During a press conference earlier this week, Andrew Cuomo let loose a few of his thoughts on the MTA. “The MTA is responsible for the MTA. That’s why they call it the MTA,” he said, before adding, incredibly, “I can’t order the MTA” to act. Obviously, as we’ve seen with the ongoing emergency order, the opening of the Second Ave. Subway, the decision to halt subway service in light of a forecast of snow, the color of the tiles in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Subway Action Plan and numerous other examples, this simply isn’t true, and Governor Cuomo, who makes key decisions regarding the hiring (and firing) of top executives is firmly in control of the MTA politically and practically. As I’ve written extensively lately, the MTA Board is a largely powerless but convenient political foil for Cuomo to hide behind when he doesn’t wish to take full responsibility for his own MTA.
To that end, it’s amusing to me when Cuomo goes through the political theater of sending a letter to the MTA Board suggesting or urging they do something, as he did this week with regards to the missing-in-action 2020-2024 Capital Plan. To recap: The capital plan is an exercise in construction through the MTA goes every five years. It usually involves a very public process with the release of a 20-year needs document followed by a draft of the five-year plan, some public comments and a re-submission of the plan for a vote, followed by a political fight over funding. This year, the funding arrived early in the form of congestion pricing, but the plan hasn’t been released to the public. I’ve been told that’s due to internal wrangling over dollars and meddling by the Governor himself. The MTA Board is expected to vote on a plan no one in New York has seen in twelve days, and that’s no way to run a railroad.
So back to Cuomo’s letter. You can read this missive right here. In it, he reminds the MTA that passing the capital plan is a legislative mandate and then outlines his priorities “before it is prepared and presented.” It seems a little late in the game to outline priorities for a document that’s supposed to be approved on September 25, but I digress. The priorities though are all over the place:
- The progress on making stations accessible for people with disabilities has not been acceptable. It is a legal and moral mandate that the MTA accelerate the number of stations made accessible and the timeframe in which accessibility is achieved.
- “Quality of Life” issues in the subway have deteriorated. The number of homeless, dangerously mentally ill, fare evaders, aggressive “pan handlers” and worker attacks has skyrocketed. Station redesign securing access to the tracks and worker safety is essential. Riders must be provided a safe environment and additional MTA police with proper equipment, training and facilities is essential.
- State of the art signal systems must be installed to speed up the trains and long-delayed construction projects such as East Side Access, Grand Central improvements, the Moynihan Farley Station, Long Island Rail Road improvements and Second Avenue Subway must be prioritized.
- The New York City outer boroughs and Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad must receive an equitable distribution of resources.
- New buses should be hybrid or electric and distributed throughout the City, and you must work with New York City to find ways to improve speed and service. New train cars must be procured without the multi-year delays in past contracts.
The quality-of-life issues are a red herring; they’re not part of the capital plan and solving them is a task largely outside the scope of the MTA’s authority. If Cuomo wants to combat homelessness, for instance, he should support aggressive affordable housing policies. The same can be said about providing safe and effective treatment for those suffering from mental illness. Plus, the MTA is already trying to combat these quality-of-life issues as they can (either by hiring more cops or expanding outreach services).
The “equitable” distribution of resources, similarly, is a bit of false priority as well. Some analysis has long suggested that Long Island the the Metro-North territories have gotten more than their fair share of capital dollars over the years, and either way, these areas never suffer for lack of representation in the five-year capital plan. As I’ve noted in the past as well, Cuomo’s renewed interest in East Side Access as it finally hits the home stretch is transparently political in nature. He wants a ribbon-cutting and some credit for a project that’s been an ongoing mess every single day of his tenure as governor.
The interesting parts are the rest: the accessibility imperative and the signal system. These are the underpinnings of Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, and a few senior MTA sources have told me that the Fast Forward priorities will be in the capital plan whether named as Fast Forward or not. The remaining fights seem to be over the dollar figures attached to each priority. Does this represent a thaw in the icy relationship between Byford and the governor? It’s hard to say, but it does seem to suggest the Governor has realized that he’ll gain more accolades by adopting the good work Byford and his team are already pushing than he would by forcing out or minimizing the passionate and competent team Byford has assembled. That’s good for New York. That’s good for Andrew Cuomo. And that’s good for the subway system.
Now, all that’s left is for the public to see this plan before the MTA Board holds its symbolic vote. We have twelve days and counting.