Home MTA Politics In surprise move, Cuomo makes a late MTA power grab

In surprise move, Cuomo makes a late MTA power grab

by Benjamin Kabak

It’s not controversial to state that the Governor of New York State controls the MTA. Our state’s executive directly appoints a plurality of MTA Board members, including the MTA Board Chair and all the bureaucrats tasked with leading the day-to-day operations of the transportation authority. The governor controls funding mechanisms and sets policy agendas, and this current governor has been particularly heavy-handed with pushing preferred projects and installing party loyalists in key positions.

But Governor Andrew Cuomo, faced with a daily crisis over subway service reliability, has, instead of fixing the subways, decided to draw the transit world into a different fight entirely. He wants full majority control of the MTA Board, and he wants it now. In a last-minute push as the Albany legislative session winds down, Cuomo announced via press release a move to expand his control over an agency he already controls. Cuomo’s proposal would allow him to appoint two more members to the vote and give his Board chair a second vote, thus granting the state eight appointees and nine Board votes, for a full majority of nine votes out of a proposed 17-vote structure.

Cuomo’s press release was mostly just an essay from the governor distorting the reality of MTA control. Make no mistakes about it: The governor controls the MTA, but he would have you believe otherwise. Said the guv:

“The MTA Board structure assumed regional participation in the metropolitan area’s transportation systems but left no one in charge. While New York State has six of the 14 voting seats – that is not control. There is no transformative plan that will require major change and possibly more investment that will be agreed upon by the various separate political bodies with competing needs. Complex projects don’t get effectively managed by unanimous agreement of large political bureaucracies. We don’t have 10 years to do this. The state will dedicate itself to the task and assume responsibility, but the state needs the authority.

…On the Second Avenue Subway project, for example, the MTA was floundering. The state took control of the projects using state personnel. The other members of the MTA Board did not oppose the state’s role as it was either not in their region or because they had no desire to participate in what appeared to be a doomed project. The Second Avenue Subway had been delayed for years and was projected to miss the deadline again. With the state’s intervention, we completed the task on deadline.

Some people assume the state’s six voting seats are the majority and say the state has control. Obviously, six is not a majority of the 14 voting seats, and many issues generate controversy that can cause the other jurisdictions to defeat the six votes. We have seen it already on questions of increasing local government’s operating expense contributions, but if their position is the state has control than actually providing that control should not be an issue. They can’t logically assert state control and oppose it at the same time.

In sum, let’s fix the fundamental and initial mistake – ‘put someone in charge.’ The state is the obvious entity to manage a regional network, and the state contributes a multiple of any other jurisdiction’s funding. The simple fact is if no one has the responsibility and the authority, fundamental, rapid change of any culture or system is impossible.”

This is classic Cuomo strawman. Despite his claims that many issues “can cause the other jurisdictions to defeat the six votes” the Governor controls, in practice, this doesn’t happen. Recent city appointees to the Board — most notably Veronica Vanterpool — have probed MTA dealings with a level of attention and detail not seen in recent years, but a voting bloc designed to combat Cuomo’s proposals simply hasn’t emerged. Cuomo gets his way because he has power over the MTA Board and controls the day-to-day operations of the agency.

This announcement came as a big surprise, especially at a time when the MTA has no permanent head. (As an amusing exchange between Dana Rubinstein and Fernando Ferrar laid bare, the current acting MTA chair isn’t too keen on this temporary arrangement lasting much longer.) On Monday night, the State Senate approved a Cuomo ally Scott Rechler to the MTA Board, seemingly out of nowhere, but Cuomo hasn’t named a permanent CEO/Chair or further explored his desire to split the position into two. Is he trying to distract from a leaderless MTA suffering through a crisis of reliability? Is he trying to shore up power ahead of securing point-of-no-return funding for his Moynihan Station mall or Backwards AirTrain or LIRR summer discount program (for which the MTA is already offering tickets even without Board approval)? This is speculation for now without concrete answers as Cuomo appears to be anticipating a hypothetical that does not currently exist and never has.

Jon Weinstein, the governor’s transportation spokesman, offered more clarity via Twitter but refused to respond to many reporters asking if the Board had ever overruled a governor. His statement bolstered the Governor’s claims but did little to shed light on the origins of this surprising move.

Meanwhile, advocates weren’t impressed. The Riders Alliance issued a strident statement on Tuesday afternoon. “Governor Cuomo’s MTA board proposal obscures the very real fact that the Governor already controls the MTA. The Governor appoints the MTA chair, the Governor appoints the most board members, the Governor dictates MTA spending priorities and the Governor dominates the State budget and legislative negotiations that determine how the MTA does its job. In practice, can the Governor point to any situation in which other MTA board members have teamed up to block his initiatives?” the group queried. “The problem is not MTA board structure; the problem is the absence of leadership and the lack of a credible plan from Governor Cuomo for how he will fix the subway. Riders don’t have the luxury of quibbling over MTA board governance when we know it’s not the real issue. We need a plan from the Governor and a reliable source of funding that can fix our disastrous commutes.”

