As last Tuesday’s state election results rolled in and it became clear Democrats would win a decisive majority of the New York State Senate seats, I began to think about what this sea-change in Albany would mean for the MTA. Somewhat optimistically, I believe that unified Democratic control of the state legislature along with a resounding third-term for Andrew Cuomo should at least lead to a push to fund Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, likely via congestion pricing, and reform the MTA. But then Friday’s news landed with a bang, and the MTA once again found itself facing turmoil at the top.
It’s not quite clear why yet, but as Mayor Bill de Blasio was on the phone with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer for his weekly on-air Q-and-A session, news broke that Joe Lhota had resigned immediately as MTA Chair and CEO. Just three weeks ago, Lhota had told reporters on the record that he would not be stepping down after Election Day, and Lhota’s departure came as a surprise. It’s not clear what served as Lhota’s motivating factor for leaving. Subway performance has stabilized to a certain degree, and Lhota has seemingly set up the agency to begin a long and expensive modernization project. But his second tenure atop the MTA wasn’t as smooth as his first, and he left amidst heavy tabloid criticism long before the tough job of fixing the MTA was through.
The reasons for his departure remain a mystery. Good government groups had raised ethical concerns about his seemingly conflicting roles on the MSG Board and head of NYU Langone Hospital and have constantly noted that the MTA Board and CEO position is statutorily required to be a full-time job. Though Lhota alleged to have delegated authority, Reinvent Albany, among others, claims he simply wasn’t legally permitted to do that, and perhaps Lhota thought he would come under more scrutiny for apparent conflicts at a time when Albany’s focus should be on transit funding and capital spending reform rather than ethics clashes. But this is just speculation on my part, and maybe Cuomo just wanted someone else to spearhead the multi-billion-dollar request to fund Byford’s plan.
So now the MTA faces changes on two fronts — political and personnel — but there is no reason why the two should be separated. In fact, the personnel and the politics hands the New York State Senate its first opportunity to, well, do something. First, I believe the Reinvent Albany post I linked to above is spot-on. When Lhota came up for a confirmation hearing in 2017, the Senate dragged its collective feet until the final night, held a perfunctory hearing via a phone call with Lhota, and approved the veteran as MTA head without much ado. The next person to be nominated for the spot should be required to serve full-time with no outside income or other apparent conflicts and should face a full Senate confirmation with serious, probing questions about MTA performance, funding and cost reform. If the Democrats in the State Senate plans to exercise the powers recently granted to them, they can state with an informed grilling of the next person tasked with heading the MTA at this juncture.
Separately, with the election in the rear-view and Cuomo seemingly on board with a congestion pricing plan, the Senate can get back to the business of legislating. Now that the Democrats have a strong pro-congestion pricing caucus, passing a plan, with money for transit, should be a top priority. Congestion pricing will also help clear up NYC streets which have become nearly impassable during nearly every hour of the day. This may rely on Cuomo pushing the issue a bit. He spoke at length during the campaign of congestion pricing but also, as Gotham Gazette noted, offered something of a carrot to reluctant representatives. Of this initiative, Samar Khurshid wrote:
Cuomo has pushed for a comprehensive congestion pricing program to fund the MTA, arrest the decline of New York City’s subway system, and reduce the clog of Manhattan streets. But Democrats, particularly in the outer boroughs and in suburban areas around the city, are far from unanimous on the proposal. Cuomo seemed to recognize these differences in appearances in early October on Long Island and South Brooklyn. In Long Island, he pledged to make the city “pay its fair share for the MTA,” while at the Brooklyn event, he pledged to secure funding for the beleaguered transit authority through congestion pricing.
How that horse-trading plays out is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the Governor embraces the Mayor’s endless calls for yet another millionaire’s tax to fund transit; perhaps he continues his disinformation feud over MTA funding responsibilities. Still, it seems as though Cuomo is lining up something to ensure suburban representatives pass congestion pricing when the issue comes to the forefront. We have to be careful with congestion pricing though because it is not the only path to MTA funding. We need congestion pricing for a variety of reasons (including easing the lost productivity and environmental harm caused by endless congestion), but as I wrote last month, the revenue will not be sufficient to shore up the MTA’s finances. Still, any additional funding mechanisms will have to pass muster in Albany, and the state representatives are well away all eyes are on them.
To that end, the State Senate and Assembly should reinsert themselves in the oversight process. The various committees tasked with keeping an eye on the MTA have held one joint hearing on the authority over the past three or four sessions, and that hearing turned into a personal gripe-fest with legislators complaining more about bus stops being moved 100 feet rather than structural issues with MTA operations and spending. The state governing bodies must be willing to hold the MTA accountability for its inability to spend money efficiently or build timely. The city’s and state’s futures depend on it.
Ultimately, these are tall orders for a newly-unified government and a party that hasn’t had much success when it has been able to set the state agenda. Though the “three men in a room” model of state governance will likely fall by the wayside with unified Democratic control, Cuomo has indicated that he plans to stay heavily involved in the legislative agenda, but he is also cognizant of how a failure to fix the MTA may reflect poorly on him as he commences a run at the White House in 2020 (however misguided I personally believe that to be for him). If the opportunity exists to keep Cuomo’s attention focused on the New York City subways, then, by all means, everyone invested in improving transit should seize that opportunity.
With Lhota out and Albany gearing up to address MTA issues, transit will be at the forefront of the legislative agenda for the foreseeable future. The next MTA Chair and CEO has to be someone who has Albany’s ears and Albany’s trust on key issues and must be someone who can fight for Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan. At the same time, the State Senate and Assembly must put the MTA under a microscope, actions Albany has generally avoided as legislators often feel dealing with the MTA is a lose-lose proposition. I’m cautiously optimistic change in Albany and change atop the MTA can quickly lead to good outcomes. If it does not, the transit death spiral we’re desperately trying to avoid will inch closer and closer.