As last summer’s inaction over the MTA’s capital plan cast a pall over transit expansion in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had an odd exchange with reporters. When asked why the state seemed so averse to assisting a state agency, Cuomo indicated that the MTA was not a state agency because its headquarters were downstate. It was an answer that defied logic or reality, but it seemed to suggest that Cuomo wanted nothing to do with an important state agency he ostensibly controlled because admitting to control would involve taking on a whole raft of potential responsibilities and headaches.
What a difference a year makes. In the aftermath of the rush to approve a New York State budget on time, it seems that Cuomo, for better or worse, is asserting himself as chief executive in charge of the MTA. This time around, he’s doing it through the state’s new Design and Construction Corporation, another layer of advisory bureaucracy set up to make non-binding recommendations to state agencies on all projects worth more than $50 million. Like many transit-related projects Cuomo has touched lately, it’s a good idea — reform of capital spending — with poor execution, and the MTA isn’t quite sure what it means for the future of the agency.
Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend on Cuomo’s new-found interest in transit. He writes:
A new state agency is fueling anxiety about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s increasing involvement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, raising questions over how to run the nation’s largest transit network. Supporters of the agency, including some on the MTA’s board, welcome the Democratic governor’s influence and hope his creation will speed up transit projects and keep a lid on costs…
Mr. Cuomo’s push to tighten oversight on state construction projects comes as some inside the MTA face greater involvement by the governor’s aides into the affairs of what was designed by law as an agency insulated from politics. “You can’t criticize the governor for wanting control—that’s in the genetic makeup of governors,” said Richard Brodsky, who led an effort to beef up legal protections for New York’s public authorities when he was as a Democratic state assemblyman. “But there’s a danger that if the MTA board does not exercise independent, fiduciary judgment, you’ll end up with…decisions that are based more on the governor’s needs—or the governor’s or mayor’s needs—than they are on the needs of the system.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo said the governor is committed to improving the MTA and pointed to the budget deal a few weeks ago, which is expected to provide final approval for a $27 billion capital-spending plan to pay for repair, upgrade and expansion projects.
Tangel goes on to note that Cuomo’s involvement has received “mixed reviews.” Recent Cuomo allies appointed to public-facing roles at the MTA have been received with a mixture of shrugs and befuddlement while MTA staffers have what MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast (a Cuomo ally) has called a “healthy tension” between the governor and the bureaucrats in charge of the MTA, and overall, this isn’t a particularly easy news item to reconcile.
On the one hand, the MTA manages to run trains somewhat on time (though with diminishing on-time performance lately), but the agency has an awful track record on capital projects. The biggest-ticket items are delayed and over budget with costs so far out of line with international peers as to be laughable in many corners. Meanwhile, smaller projects — I’m looking at you, Culver Viaduct rehab — take years more than promised, and transparency on both the cause of delays and the reason for the extreme expenses is nearly non-existent. The agency is ripe, in other words, for an executive takeover that can get results.
But Cuomo, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in legacy-building than on sound transit investment and better oversight. He hasn’t upheld funding promises and seems more concerned with technology projects that do little to solve the underlying mobility issues affecting New York City. Even his grand ideas — a misguided Laguardia AirTrain via Willets Point, pushing through Penn Station and a costly Laguardia overhaul — are focused on moving people into and out of New York City rather than through and around the city. The priorities are skewed and, frankly, wrong in terms of investment, oversight and impact.
So where does that leave a more meddlesome Cuomo and the MTA of which he is very in charge? It’s not quite clear. I’ve heard from MTA sources that Cuomo’s inaction on the capital plan had a profoundly negative affect on agency morale and his sticking his nose in for legacy reasons isn’t helping. I think the problems run deeper than Prendergast indicated to Tangel, and yet, it’s Cuomo prerogative, as Richard Brodsky noted to The Journal, to be in charge of a state agency. So we’ll have to ride it out. It’s guardedly better that Cuomo is paying attention, but now, he has to focus on the right things. So far, he hasn’t, and that’s a problem for all of us.