Yet, on its surface, clear gubernatorial control isn’t an inherently negative idea. It would give the public a clear whipping boy for all things wrong with the MTA, and it would not allow Cuomo to take credit for the good while claiming the MTA isn’t under his control when constant bad news fills the headlines. It’s strange he would make a power grab at a time when tabloids are hammering bad subway service on a daily basis, but I’m having trouble sussing out how this move dilutes the MTA structure, unless Cuomo decided to use the power for bad intentions. He could appoint sycophants, but he’d still own the problem of bad subway service.

Interestingly, in fact, this isn’t the first time a Governor Cuomo has proposed such a move. Back in 1983, when I was but a wee lad of 2.5 months old, Mario Cuomo, who campaigned on abolishing the MTA, proposed the exact same thing. He wanted the MTA Chair to serve a term of indeterminate length at “the pleasure of the governor” and hoped to add three Board seats to cement the Albany-empowered majority. A few months later, Cuomo the elder backed down, and the largely toothless position of MTA Inspector General arose out of the brouhaha.

Will this year’s proposal meet the same fate? It’s clearly a late power-grab by Cuomo as Albany’s lawmaking clock ticks toward zoer, but Politco New York’s man in Albany Jimmy Vielkind found indifference and opposition to the proposal a few minutes after it was announced publicly. Either way, Cuomo seems to playing a game with the still-leaderless MTA that he already controls at a time when the agency, and the transportation systems it runs, need a champion, not a governor masquerading as a chessmaster.

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34 comments

BBA June 21, 2017 - 12:50 am

I’m reading the MTA charter, and it says the entire board is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. It then requires that four members must be “on the written recommendation of” the NYC mayor (and one for the Nassau county exec, etc.)

I think this means the governor can veto everyone else’s appointees just by refusing to forward them to the senate – and that’s setting aside his influence over the senate process itself. So even in terms of formal votes, the governor runs the show.

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Spendmor Wastemor June 21, 2017 - 11:02 am

Shhhh, don’t bring up facts. Just remember the rule, governor boy wonder gets all the credit and none of the blame.

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Spuds June 21, 2017 - 12:10 pm

Okay, my downstate brethren. ..next year you all have the opportunity to rid yourselves of his lordship. It’s time to move towards the middle and select a moderate candidate endorsed by libertarians, independents, moderate republicans and moderate democrats alike. Another option is a mutual secession, with the 14 downstate counties (including the 5 counties/boroughs of NYC) forming “South New York” … or affectionately called “MTA-land”.

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The Mook June 21, 2017 - 12:17 pm

Will never happen without open primaries.

But you are right Spud, they will complain all day to anyone who will listen, but come November they always vote one party.

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Adirondacker12800 June 21, 2017 - 1:53 pm

Open primaries violate my freedom of speech and my freedom of association. Yours too.

Spuds June 21, 2017 - 2:05 pm

Yes, you guys are correct, NY only has closed primaries but the turnout pales in comparison to a general election, even in some of the “connected” communities. Who says you have to vote for the person/party a few months later. If more people had that attitude, perhaps all the candidates wouldn’t take their bid for granted?

Adirondacker12800 June 21, 2017 - 3:29 pm

New York has a vibrant third party ecosystem. You are more than welcome to vote for someone other than the Democrat or the Republican. And since New York is a “fusion” state you can vote, in most elections, for the Democrat or the Republican on some other party’s line

The Mook June 23, 2017 - 3:48 pm

Wow, a strict Constitutionalist on SAS. Would love to hear your opinion on exercising my 2nd and 4th amendment rights on the Subway.

Adirondacker12800 June 23, 2017 - 8:04 pm

Join a well regulated militia and then ask them.
No one forces you to use the subway.

J June 29, 2017 - 6:10 pm

Cuomo is a moderate Republican in everything but name…

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Kenneth Barr June 21, 2017 - 1:07 am

This is a typical political ploy from someone who wants to be seen as doing something without doing anything. There is no talk of actually funding anything, just a naked power grab where none is really needed. It’s the same thing he’s trying to do with education. What is needed is someone who actually understands how public transport works and the support needed for that person to do the job.

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Bryan June 21, 2017 - 9:26 am

Cuomo keeps the churn a’churning. Solve it with some more wifi.

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AMH June 21, 2017 - 11:12 am

USB ports! You forgot USB ports!

