When Gov. Andrew Cuomo held an impromptu press conference on Thursday essentially canceling the L train shutdown and torpedoing years of advance planning in the process, he thrust his MTA and his administration headlong into a credibility crisis. It certainly wasn’t Cuomo’s intention to do that; he clearly wanted to be seen as the governor-slash-hero whose attention to infrastructure innovation cast him as the savior to New Yorkers gearing up for 15 months of transit headaches. But through the way he handled the announcement and his comments afterwards, the fact that his plan is currently just a set of bullet points, and the way he didn’t involve the MTA or public in his decision, he has created a situation where neither he nor the MTA can be trusted, and it’s going to take years for anyone involved in this to recover public trust.
The MTA’s credibility crisis has been decades in the making, self-imposed by an agency that can’t even do something as simple as rebuild a staircase on time. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the MTA started losing the public trust since many would argue the agency had never earned that trust to begin with. The charge that the MTA kept “two sets of books” was one that lingered for years, even after it was debunked in court, and the agency’s inability to finish any project, whether a basic station rehabilitation or a massive capital project, on time or on budget has long been a public punch line. East Side Access, after all, was once supposed to cost $3.5 billion and be open by now, and that’s just one example among hundreds.
Lately, as the MTA has struggled to deliver on basic technological enhancements, the wheel-spinning has turned into the agency’s dirty laundry, aired publicly. The MTA has talked about the Metrocard replacement project for so long that no one really believes the upgrades are underway, for instance, and the current jury-rigged countdown clocks (also imposed by Andrew Cuomo) are a daily reminder that people don’t trust the MTA. On Friday, while heading from Midtown, I checked the MTA’s app at 9:39, and it told me a D train would be arriving at 9:42. At 9:42, that train was scheduled for 9:44; at 9:44, 9:46; at 9:46, 9:49. It arrived at 9:48, a time not once projected by the app. The MTA blamed a work train, but this is far from an isolated incident. On a daily basis, riders report countdown clocks that aren’t right and arrival times that come and go with no sign of a train. If the MTA can’t get this standard transit technology right and can’t provide reliable arrival times to the public, what can they New Yorkers trust them with?
Politically, before his departure, Joe Lhota earned headlines and the ire of good governance groups for his perceived conflicts of interest as he held multiple jobs at once, casting doubt on his ability to be a partial and fair leader for the MTA. Could New Yorkers always trust that Lhota had their interest and the MTA’s interests in mind if he was also serving as head of a hospital and on the board of Madison Square Garden? Transportation is such an ingrained part of every NYC life, after all.
The L train, and Cuomo’s machinations, is now a direct challenge to any public trust in the agency. For three years, the MTA has engaged in numerous public meetings, rehashing over and over again the need to shut down the 14th St. tunnel in order to rebuild the bench wall, reconstruct the track bed and replace ties and the third rail. A tunnel shutdown was the only way to accomplish the scope of the work the MTA said they had to achieve, and the choices were either a full shutdown for 15 months or a partial tube-by-tube shutdown that would have lasted closer to three years.
Until last week, no one had ever suggested that the MTA could simply let the bench wall be while installing cables elsewhere and doing the minimum to shore up the tunnel without closing it down. When Cuomo did it, he cast doubt on the MTA’s ability to assess projects holistically and consider all viable alternatives, including new ones. Since the announcement, the MTA deleted the special section devoted to the L train shutdown from its website. Even before the MTA Board, which must approve the new project, holds a meeting to do so, the MTA is trying to erase this history and three years worth of planning. To many in New York, this original lack of creativity and ex post whitewashing attempt is indicative of the MTA’s inability to see beyond what consultants tell them or what their management determines. If they can’t present all options — if they can’t consider a world in which a shut down can be avoided but the Governor can at nearly the last minute — why should we trust them with anything they say?
Over the weekend, this skepticism and the credibility gap manifested itself very clearly via social media. Jim Dwyer of The New York Times had Multiple Twitter threads (here and here) about the issue, and City Limits penned an article on the very same topic. Others questioned the MTA’s ability to ensure the enhancement work that was going to be performed during the L train shut down would continue.
Color me skeptical, but I question their ability execute the stairway reconstruction on an active Union Square L platform without throwing that station into chaos. https://t.co/nxoko6prkt
— Chris O'Leary (@ohhleary) January 3, 2019
I don’t blame anyone for questioning or denying the MTA its credibility. I responded to Dwyer with a Twitter thread of my own, but his complaints get to the heart of the issue. Nothing the MTA says will be trusted until they start delivering on their promises, and little they can do today or tomorrow will change this perception.
