Home MTA Politics Cuomo’s L train debacle creates opening for MTA reform

Cuomo’s L train debacle creates opening for MTA reform

by Benjamin Kabak

Gov. Andrew Cuomo assesses the L train tunnel during a December tour.

There are always unintended consequences to governing carelessly by unexpected press conference and off-the-cuff commentary, and as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his team embarked on a tour to salvage whatever credibility they have left, it’s becoming clear that the crisis precipitated by Cuomo may open the door to MTA reform. Now, it’s a matter of who will take the reins and how.

Movement on MTA reform has been very slowly gaining speed over the past few months as more people have been paying attention to the way the MTA Board operations (or doesn’t) and the inherent contradictions in the current board structure. I’d urge to read Aaron Gordon’s November Signal Problems dispatch for more on that topic.

As Cuomo engaged in his offensive this week, when he gets going, the words just start to flow from his mouth, and he hit upon some nuggets that hit upon reform in a conversation with The Daily News. Kenneth Lovett and Dan Rivoli had more:

Frustrated by what he sees as an entrenched bureaucracy that lacks imagination to find new ways to do things, Gov. Cuomo said Monday it’s time to rebuild the MTA from ground up. “Blow up the MTA. Blow it up,” Cuomo said during a meeting with the Daily News Editorial Board…

“The L train is a window into a much bigger problem,” Cuomo told The News. He referred to a “passive conspiracy of the transportation industrial complex” where major capital projects are undertaken with the same contractors and vendors, and no competition for designs. Construction contractors typically pad their bills to the MTA by 25% — an “MTA premium” — because of the difficulty they have dealing with agency bureaucrats. MTA board members are trying to figure out how to lower their construction costs. “The MTA is so tedious to deal with that it developed a boutique industry of people who just are willing to deal with this thing called the MTA,” Cuomo said. “And the people who know how to do it normally came from the MTA and then go to the contractor and that’s why they know how to make the connection.”

…He plans to continue his effort to reform the agency — Cuomo in a recent speech said one of his priorities in the first 100 days of 2019 is to restructure the MTA and find it more funding. He said he is not afraid to take responsibility for what happens at the MTA, as long as he’s not “handcuffed.” “I am unique in governors who are willing to step up and sign on the bottom line,” he said of such projects as the building of a new Tappan Zee Bridge and installation of cashless tolling. “My people think it’s an act of madness,” Cuomo said of his quest for more power over the agency. “I don’t care. I have no problem stepping up and saying it’s me. More than any other governor. But I’m not going to say ‘it’s me’ handcuffed.”

Cuomo starts out strong, but his comments fizzle toward the end. He engaged in another diatribe on whether or not he controls the MTA (he does), and The News gave him more cover for this argument than I would have, allowing Cuomo to compare the MTA (which he controls) to the Port Authority (which no one controls). It’s not an apt comparison, and it reminds me of the problems with trusting Cuomo with MTA reform. Cuomo doesn’t listen to experts; rather, he thinks he is the expert. So if he has a vision for MTA reform (just like he has a vision for the L train work and a vision a backwards AirTrain), his vision will become reality whether it’s an improvement or not.

But in his opening remarks at least, he hit upon a key problem with the New York City transportation ecosystem: It is very much a transportation industrial complex with a very active revolving door shuttling the same people between the public and private sectors. This essentially eliminates any incentives for internal-driven MTA reform as the same people who sign off on contracts end up being the same people who benefit from runaway costs and project timelines in years rather than months and decades rather than years. The “difficulty” in dealing with agency bureaucrats is a feature, not a bug.

Cuomo, who spoke about MTA reform in the lead-up to his reelection last year, hasn’t given any indication that he has a vision beyond adding more seats under his control to the Board. I’m not quite sure where that gets him considering the MTA Board has never rejected a Cuomo initiative and he already has legal control over the agency. The reform must be structural and not cosmetic, and the L train mess, which has led everyone to rightly question the competency of the MTA, is an opportunity to push for major reforms. The problem, of course, is that the L train mess has also led everyone to question Cuomo’s competency here, and as I keep saying, no one currently involved has any credibility on the topic. Thus, the person spearheading reform shouldn’t be the person few trust.

Enter New York City. At an event at a subway stop in Bay Ridge promoting his effort to assess subway rider complaints, City Council Speaker (and current acting Public Advocate) Corey Johnson let slip that he is working on a proposal for city control of its subways and buses. Johnson didn’t offer details other than a promise to release a report within 60 days, but he had some intriguing things to say. “The detailed plan I will unveil in the next 60 days,” he said, “talks about debt obligation, bonding authority, the tunnels and the bridges, and it does not just talk about the subways and buses, but talks about breaking the car culture by investing in mass transit, prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists and making New York City a livable safe city.”

