By many accounts Gov. Andrew Cuomo, like many politicians, thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. No matter the field, whether its in his wheelhouse of expertise (whatever that may be) or not, if he gets an idea in his head, the people who report to him have to execute. It’s not a dialogue between career public servants who know what they’re doing and the state’s chief executive; it’s a command from a boss to those who report in to him.
With that background, it’s easy to see how Cuomo’s recent transit steps, while earning him headlines and being a major part of his public relations push around the state, have been missteps in the eyes of the transit community. It’s why MTA staffers groan when they hear the governor is coming and just wish he would stay out of the agency’s hair. It’s why buses have USB ports, and it’s why these USB ports are trumpeted as some sort of savior at a time when New York City’s transit system is bursting at its seams with no relief in sight.
Earlier this week, Cuomo again seemed to think that a basic technological upgrade that’s standard operating procedure for most commuter rail systems the world over is a sign of strong leadership when he held a circus of a press conference to announce the long-delayed rollout of a mobile ticketing app for Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road. The app is powered by Masabi’s JustRide platform, and the details are rather mundane. The app will support a variety of time- or ride-based tickets and will require riders to “activate” tickets before use, as New Jersey Transit’s app does. It is Apple Pay-compatible and can support purchasing a ticket, according to promotional materials, in under ten seconds. It’s available now on the LIRR Port Washington Branch and the Metro-North Hudson Line, and it will be rolled out throughout the system by the end of August.
Cuomo’s words in a statement underscore his beliefs that technology is a transit savior. “Our administration remains committed to building a transit network that is responsive to the needs of travelers who rely on mass transportation, and the launch of the MTA eTix app is a major step forward in our efforts,” the governor said. “This new app puts riders first by eliminating the ticket line and helping New Yorkers and visitors get where they need to go with more freedom and convenience than ever before. We will continue to create a 21st century transit system that embraces innovation to ensure that we are building a stronger, more competitive New York.”
The most interesting part of the announcement came as part of the kicker paragraph in the press release which noted that “next year, the MTA expects to make the MTA eTix app even more user-friendly by allowing LIRR and Metro-North customers who transfer to or from the New York City Subway or New York City Buses to pay their fares using a single app and a single transit account.” As the Metrocard replacement project is still in the RFP stage, it’s not quite clear how this functionality will be available by mid-2017, and I’ll follow up on this aspect of the story.
Now, don’t get me wrong; mobile ticketing is a big step. But is it worth the brouhaha of a press release and official back-patting? The MTA is years late to game on mobile ticketing thanks to a combination of recalcitrant LIRR unions and an institutional aversion to major technological change. This announcement, and the fact that the governor had to prod the MTA to release this app, should have been slipped into a press release on a summer Friday, not trumpeted on the day back to work after the July 4th holiday.
But that’s not the weird part. The weird part was Cuomo’s rant at the press conference which you can find in this 20 minute video of the presser.
At around the eight-minute mark, Cuomo starts going off the rails on the current state of the transit system. “You can’t make a system that was designed and constructed for that [early 1900s] scale work for the current-day scale, and government’s tried in fits and starts to use bailing wire and duct tape and bubble gum and all sorts of ways to make it work. It’s not going to work. You have to build a new system,” he said. He also claimed that “our society is more litigious than ever” and thus government cannot make the changes to create a new system. In a concurrent tweet, Cuomo confused daily subway and bus ridership with monthly LIRR ridership and seemed to over-simplify when the subway system as we currently know it opened.
It’s hard to parse Cuomo’s words here. He seems to think that basic technological upgrades are a sign of a “new system.” He seems to think mandating buses that are “Ferrari-like” and faster rollouts of mobile ticketing apps will help with the crowds on Lexington Ave. or the lack of capacity in Queens. He doesn’t want to hear about it or take on the root causes of the MTA’s problems: high costs, an inability to deliver projects on time and on budget, and a lack of institutional support from the governor.
I don’t know where anyone involved goes from here. It’s not an intractable situation for transit advocates or the MTA or the governor, but it’s a situation careening from one band aid to another when real leadership is required. It’s not the collective fault of the millions of riders that the MTA can’t handle the crowds, and a magic app for Metro-North and LIRR riders won’t fix that problem. Unfortunately, Cuomo, the one man who thinks he can solve these problems, is blind to this reality, and we’ll have to live through it instead.