In a rare moment of political unity from the mayor and governor, Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo unveiled on Tuesday a ten-point plan to fund and reform the MTA. Notably, the plan showcases congestion pricing as the prime funding mechanism, and the announcement marks the first time the mayor has issued a public endorsement of congestion pricing. It also introduces an internet sales tax and the so-called “Weed for Rails” proposal NYU and Melissa Mark-Viverito introduced in December which directs cannabis excise tax dollars to transit funding.
All told, it’s an aggressive show of unity from the mayor and governor that could allow the MTA to bond out up to $22 billion a year for capital funding and should usher in an era of congestion pricing, in some form or another, to free up New York City’s overcrowded streets. But is it a good plan? Is it the right one for New York City? Does it deliver enough for beleaguered transit riders without giving away too much to a governor hellbent on exerting as much control as he can over an agency that, at its core, runs the transportation engine that powers New York City? Let’s dive in.
I’ve written this post as a series of segments so you can jump around if you’d like. I’ll tackle the proposal first; the political reaction second; feedback from other transit advocates third; and some concluding thoughts last.
The Governor and the Mayor’s ten-point plan arrived on Tuesday morning in the form of a massive press release. The Mayor put out a subsequent release with his own statement and spoke to reporters later in the day. Cuomo’s public statements came in the form of a friendly interview with Brian Lehrer. I’ll cover both of those in the next section. Let’s take a look at what the two politicians, not exactly friends or fans of transit, are proposing.
1. Reorganize the MTA
As the lead part of the proposal, the MTA is going to reorganize itself to create a more centralized governing body. As the two announced, “All common functions such as construction management, legal, engineering, procurement, human resources, advertising etc. will be consolidated and streamlined in a central operation. The individual divisions will focus on day-to-day management of their primary operation.” The MTA is expected to complete this plan by June and bring with it a change in culture “which will generate fresh ideas and new perspective from new and recently appointed senior and mid-level management recruited from the private sector and other cities and states.”
As an aside, for what it’s worth, the private sector does not have a magic wand that will fix the MTA, and based on current MTA hiring freezes and pay scales, most people moving into middle management roles from the private sector are unlikely to be top talent. That said, it’s not impossible to recruit top talent, but this is not likely to be a real fix. I touch on this more below in my analysis.
2. Congestion Pricing
Along with the MTA reorg, congestion pricing will become a reality with a go-live date of December 2020, following approval of the MTA’s next five-year capital plan. The congestion pricing zone will encompass Manhattan south of 61th St. and will be enforced via electronic cashless tolling, under the auspices of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
Revenue from congestion pricing — and the internet sales and cannabis excises taxes — would be placed into a transit lockbox, but there are certain exemptions, implemented at the direction of the notorious motorist Bill de Blasio: “Tolls would be variable providing discounts for off-peak hour travel. Emergency vehicles will be exempt from congestion pricing tolls. Other exemptions or discounts will be provided to a limited group of vehicles entering the CBD including vehicles operated by or transporting people with disabilities and individuals who have an identifiable hardship or limited ability to access medical facilities in the CBD.”
3. Fare Hike Caps
All fare hikes will be limited to “inflationary increases” of 2% per year (which they already are and have been for a while).
4. MTA Board Appointments
All MTA Board appointments will be coterminous with the terms of the official who made the appointment or recommendation. Thus, all mayoral appointees would expire upon the end of a mayoral administration and ditto for a governor, county executive, etc.
5. Fare Evasion
I’ll quote this one because I am truly exhausted and tired of this red herring of a conversation:
Partnership between the State and City is necessary to combat fare evasion. We cannot have a voluntary fare system and still maintain a system that ensures operational stability. The State will work with the MTA, City and District Attorneys to develop an enforcement strategy, with both personnel and station design modifications that do not criminalize fare evasion but instead prevent fare evasion, sanction violators and increase enforcement.
According to the press release, someone will audit the MTA to “determine their actual assets and liabilities” and provide budgetary statements that do not “strain financial credibility,” as Cuomo has consistently claimed, not incorrectly, that they do.