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Dean Stockton June 21, 2017 - 10:03 am

The governor should have explicit control, and if this removes any stupid excuses going forward, fine. One less barrier to clear accountability.

Even if it’s a tactic to “buy time”, it’s not going to work if nothing gets better. The gubernatorial election isn’t in a few months, it’s more than a year away. Cuomo is self serving but I think he’s smart enough to know he can’t just run out the clock while the mass transit system crumbles underneath him.

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Spendmor Wastemor June 21, 2017 - 11:00 am

Regarding the 2nd avenue Subway, he states
” With the state’s intervention, we completed the task on deadline.”

… and immediately had signal and power failures in a brand-new subway, which is per mile the world’s, not just the USA’s most expensive subway in history.
Since he wants to take personal credit for that, he should also have to personally pay for the delays and breakdowns.

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Spuds June 21, 2017 - 12:13 pm

Perhaps he shouldn’t join a club that would have him as a member! 🙂 ( apologies to Groucho Marx)

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Larry Littlefield June 21, 2017 - 6:05 pm

You see that Gothamist article with a guy climbing over a railing to get off a packed subway platform due to delays?

http://gothamist.com/2017/06/21/mta_ok_our_bad.php

I predicted that when the platform gets even more packed people will tumble to tracks and a bunch will be killed by a train. It’s coming. The game is not to prevent it, it is to blame someone else.

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Bryan June 22, 2017 - 5:26 am

Never mind that. We have the return of Joe Llohta. What this actually means, I don’t know.

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AMH June 22, 2017 - 10:05 am

Just heard! Still nothing on the MTA website, though. He was pretty unremarkable during his 10 month tenure. Doesn’t seem like the type to stand up to the BS from Cuomo.

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Bryan June 22, 2017 - 7:07 pm

No, no, no… he’s not there to stand up to Cuomo BS. He’s there to stand up to deBlasio BS. Plus he has the good rep from being in charge when Sandy hit.

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Larry Littlefield June 22, 2017 - 12:40 pm

Lhota means more debt.

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Chet June 22, 2017 - 7:27 am

Somewhat off topic, but maybe someone here could comment on this idea:

The heart of many of the subway’s problems is the ancient signal system. We all know that.
The MTA’s plan to change that- a switch to Computer Based Train Control, (CBTC) is one that they say has a $20 billion price tag and would be complete in about 20 to 25 years. That is insane.
CBTC is certainly the way to go. It would tell train dispatchers exactly where a train is, allowing them to run 30 to 50% more trains per hour, depending on the line.
The MTA has to come up with another plan to make this reality. I suggest full shutdowns of chunks of lines so that CBTC installation can be done on a 24/7 schedule. Yes, the inconvenience at times will be massive, but if CBTC can be installed systemwide in six or seven years, instead of 25 years, we’ll have a better system, more trains, more reliable, and it will be a lot cheaper.
What sort of shut down would there have to be? I have no idea because I’m not an engineer. But if let’s the 4/5/6 trains were shut down from Bowling Green to 14th Street for a week, (two weeks?), and a mass of workers hit the tracks to install CBTC. Would that be faster and cheaper than doing it overnight or on weekends? As far as what those riders do? Well, the R train would take up some of the slack. But also, ban all but bus (and of course emergency vehicles) from a road to replace the train service.
So using that 4/5/6 closure example; Broadway from 14th Street south to Bowling Green would open to only bus traffic (which could run two ways) to replace the train. Delivery trucks would be allowed before 6:00am and after 8:30pm.
Could this work? Again, I don’t know, it’s just a suggestion because right now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else providing even that.

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Bryan June 22, 2017 - 8:28 am

20 years seems utter garbage. So, taking your idea: turn the signals out at certain sections, and have dispatchers working at the per-station level. This works for local station routing, where you can easily state that one train can occupy the space between two stations at a time. It’s a little tougher for express sections, but I think, its still workable.

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johndmuller June 25, 2017 - 3:59 am

I like the idea of just getting down to doing it, rather than endless discussion about how long it should or shouldn’t take, etc. Even if it really takes 20 or 25 years to do the whole job, it still would only take, say, 3-5 years to do just one or two lines.

First job, pick the line(s); I’m going to suggest the A/C and the J/Z, for a variety of reasons, but primarily because they seem to be less interlined, reducing the need for ancillary lines’ trains and their operators to be also partially upgraded.

So the designated lines get the new trainsets with the CBTC equipment and operators and dispatchers get whatever training is necessary to run it. The interlined lines with shared sections with the new CBTC would likely need at least the training and at least CBTC upgrades to the trains, if not the new trainsets. That would involve at least the E and M lines, the B and D could be finessed, if desired, by separating them (trackwise) along CPW, for example by making the A and C both run express or both local while the B and D do the opposite (on the other hand, this period of heavy work might be the best time to fully wire up the shared section).

