If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, is our Governor insane or are we, the subway-riding public of New York City, simply being played for a bunch of fools? And how many times can the same governor do the same thing in response to the same problem while being the same cause of the same bottleneck he always is? If I sound a bit cynical, well, I think I have good reason.
On Tuesday, after a week spent claiming the MTA wasn’t his responsibility or his problem, Governor Andrew Cuomo did an about-face and decided that, this week, while the headlines out there are for the gettin’, the MTA is once again his state agency. He took a well-deserved beating from transit advocates, and with the MTA facing mounting problems and a growing sense that the system is collapsing rapidly in on itself, Cuomo, with a rather tongue-in-cheek presentation [pdf] announced that not only will he be dead before the MTA finishes its signal system upgrades but that he may actually try to pretend to nudge the agency toward a faster solution. The whole thing is part of his new “MTA Transit Genius Challenge,” yet another attempt by the Governor to reinvent the New York City transit wheel.
The Challenge is a Cuomo special. It’s a panel that will hear ideas from other people, award someone $1 million in prize money and do nothing with the results. The panel is being billed as part of an “international competition” that will “convene participants from the technology, engineering and business sectors to address the subway’s three most vexing technology and design challenges.” These three areas are: 1) An aging signal system and a replacement plan that’s far too slow; 2) aging cars that are breaking down more often and the slow pace of development and delivery of new rolling stock; and 3) the, uh, lack of cellular and wifi connectivity in subway tunnels. I have no idea how number 3 made that list, but wifi/USB ports/”21st Century Technology” has been a Cuomo fetish for a few years.
(At the same time, Cuomo announced another panel of unqualified experts who are being tasked with solving Penn Station. One of the options they are considering involves turning operations over to the Port Authority. This is somehow going to fix something. I have no idea who thinks of these things, but I digress.)
If Cuomo’s panel idea sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. Do you remember the 2014 MTA Reinvention Commission? Cuomo convened this panel to advise on the 2015-2019 capital plan and longer-term challenges facing the MTA. It barely met, was stonewalled by Cuomo himself and then released an underwhelming report nearly eight weeks late. The MTA has implemented none of the buzzword-y recommendations that commission suggested and remains very much un-reinvented.
So will this be any different? Early assessments are not optimistic. Max Rivlin-Nalder, writing at the Village Voice, seemed skeptical; Streetsblog wants to see the MTA pay more attention to its internal experts whose voices have increasingly been lost to culture, bureaucracy and brain-drain over the past five years; and Stephen Miller rightly mocked the presentation, which seemed almost to be poking fun at subway commuters and their problems rather than taking these concerns seriously.
I can’t praise Cuomo for taking credit and responsibility for the MTA here because he’s not doing anything to fix it. He’s simply responding to a cavalcade of bad press from The Times opinions pages to the paper’s news coverage to Daily News opinions pages. He’s also not taking on the key obstacles — procurement reform; capital cost reform; and union work rules. Without a holistic approach to MTA reform, we’ll get snarky PowerPoints, a contest that will sputter out, and a promise that maybe the MTA will consider contracting with the person who comes up with the winning idea. Is this a fix or is this just business as usual for a governor constantly talking about reinventing the MTA but not actually doing anything about it?