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.
Everyone is fond of saying the Governor already controls the MTA – but the votes don't play that out.
— Jon Weinstein (@jonweinstein) June 20, 2017
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.