Analyzing the ins and outs of city control is both well outside the purview of this post and premature without a proposal in hand, but it’s clear that something’s a-brewin’ in New York over MTA governance and MTA control. If anything comes out of this crisis of confidence Andrew Cuomo created last week, a true push for MTA reform would be a welcome one, and the shape and a full public debate on structure of transit governance in New York City is one that is long overdue.

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17 comments

Larry Littlefield January 10, 2019 - 9:26 am

One thing I have noticed lately is how high a share of bus drivers and conductors I see are women and minorities. So is this the time when it has become acceptable to “reform” New York City Transit?

What about the LIRR? WHAT ABOUT THE LIRR?

When people at the TWU complain that whenever the MTA needs savings it looks to the city, they aren’t wrong. The worst abuses are outside. And when a former LIRR head became head of MetroNorth, under Cuomo’s watch, it would seem everyone in maintenance stopped working.

And everyone knows it. Watch the reaction of MetroNorth riders if a merge with the LIRR is proposed.

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SEAN January 10, 2019 - 11:03 pm

One thing I have noticed lately is how high a share of bus drivers and conductors I see are women and minorities.

Same on Metro-North with there conductors, a growing percentage are women & they do an great job.

So is this the time when it has become acceptable to “reform” New York City Transit?

What are you driving at here, as gender or anything else shouldn’t matter in doing one’s assigned job, what ever it maybe.

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Larry Littlefield January 11, 2019 - 4:03 pm

“What are you driving at here.”

The cabal that had high labor costs, low productivity and the political clout to keep them back in the day was white male. Subway work WAS reformed when the demographics changed. Titles were broadbanded, and a lot of the goldbricking went away. It’s part of the reason the subway turned around.

So is it time to reform the MTA because more of it is no longer staffed by the politically unreformable?

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SEAN January 14, 2019 - 6:33 pm

Oh, I see where you went – it’s not what I first got from your post, MY bad. I would reframe from the use of the term “cabal” as it carries a much more sinister meaning in some circles.

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Will January 10, 2019 - 9:39 am

NYC should take over Metro North, LLRR, Subways and Buses. Have it run like Transport London

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SEAN January 10, 2019 - 10:46 pm

Will, If NYC were to take control of the railroads, how would outlying counties pay for the services that serve them. In addition MNR has most of it’s New Haven line services running through CT. & how would the funding formula work.

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ChrisC January 14, 2019 - 12:06 am

How would it work?

Much the same as it does now.

Why should the formulas change just because control of the MTA is under a different organisation than previous.

Any legal issues could be addressed as part of the transfer from the State to the City.

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smartone January 10, 2019 - 12:00 pm

this should definitely happen — only way reform will happen is if disconnected bureaucracy no longer has control of NYC Subways

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Michael549 January 10, 2019 - 2:46 pm

Before anyone jumps on the bandwagon to say that the subways and buses SHOULD be under “city control” – they should really, and I mean really consider why the MTA was created in 1968.

Prior to 1968 there was the New York City Transit Authority, the CITY agency that ran the subways and buses. There were fare increases, problems with the subways, severe needs for major improvements – the whole works.

There was also the city’s Board Of Transportation and the public commissions, those folks that prior to the 1940’s keep the subway fare at 5-cents for 40 years! Leading to the bankruptcy of the private transit companies – IRT, BMT and the municipal subway, the IND.

Political types love “public authorities” so that they can “rail” against them when it comes time for fare increases, service cutbacks and other problems.

Political type also love “public authorities” when it comes time for ribbon cuttings and other beneficial events.

Those who don’t learn their history . . .

Mike

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VLM January 10, 2019 - 2:56 pm

Did you have a point to make here or not? You say there were fare increases when the city ran the subways but then say there were no fare increases for 40 years. The latter, not the former, was the problem and one that can be easily addressed via proper governance.

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SEAN January 10, 2019 - 11:08 pm

Reread mike’s post. He said the fare was 5 cents for 40-years & then there were fare increases until the MTA was formed.

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Larry Littlefield January 10, 2019 - 3:42 pm

Prior to the creation of the MTA, New York had a pretty good state government and a lousy, corrupt, incompetent, self serving city government.

Much as I complain about the City of New York sometimes, that has flipped.

Nonetheless, I’ve only suggested that the buses, which run on city streets, should be under city control. Not the economically essential rail system, which has its own right of way and requires scarce and particular expertise.

