For the first four months of his time in New York City, Transit President Andy Byford has played his intentions fairly close to the chest. He has refused to engage in the political game of challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support of transit and wading into the ridiculous funding battle between the Governor and Mayor Bill de Blasio. He’s been open and honest about Transit’s shortcomings, particularly around ADA accessibility issues, accurate accounting of subway delays and the overall state of things. He was brought in to fix things, and that’s what he’s trying to do.
A few weeks ago, Byford unveiled his first big initiative — the bus turnaround plan. Designed to combat declining ridership caused by abysmally slow, unreliable and infrequent bus service, Byford wants to modernize the bus system and redesign the network. The project doesn’t include a big price tag, and the biggest ask is likely city-state cooperation. But the bus plan was just the appetizer.
Last week, Andy Byford revealed what is intended to be his pièce de résistance – his plan to rescue the New York City subway. It is now under the Fast Forward moniker with its own website and a lengthy PDF. In broad sweeps, Byford hopes to accomplish in 10 years what the MTA has long claimed would take 40: a complete modernization of nearly the entire subway signal system. “As I said when my appointment was announced, what is needed isn’t mere tinkering, a few tweaks here and there,” Byford said in introducing his plan. “What must happen is sustained investment on a massive scale if we are to deliver New Yorkers the service they deserve and the transit system this city and state need. Now is the time to think big and transform our network so it works for all New Yorkers.”
I’ll dive into the details and questions I have surrounding the plan in a later post. In summary, the plan is divided into two five-year halves (intentional), signal modernization throughout the city, ADA accessibility for around 150-180 stations and state-of-good-repair work at nearly 300 stations. It also includes over 3000 new subway cars and a new fare payment system. If some of these initiatives sound familiar, that’s because they are. Byford’s plan is essentially New York City Transit’s asks for the MTA’s next two five-year plans, and that’s fine. Byford’s approach is a politically expedient and operationally efficient way to line up this major work, and it will require riders to suffer some pain I’ll delve into later this week.
But political expedience can go only go so far, and nearly immediately last week, the messy ugly politics of transit in New York City came to the forefront. Prior to the plan’s great unveiling, early press reports indicated a price tag anywhere from $19 billion to $38 billion, and apparently that set off a storm in Albany. The announcement on Wednesday didn’t include a dollar figure, and the MTA disputed reports that Cuomo pushed the agency to omit any talk of money. Meanwhile, Cuomo issues one of his milquetoast statements that tried to indicate he had no idea what was coming or when despite his intimate involvement in MTA efforts lately.
Dani Lever, a Cuomo press representative, put her name on the initial statement. “Our bottom line is that the plan needs to be expeditious and realistic and we made it clear to the chairman that before it is finalized, the MTA must bring in the top tech experts in the nation. Because if we can experiment with self-driving vehicles, there must be an alternative technology for the subways,” she said. Cuomo repeated Lever’s statement nearly verbatim at the New York State Democrats’ convention last week before reenaging in his tired shtick over city ownership of the physical infrastructure of the subway system. It was really just a bunch of word vomit and an attempt by the governor to distance himself from the controversial and expensive subway rescue plan that the man he picked to rescue the subway produced.
And therein lies the political rub. Byford has stayed above the political fray because Cuomo has largely let him, but how long can that last? And if Cuomo’s words last week are to be taken seriously, are we to believe that Cuomo did not know about the New York City Transit President’s 10-year plan that, at one point at least internally, carried a potential cost figure of nearly $40 billion? This is the same Cuomo who micromanages everything and has his hand in as many political pots as possible. Cuomo knew.
And if Cuomo knew, is he setting up Byford to be the fall guy? Byford is the respected British expert who came to New York by way of Toronto and can plausibly be ignorant of the budgetary machinations that impact every aspect of New York state politics. He can be the guy who puts out the plan while Cuomo pretends to play the responsible adult, swatting it down for spurious claims of fiscal concern while salvaging some cheaper elements in an attempt to bolster his infrastructure cred. Maybe the signals are fixed, but maybe they’re fixed in 20 years instead of 40 (or instead of ten).
If that’s what’s going on, then I would humbly suggest Byford noisily exit while he can still save face. If the governor who brought him in to fix the problem won’t stand behind the solution, Byford should quit and quit loudly, burning down the house of cards as he goes. If Cuomo never intended to fix anything, Byford shouldn’t spend any more time on this forsaken transit system than he has.
Of course, it’s easy to say that but it’s not that easy for Byford to follow through. The subway rescue plan won’t start until 2020 at the earliest, and the funding fight is a long and arduous one that requires a strong subway champion. Perhaps Cuomo will come around (he already tried, at the end of last week, to walk back his initial comments once the skepticism seemed through), and perhaps Byford can be that champion. But right now, he’s firmly in the political thick of things, and the fate of the New York City subway system rescue plan, if not the entire system and the city itself, hangs in the balance.