The time from right now to whenever the earliest time the trainsets arrive can be spent in planning and in wiring up sections in a less disruptive fashion as there is no equipment to run yet. When the new treainsets start to arrive, that would be the time to start on the disruptive installation and testing phases.

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ChrisInEngland June 24, 2017 - 8:55 am

The installation actually takes relativly very little time it’s the testing that takes a long time in ensuring that all the sensors work and communicate with the trains and each other and the command centre and that when the train stops at a station it hits the mark consistently etc

It also takes time to ‘teach’ the system to accelerate and decelerate the trains at the right times and rate.

And if you need to relocate a sensor you have to start it all over again until you get the positioning right.

Yes in theory you could throw hundreds of technicians at a section to complete it in weeks (months more likely) but are there that many about to employ?

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AMH June 26, 2017 - 10:05 am

Interesting, that explains why the Flushing Line keeps getting knocked out just to run test trains.

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AlexB June 22, 2017 - 9:28 am

The notion that the greater accountability of appointing a majority of members to the MTA will force Cuomo to do something to fix the subways is idiotic. He is doing this to consolidate control of billions of dollars in revenue to use it to bribe or punish local allies for other political objectives. With a majority on his appointees on the board, it will not be possible to stop him. He has shown no interest in providing good transit to NYC and that has not changed. Cuomo is a Democratic version of Chris Christie who tried to do the exact same thing with the Port Authority.

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Chris Christie June 28, 2017 - 8:52 pm

You guys aren’t getting it. Everything cuomo does is about running for prez in 2020. Everything.

NYC subway is now getting very bad press. Really stinky. Cuomo can’t have trump using the crappy condition of the subway against him in 2020. But cuomo can’t fix things adequately by 2020 either. So how to neutralize this as a political issue?

Simple. Float a proposal demanding ” full control” of the MTA. Support it weakly and let it be shot down. Then, when trump attacks, cuomo can argue that the crappy MTA isn’t his fault: he tried to get full control and failed. If he was in charge, free subways would blanket the city.

Oh – and on the off chance the proposal accidentally passes? Well, just argue that he only got full control of the subway in late 2017, and didn’t yet have enough time to fix the mess.

Turns a losing issue in 2020 to a winning issue. QED.

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Adirondacker12800 June 28, 2017 - 9:27 pm

Assuming the Senate doesn’t convict him.. .Cuomo v. Paul Ryan in 2020. Assuming Paul Ryan gets re-elected in 2018.

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ChrisInEngland June 28, 2017 - 10:02 pm

And how was your campaign for President Mr Governor?!?

Perhaps you should spend some time sorting out NJT first!

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johndmuller July 1, 2017 - 4:49 pm

Chris Christie, I think you have nailed Cuomo’s motivation pretty well, although the idea that anyone west of the Hudson (or even east of Westchester) would elect yet another president from NY back to back after Trump is too crazy even for these politically insane times. And what about Chuck Schumer and Michael Bloomberg? Are there going to be four candidates from NY? Are the Texans going to have to use hot sauce made in NYC?!?!?!

Well, politicians and athletes are probably the last ones to know that their ships have already sailed.

Does this mean that there is not going to be any progress, apparent or otherwise in the Gateway tunnel during the next couple of years, or is credit for that going to go to Chuck — hopefully the latter.

So Cuomo has to find something connected to some kind of railroad thing to get associated with that isn’t going to get worse for 3 or 4 years – I guess Moynihan isn’t working for him any more???? Or is it just that it already has someone else’s name on it?

He said that he could build a railroad car himself (presumably he meant faster than whoever is building them now) . . . and I think maybe he really could; isn’t there at least one rail car manufacturing facility upstate somewhere, … and another in Yonkers?? Maybe he could give them some expansion/investment money and.or some business expediting or making more rail cars for the subway and/or the MTA commuter RRs. Maybe he’s like to run Metro North up to Saratoga and give the Capital reason an excuse to love the MTA too. Maybe new stations on the 2nd Ave Subway could be named Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, Albany; Canal street renamed Barge Canal St., etc. Maybe a new RR bridge over the Hudson could be named after his father instead of poaching the Tappan Zee bridge in his behalf.

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David July 11, 2017 - 8:37 am

With Ben down to only posting once a month or so, does anyone have any recommendations for other sites with updated news and happenings regarding NYC Transit? We miss you Ben…

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Brian July 11, 2017 - 8:27 pm

You can try nyctransitforums.com

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mister July 14, 2017 - 7:56 am

Yeah. This was my favorite blog site. But considering the silence in the face of some major transit events (A train derailment, an extra $1 billion for the capital program, the start of the genius competition), I think Ben is pretty much done with this blog for now.

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