But he’s not the only one with credibility issues, and the Governor — who, dispute frequent protestations, does actually control the MTA — has next to no credibility at all. For three years, the MTA has been very public in its planning, and for three years, Cuomo has said next to nothing about the issue. He claims someone in Brooklyn came up to him, grabbed him by his lapels (without being instantly removed by security) and yelled at him to do something about the L train. This story, as I’ve said in the past, reeks of political poppycock. Cuomo probably heard from his staff and his donors that the L train shutdown was shaping up to be a nightmare, and so he stepped in with a few academic friends he could rustle up. Why wasn’t he involved for years with the biggest story and most comprehensive public mitigation effort impacting the MTA we all knows he controls?
And why should we trust Cuomo on transit after all? His big-ticket projects show a keen understanding about form over function. The Laguardia and JFK rehabs do not involve adding more runways, the biggest problems facing New York City airports; his backwards AirTrain is, well, backwards; and after years of careful planning and advocacy work, he torpedoed a real transit link on the Tappan Zee replacement at the last minute. Even his meddling on the Second Ave. Subway wasn’t welcomed by everyone as a few sources tell me his push to wrap the project by the end of 2016 both cut corners and cost the MTA significant money.
But if you feel that’s just my inherent skepticism toward Cuomo seeping through again, take a look at what a few other people are saying. As a team of reporters at The Post detailed over the weekend, Cuomo and his professors spent just an hour inside the L train tunnel, and it’s not clear what qualifies them to issue such a sweeping last-minute change. Danielle Furfaro, Nolan Hicks and Ruth Brown write:
Engineers from Cornell and Columbia universities spent just a few weeks examining the MTA’s years-in-the-making plan to shut down the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged L-train tunnel for repairs — before recommending an 11th-hour alternative to keep it open and just contain the damage with new walls built on nights and weekends. Mary Boyce, dean of Columbia’s engineering school, told The Post that the team had no experience working on a subway system like New York’s, but claimed the crew had enough combined infrastructure experience to know the plan would work…
Cuomo’s office confirmed that only one of the eggheads on the Ivy League panel, which the governor touted as “the best experts we could find,” has limited experience working on subways. And that one person, Cornell professor Thomas O’Rourke, struggled to name a comparable subway tunnel-rehab project he had been involved with. “Rehabilitation for subway tunnels? Mostly new construction for subway tunnels,” O’Rourke said…Meanwhile, the team never bothered speaking with subways boss Andy Byford and made just one trip, on Dec. 14, to the crumbling Canarsie Tunnel to see the problem for themselves, Boyce admitted.
Even former MTA Capital Construction head Michael Horodniceanu spoke cautiously of the new proposal. “It’s going to last for a while,” he said to The Post. “For sure it isn’t going to to be a hundred years. It might last 15 years and need to be fixed again.”
In comments to The Times, Veronica Vanterpool, a Bill de Blasio appointee to the MTA Board who is one of the members of that body willing to question both the MTA and Governor publicly, expressed her concerns as well. “The original proposal would have fixed and repaired the tunnel for 50 or 60 years. It’s not clear to me the longevity of this solution,” she said, adding, “This continues to show that the board is essentially an afterthought. We’re not consulted, we’re not briefed, but yet we’re expected to move important projects along.” Comments from others in the article too show that no one knows who to believe any longer.
Finally, advocates were quick to question the thoroughness and veracity of Cuomo’s stunt. “You’ll pardon transit riders for being skeptical that a last-minute Hail Mary idea cooked up over Christmas is better than what the MTA came up with over three years of extensive public input,” John Raskin of the Riders Alliance said. We need a full public release of the details of Governor Cuomo’s ideas, as well as the mitigation plans that will allow hundreds of thousands of L train riders to get around during the inevitable shutdowns and slowdowns in service. Actual transit professionals, who owe nothing to the governor or the MTA, should evaluate whether this is sound engineering or a political stunt that will ultimately leave riders in the lurch.”
Ultimately, ten bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation without a full scope or an independent assessment of the efficacy of a plan do not constitute a fully-baked project, and Cuomo’s insistence that this plan is better the original and sufficient isn’t a claim anyone is in a position to assess because there is no plan yet. To push this point, Cuomo on Friday called for an emergency meeting of the MTA Board, but MTA Board members haven’t gotten word of such a meeting yet. Likely that’s because a meeting — and more importantly, a vote — can’t happen until there is an actual plan and the MTA knows what it’s asking its contractors to do. Maybe this is better, but right now we just don’t know. And for eight years, Cuomo has given us no reason to trust him when it comes to transit or last-minute meddling.
Railways are ultimately a conservative business. If something goes wrong, trains derail, and people die. It’s why planning takes longer than a few weeks and why the initial reaction to Cuomo’s move has been one of shock, outrage and pushback. “Move fast and break things” hasn’t exactly done wonders for the tech industry, and it’ll go over even worse in transportation. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening, and by wading in so carelessly, Cuomo has thrown doubt on his ability to lead through a crisis and the MTA’s ability to plan thoroughly, comprehensively and correctly. The crisis of credibility will far outlast whatever work ends up happening on the L train, and that’s a real cost New York City will have to bear.