7. Regional Transit Committee
Seemingly replacing the opaque Capital Program Review Board, which effectively offers a veto point to the governor, mayor, Senate and Assembly over the MTA Capital Plan, a Regional Transit Committee, consisting of members “who have no existing financial relationship with the MTA” will review the Capital Plan and any toll and fare increases proposed “as necessary to fund the Capital Plan.” It’s not clear if this board will review toll and fare increases that fund only operations or why an additional layer of bureaucracy is needed here.
8. The Columbia and Cornell Experts Return
Not content to rest on his L train laurels, Cuomo is bringing back his pals from Cornell and Columbia to conduct construction review on every major project. The press release muddles terminology and glosses over the fact that Andy Byford recently brought in one of the foremost expert in signal technology to do exactly this, but take a read:
The MTA will have all major construction projects and planned projects pursued as “design build.” The MTA will do preliminary drawings only to the point necessary for bidding the project in a private sector competition based primarily on cost and timing of the project. Selections will be made with incentives and sanctions for performance. All major construction projects will be reviewed by construction and engineering experts who are not affiliated with the MTA or its consultants. The construction review team will be headed by the Deans of Cornell School of Engineering and Columbia School of Engineering to assure state of the art design and technology is being deployed. This group will also review the plans for signal system upgrade methodology and decide the best system to use, specifically comparing Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) to Ultra-Wide-Band (UWB) technology for safety, timeliness and cost. The MTA will be more aggressive in debarring failed contractors.
It’s not clear if these Cornell and Columbia deans have the expertise to review every MTA construction project or why they’re willing to engage in this charade. Notably, this item does not include actual cost control, a true reform that’s badly needed.
9. Expedite the Subway Action Plan
OK. This is really stretching a “ten items” list now.
10. Stop. Collaborate. Listen.
I quote: “The Governor and Mayor will work closely with the Legislature to effectuate provisions in this framework.” This shouldn’t count as an item, but it does. The bulk of this list arises out of items 1, 2, 7 and 8, and the rest are window-dressing. This is an four-item plan with some filler and a vague promise to enact (or maybe reenact?) current practices.
Following the release of this list, Cuomo and de Blasio spent some time defending the proposal, as they should. The mayor, who has long resisted the progressive pull of congestion pricing, threw some shade on the idea, as he does. He released the following statement:
“Working New Yorkers struggle every day to get around our city. We cannot let another year pass without action that makes people’s lives easier. This crisis runs deeper than ever before, and it’s now clear there is no way to address it without congestion pricing and other dedicated revenue streams. The time to act is now.
“The proposal we’re announcing today addresses concerns I’ve raised related to a lockbox for transit, fairness to the outer boroughs and accommodating hardships. I still believe a Millionaires Tax provides the best, most sustainable revenue source for the transit improvements our city needs. But the time to act is running out, and among all alternatives, congestion pricing has the greatest prospects for immediate success. In light of this reality, it is my hope that critics of congestion pricing will join me in acknowledging its necessity.
“I look forward to partnering with the Governor and the Legislature as we work to ensure this proposal to revitalize the MTA becomes a reality.”
I don’t believe the Mayor will ever get to the point of embracing congestion pricing. He is a self-proclaimed motorist who has spent years driving short distances easily covered by transit simply because he can and he likes it better. He doesn’t understand the environmental imperative for congestion pricing or the reality that the congestion-choking status quo is simply economically harmful and unsustainable for a vibrant urban area. He doesn’t care to learn how congestion pricing, if implemented properly, will clear the roads while boosting productivity and mobility. But if he’s willing to fight for this proposal, maybe that’s OK. Proponents need all the friends they can get, and that includes the mayor right now.
The governor, on the other hand, appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show shortly after releasing the press release and engaged in an enlightened discussion with the WNYC host. Cuomo talked about the exceedingly low percentage of New Yorkers driving into Manhattan and the need to clear streets to improve transit. “It doesn’t matter how well the bus is running if the bus is only going four miles an hour because there’s so much congestion,” Cuomo said of the congestion reduction benefits.
