of defending East Side Access. As I wrote last year at around this time when I examined the increasing costs, this project wouldn’t stand up to a fresh cost-benefit analysis, and the no-build option would have been chosen had costs been scoped properly from the outset. The feds wouldn’t have funded it, and the money would have been put to better use in New York.

“The MTA has gotten away with capital construction larceny here, and no one in Albany has raised a hand to question the worth of this project at any point in the last decade. It is a failure in construction management and a failure in politics as scarce transit dollars flushed into the deep-bore cavern below Grand Central time and time again,” I wrote last year, and I stand by it.

Why then am I skeptical of Andrew Cuomo’s motives here? Is it because anyone watching for the last nine years should have an inherent distrust of Cuomo’s relationship to transit and his willingness to abuse the MTA to make him look good? Of course.

Andrew Cuomo has been the governor for most of the East Side Access construction

Construction on East Side Access began just over 12 years ago, and Governor Cuomo has now been New York’s chief executive for nearly 75 percent of the construction life of East Side Access. Since Cuomo took office and assumed responsibility for the MTA, whether he wants to admit it or not, the construction timeline has slipped by six years while costs have increased by nearly $4 billion. The first thing Cuomo should have done on East Side Access when he took began his first term on January 1, 2011 was order a full-scale top-to-bottom review of the project. Instead, he sat on it for over eight years as project timelines slipped and costs ballooned by almost 55 percent.

Now, Cuomo is on the verge of pulling a Second Ave. Subway on East Side Access, and it’s obvious how this will play out. The experts will conduct their review of the project and recommend some accelerated concurrent testing plan that will likely add to the costs while Cuomo can celebrate a ribbon-cutting prior to his next reelection campaign in 2022. The MTA will have to spend more money to meet the Governor’s timeline, and the proper post-mortem, one that explores how the MTA whiffed so badly on its initial scoping for East Side Access, why the agency couldn’t properly manage this project for over a decade and how we can avoid repeating these mistakes on, say, future phases of the Second Ave. Subway or Penn Station Access or Gateway or any number of badly-needed infrastructure projects, won’t happen.

Ultimately, then, that’s Cuomo’s transit legacy in a nutshell. When it’s too late to enact real reform and push for a transparent overhaul of clearly faulty project scoping, construction management and contracting practices, Cuomo steps in to gain headlines and photos for electoral benefit. That’s not reform; that’s manipulation. He did it with the Second Ave. Subway, and with the assist of Columbia and Cornell Universities, he’s going to do it again on East Side Access. New York City, stuck a precipitous moment in its infrastructure history, deserves better, and better should begin with a real assessment of everything that went wrong with East Side Access. This maneuver is not it.

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Welcome back to another installment of the Second Ave. Sagas podcast. Joining me for Episode 2 is John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group pushing for better transit. The Riders Alliance was a key member of the #FixTheSubway coalition pushing Albany to approve congestion pricing, and the group celebrated a big victory last week when congestion pricing finally earned legislative approval.

In this week’s episode, Raskin talks about his group’s role in lobbying for transit funding and what comes next as the fight over a traffic fee shifts from passage to proposal. Attention will shift to the six-member Traffic Mobility Review Board, tasked with formulating the fee structure and assessing whether any exemptions should be granted. As Raskin discusses, the advocates’ work is far from over, and ensuring a robust pricing plan that delivers on its promises to limit congestion in New York City while funding the work needed to improve the transit network is a job far from over. You can listen to this week’s episode via the player below and the popular spots — iTunes, Google Play, Pocket Casts and your favorite podcast app — should update by Wednesday morning.

If you’re enjoying the podcasts, leave a review on your favorite podcast site, and please consider joining the Second Ave. Sagas Patreon. This site runs entirely on reader contributions, and I can keep the podcast going only with your help. A big thank you as well to Joe Jakubowski for his production work on the podcast.

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