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.