Overall, though, Cuomo said nothing new. He talked at length about the various arcane politics behind MTA governance and funding. He repeated his lies and half-truths about MTA control and spoke, as he often does, as one who does not control the MTA even though he very clearly does. He’s willing to go to bat for his plan, perhaps more than the mayor is, but that doesn’t get to the fundamental question as to whether this plan is good.
Some politicians weren’t convinced. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie expressed reservations about earmarking taxes from the legalization of recreational marijuana to transit. He feels these funds should go first to those who suffered due to the war on drugs.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson also expressed skepticism. He’s currently working on a proposal for city control of the buses and subways, an argument likely to be the centerpiece should Johnson run for mayor in 2021.
My statement re: Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio’s joint congestion pricing announcement.
And I will have more to say on this soon — stay tuned. pic.twitter.com/Nq2OBy9BN5
— NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson (@NYCSpeakerCoJo) February 26, 2019
And what of the transit and good governance advocates? Unsurprisingly, reaction was mixed. Both the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Riders Alliance celebrated the pro-congestion pricing statement. Nik Sifuertes, head of TSTC called it a “smart, sensible framework for congestion pricing that builds on the successes of other cities and is tailored to New York City’s unique needs.”
John Raskin of the Riders Alliance noted the two leaders’ kumbaya moment. “When the governor and mayor put out a plan together, it means real momentum toward enacting congestion pricing to fix the subway,” he said. “The agreement reflects a growing recognition that congestion pricing alone won’t solve the transit crisis, but that it is the single largest source of revenue on the table and should be the cornerstone of a bigger funding package.”
Others were a bit more skeptical. Transit Center raised a concern about the requirement that any reorganization of the MTA be completed by June.
TransitCenter statement regarding today's announcement by Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio on congestion pricing and the MTA: pic.twitter.com/nhQ0rxAkR5
— TransitCenter (@TransitCenter) February 26, 2019
But the most withering take came from Reinvent Albany, a good governance watchdog group pushing from reform and transparency in Albany. This group, headed by John Kaehny, raised “serious concerns” with the plan and wondered if the plan will do more harm than good. Reinvent Albany strongly supports congestion pricing and new revenue for the MTA, but we believe the MTA’s biggest organizational problem is the Governor’s endless political meddling and sidelining of the MTA and NYC Transit professional staff.”
Specifically, Reinvent Albany noted that Cuomo has yet to provide $7.3 billion of the promised $8.3 billion for the 2015-2019 Capital Plan and raised specific issues with the key items. I’ll quote a fe of them as these are astute and valuable observations.
- Andy Byford, NYCT President stripped of power. The Governor’s proposed reorganization takes away a huge amount of fundamental management authority from New York City Transit President Andy Byford and shifts it to MTA Headquarters (HQ). What happens with Byford’s Fast Forward Plan if he can’t implement it? The governor proposes shifting engineering, contracting and construction management to MTA HQ. We note that MTA HQ has completely mismanaged the East Side Access project with up to $7B in cost overruns. (Item #1)
- Congestion pricing proposal creates a gigantic new loophole by creating vast, vague exceptions for motorists. Given the disastrous experience with state and NYC issued parking placards, this is an invitation for abuse and petty corruption. (Item #2)
- The Regional Transit Committee duplicates and subtracts from the MTA Board’s authority and will create even more confusion. If the legislature wants representation on the MTA board or changes to the board, it should make them instead of creating a confusing mess that further reduces accountability. The MTA board should determine fares, tolls, and budgets, etc. If it does it poorly, reform it. (Item #7)
- The MTA, like other state authorities and agencies, should be run by professionals, not overseen by unqualified, arbitrarily selected academics hand-picked by the governor. There are many people in the world with more far more expertise on transit engineering and technology than the Deans of Columbia and Cornell engineering schools — including within the MTA. Why should these informal advisors to the governor determine what kind of signals technology the MTA uses? (Item #8)
The group further believes this effort by Cuomo is essentially a rush job with de Blasio’s blessing for the governor to shore up power and take over a city concern. “This is not the time to make major changes to redistribute power over the MTA’s governance structure, as there are too many stakeholders at risk,” the statement concludes. “Changes to the governance of the MTA should be made independently of the budget after full and thorough discussion by MTA stakeholders and the public.”
