Few people in the New York City transit space really trust Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Sure, he delivered on his promise to shepherd congestion pricing through the legislature, but his top-down approach on setting priorities and moving mountains only for his whims leaves much to be desired. He orders those he controls to do his bidding, and he doesn’t like to listen to other ideas from people who may know better. Hence, a fixation on ultra wideband communications technology, last-minute meddling on the L train plans and a backwards Laguardia AirTrain, among many other problems.
Cuomo’s problem seems to stem from one of ego and arrogance. When faced with the reality that he is in charge of something — in the MTA’s case, a position he was dragged to kicking and screaming — Cuomo wants all the credit and none of the blame. The ideas on grand infrastructure are his so he can celebrate the ribbon-cutting. After doing it with the Second Ave. Subway, he is following the same path by ordering a review of East Side Access years after it would have made a difference. As governor, that’s his prerogative, but it leads to a more-than-healthy skepticism from those in the field.
What happens though when Cuomo finds someone competent and qualified to work under him and that person starts getting some of the credit? As we’ve seen, things can get ugly fast, and that’s what may be occurring as New York’s two Andys — Cuomo and Byford — try to co-exist uneasily in the transit space.
It’s not too hard to pinpoint when the relationship went south. After Cuomo stepped in with his L train plan, Byford embraced the idea of a less shutdown-y shutdown but, as the head of New York City Transit, wanted to ensure full transparent accountability. Byford promised an independent assessment of Cuomo’s new scope of work that would be completed before the full work started. Well, the full work started this weekend, and the only result of Byford’s words were a power play by the Governor who removed the L train work from NYC Transit’s scope and placed it under the purview of Janno Lieber and MTA’s capital construction division. The independent assessment never happened; the timeline and full scope of work remains murky; and the construction kicked off in earnest on Friday night. Talk about being sidelined.
Since then, it’s been a rocky few months. Cuomo has pushed forward on the ultra wideband project while Byford has tried to hold the line on a traditional wired approach to communications-based train control (my views on the project in a recent City & State roundtable), and Cuomo and Byford had something of a stand-off when Cuomo insulted MTA workers during public comments at a lobbyist breakfast earlier this year. Byford was defending his staff and people while Cuomo was trying to score political points.
It was hardly a surprise then to see a few articles appear in the New York press regarding the Byford-Cuomo relationship. The first was an Emma Fitzsimmons special in The Times which indicated that colleagues feared Byford may quit. She wrote:
Andy Byford, the transit executive who was hired to rescue New York City’s floundering subway, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have increasingly clashed over management of the system, and several of Mr. Byford’s colleagues said they feared he might quit. The two men did not speak between January and April, even as Mr. Byford was seeking to move forward on a sweeping $40 billion plan to overhaul the subway in the next decade.
If Mr. Byford, who was hired in November 2017, were to step down, it would be a major blow to efforts to improve the system, which has been plagued by antiquated equipment, cost overruns and rising complaints from riders about chronic mismanagement…Mr. Byford’s colleagues said he was troubled that he did not have the support that he believes he needs from Mr. Cuomo to carry out ambitious plans for the system. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, in turn has felt that Mr. Byford has been reluctant to embrace new technology and needed to understand the governor’s role as the elected official most responsible for the performance of the subways.
Nolan Hicks of The Post ran a companion piece that seemed to downplay a Byford departure but highlighted his frustrations with Cuomo. Let Andy Byford do his job, Hicks’ sources were saying to the governor. “I think he really wants to be left to the do the job he was hired to do. He knows what needs to be done here, he’s done it in three other world cities and he’s got a plan to get these things done,” MTA board member Andrew Albert said.
“Let the man do his job” seems to be the message everyone wants to send to Gov. Cuomo, and it is the right one to send. Byford is here to do a job, and it would benefit Cuomo to let him. That would of course require Cuomo to tamp down on some of his baser instincts. It’s grating on our governor that Byford got The New Yorker treatment and a 60 Minutes puff piece last year, and it goes against his political instincts to share credit. “I feel that every sentence that praises Andy Byford shortens his life-span with Governor Cuomo,” one of The Post’s MTA’s sources said. “Every time, I hear a compliment for Andy Byford, I see another knife in his back.”
But in this case, it behooves Cuomo to put this behind him and share credit. The governor will be viewed as the politician who brought in the right people to fix the MTA’s mess, and Byford can be given enough free rein to do his job and do it successfully with the support of the powerful governor. It ought to be a win-win situation if Cuomo can help himself.
Whether Cuomo can help himself is a different story. In the wake of the reporting on Byford, Cuomo took to Alan Chartock’s radio show to defend himself, and he defending his lack of communication with Byford on the air. “There’s a chairman who runs the authority. In this case it’s Pat Foye, and I deal with the chairman.” he said. “It’s very rare for me to deal with a division head directly.” Shortly after the radio appearance, MTA sources told me Cuomo had in fact been on the phone with the heads of the MTA’s Division of Operations Planning to discuss signal timers and the efforts to speed up trains. So his claim that he doesn’t talk to division heads seems more like a flimsy attempt to defend the silent treatment he’s given Byford than anything based in the reality of how he governs.
Ultimately, though, I believe the stories had their intended effect: Byford said to both The Post and The Times that he doesn’t plan to go anywhere, and this weekend, he was front and center helping customers navigate around the L train work. “I love New York, I love this job, I believe in this system, I believe in this agency, and I’m here for the very long haul. The governor and I are partners in this fight and I want to stay in this job until it is done,” Byford said.
Meanwhile, if Cuomo listened, he heard an outpouring of support for his NYC Transit chief who he tabbed to fix the subway’s problems. Cutting bait now to install another “yes man” who refuses to challenge the governor when appropriate would undermine the progress Byford has made, and I have a feeling that message may just sink in. Instead, Cuomo will have to do what the rest of us learned to do in kindergarten: share. He can share that credit, and the city and MTA will be better off for it.