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Pedro Valdez-Rivera January 11, 2019 - 12:05 am

Stupid is as stupid does: It’s hypocritical #CuomosMTA in a nutshell since he became governor. 2020 anyone?

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Faber Castell January 11, 2019 - 11:07 pm

At this point if the Germans just called up and offered to run the whole thing I think we should seriously consider it.

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David J Brown January 12, 2019 - 9:54 am

I do not see the MTA reforming. I have been gone from NY for 5 years; and the same issues that I read ( and saw) 5 years ago are still here today. East Side Access and “Third World” type train stations ( especially Chambers St ( J) which is right by City Hall so it’s not like politicians are unaware of the condition of that station). The “Solution” seems to be the same. More Government control. The City now wants to run the transportation ( and for that matter health care) systems. Until the City proves they can deliver services in an efficient, cost effective and compassionate manner ( unlike say NYCHA), I would say no to the City running subways and busses.

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Josh Karpoff January 12, 2019 - 11:28 pm

We can’t forget the roots of how we got into this mess, which do in fact at one point lie directly in the lap of City control of the subways and buses. It didn’t work in the 1960s and 1970s, why would it work now? Just because the City has some money now doesn’t mean that it won’t slide back into the bad old days either. We have to remember the whole history of the problem to understand it before we try to tackle it.

The 2 private, heavily regulated subway companies failed and had to be taken over by the City. They left a growing problem of deferred maintenance and a ticking time bomb of major infrastructure overhauls. The City couldn’t get out of its own way financially. They were forever moving from one major fiscal crisis to another and no local politician could afford to take the heat for fare hikes. With the State taking over, through the use of the Authority mechanism it was thought that it would be far enough removed from the political process to be able to make actual decisions, it would be subsidized by the suburban commuters bridge tolls or commuter rail fares (countering suburban white flight) and it would be able to use the State’s less crisis prone credit rating to borrow for bonds. But Albany never really enforced any real operation efficiency changes on the MTA, it proceeded to cut its subsidies and actually steal dedicated tax dollars for itself, and it forced the MTA to borrow almost everything to build a series of shopping malls disguised as rehabbed train stations at a time when retail is becoming questionable.

I honestly think that a better organization of the existing MTA structure needs to be organized. Maybe direct election of MTA board members to 10 year terms, like 2 per MTA county and 3 at large statewide seats (27?), with one of the at large being the chair of the MTA? A 10 longer term gives them time to implement fare hikes if they need to and then also let some projects actually get completed with that money before the next election. You could stagger the seats by halfway so that you never have the whole board turning over at once. Direct control and accountability, consolidation and eliminating internal bureaucracy and management layers (ditch the 13+ different legal operating authorities and consolidate and reorganize for logic). Bring back the previous idea of organizing the MTA into B&T, Bus, Subways, Rail and a Common functions/admin division (HR, Accounting, Payroll, Capital Construction, Planning, legal, IT, Real Property, Purchasing and Vehicle fleet services, etc).

Other things that they need to do are reform light vehicle fleet management. Why does the MTA have like a gadzillion light trucks, most parked somewhere they shouldn’t be? They need to dump probably at least 20% of their middle managers and make them directly accountable for shit being done right. They need to eliminate lowest bidder construction and move to a different system. They need to do more in-house design themselves, build up their institutional knowledge and experience to do things better. They need to impose 3 year moritoriums on leaving certain MTA jobs to take a job in that part of the private sector to stop the revolving door. They need to build up their own in house capital construction forces, directly accountable to the board to go around the private sector contractors. The MTA could be GC on some of its own contracts and work directly with subcontractors and construction labor forces. If kids are in jeopardy of not graduating from city schools, they need to be pushed towards a trades apprenticeship.

The MTA needs to actually articulate, repeatedly how things got to the way they are, what they’re doing to change themselves to turn it around, how much it’s going to cost and what terrible inconveniences it’s going to put on the public. But seeing as how they can’t effectively communicate ANYTHING, I don’t see much happening.

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ChrisC January 14, 2019 - 12:42 am

2 per county sounds excessive for some and not enough for others.

So perhaps 1 rep and one vote for each of the 4 counties that currently share a vote, 2 reps for counties such as Nassau and Westchester and 3 for each of the 5 NYC counties. And yes some at-large reps as well elected by all the counties that get service not the entire state.

You could still have non voting rider reps on the main board as well as a couple of worker reps (who I would have elected by all the workers but no one in a senior union role would be eligible as that would in my opinion be too much of a conflict of interest)

I would also split the chair of the board from any operational role in the MTA.

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