So after over 2000 words, you must be wondering where I come out. It’s no secret that I’m inherently skeptical of Andrew Cuomo’s views on transit. He hasn’t shown a willingness to understand transit’s primary role in the NYC economy, and he approaches projects with a very top-down attitude. What he wants to do is what goes, and he doesn’t speak to the experts. That’s how we end up with a fancy Moynihan Station headhouse a long block away from the subways and with no trans-Hudson capacity increases, the Backwards AirTrain and two airport rehabilitation projects that don’t expand runway space.
In this case, Cuomo seems to be punting on his own responsibilities as the executive in charge of the MTA while drawing the city into his funding fight and exerting control over New York City streets. He’s introducing a new layer of bureaucracy to MTA decision-making without tackling the fundamental cost, labor and management reforms the MTA desperately needs to succeed. He’s overseen a hiring freeze at the MTA while bringing in the academics without the right expertise to second-guess everything, and by appealing to the private sector — a sector not inherently better at the tasks with which the MTA struggles — he’ll attract bottom, rather than top, talent.
To make matters worse, Cuomo seems to be creating an MTA that embodies the worst of current practices. Centralized decision-making and procurement has led to a mess at MTA Capital Construction, an agency that constantly builds the world’s most expensive subways, tunnels, headhouses, and terminals. This isn’t the model to emulate, but it seems to be the one Cuomo is pushing. It also may sideline Andy Byford and remove his Fast Forward plan from the purview of New York City Transit, but various government sources denied that possibility throughout the day.
Don’t get me wrong: As I mentioned above, I’m quite pleased to see the mayor, begrudgingly at best, accept congestion pricing as the way forward, and I’m glad to see the governor will put his weight behind enacting a plan to start to limit traffic in Manhattan. That plan, of course, has to come with promised transit upgrades first and street redesigns to encourage higher volume and better quality usage.
Yet, for all of its words and promises, the plan seems to shuffle the deck chairs to give Cuomo control and more deniability. David Meyer, over at Streetsblog, picked up this theme in a post I’d urged you to read. I’ll quote:
The whole package represents a major power grab for Cuomo, whose eight-plus years as steward of the country’s largest transit system led to the greatest crisis it’s ever faced. Starved for money and facing criticism from all sides, the MTA has instituted a hiring freeze and is contemplating layoffs when it should be beefing up its operation to turn the system around. “Cuomo has blotted out all other political actors here,” said one longtime MTA observer. “These geniuses that he wants to bring in from Columbia, what do they think about hiring freezes and across-the-board cuts as a method for reinvigorating an organization?”
The observer noted that two previous attempts at inter-MTA consolidation have been abject failures. The first, MTA Capital Construction, created in the mid-2000s to improve the agency’s execution of mega-projects, is best known for its over-budget and delayed work on East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway. The second, the Business Service Center, is notoriously loathed within the agency for its incompetence and unresponsiveness. “If you like the BSC, you’ll love this. And I don’t know anybody who loves the BSC,” the observer said. “This is an arson to cover up a robbery.”
Every time Cuomo and de Blasio wade into the transit space, I hold my breath and hope for the best. These are not leaders who are strong on transit, and the city is, for better or worse at a turning point. Andy Byford’s plans to speed up the subways are starting to work, despite political winds blowing against him, but the turnaround could be modest if the governor and the mayor pull the rug out from underneath everyone. The two seem to want international experts to stick around to oversee a planned subway renaissance, and congestion pricing ought to help the beleaguered bus system in particular. But is this a good plan, endorsed by those who are experts in transit governance and management? It this the right plan for right now? I’m not yet convinced it is, but as always, the devil will be in the details which will come fast and furious as the June reorganization deadline looms.