Archive for MTA Politics

The city and state have spent months sparring over the subway action plan. With the money in place, can the MTA deliver?

I haven’t burned too many pixels writing about the politics behind the funding for the subway action plan because it is frankly an embarrassing distraction from the real issues at hand. The $1 billion will not, as Aaron Gordon recently wrote for The Village Voice, actually fix the subway problems, and the Mayor and Governor have both come across as childish and petty leaders who can’t set aside superficial differences to attack a problem affecting both of their constituencies. The MTA needs real reform and leadership, not money for arrows that urge people to move into the middle of a subway car.

Ultimately, the MTA is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility. The state controls MTA appointees and the makeup of the MTA Board, and that message has started to sink in more and more these days. Still, after months of politicking and disputes over dollars that stretched back to last summer, Bill de Blasio agreed to add nearly half a billion dollars to the subway action plan. With a new City Council more sympathetic to Cuomo and keen to move beyond this debate, the mayor granted Cuomo his wish, and the full plan will be funded. We’ll see how quickly this improves commutes; so far, the subway action plan hasn’t resulted in any noticeable improvements in subway reliability.

The move to fund the plan came in late March, and in late April, after alarming headlines on the bottomless money pit that is the East Side Access, the mayor and new City Council speaker Corey Johnson realized they had just handed a massive check to an unaccountable organization. And so the two dashed off a letter to the MTA asking for accountability. Here’s their reasoning:

As elected leaders of the City of New York who are responsible for its fiscal health, we must ensure that precious taxpayer dollars are not diverted away from the subway crisis to other MTA priorities. The City pressed aggressively for a “Lock Box” as a condition of providing $418 million towards the SAP. Now that the Lock Box has been made explicit in State law, it must be put into practice by the MTA.

It is important that the MTA provide detailed information about each of the plan elements, including the scope of work being performed, how success is defined, and how progress is measured. Unfortunately, although the MTA began implementing the SAP last July, it has provided scant details to the public on its progress and the MTA’s own “major incidents” metric shows little improvement in service. City taxpayers deserve to know that they are getting a good return on their investment. The public is skeptical when it comes to work performed by the MTA, especially given recent public reports about prolonged delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns on MTA projects. For example, the East Side Access Project, which started with a budget of $4.3 billion and a completion date in 2009, will now require an additional billion dollars with a completion date in 2022 and an estimated price tag of $11 billion. The Enhanced Station Initiative, which started with a budget of $936 million to renovate 33 subway stations, will now require $846 million to renovate only 20 stations.

It is incumbent upon the MTA to prove that it can be an effective steward of this short-term emergency plan and that the revenues with which it has been entrusted are prudently invested to deliver results. To that end, we must have certainty that the Lock Box will be implemented and that the City’s contribution will actually be spent on projects that will improve subway service.

On its surface, the letter is fairly ordinary. It asks for monthly status reports on accountability and service improvement and a keen attention on signal upgrades. But it has details that shows the author of the letter has been paying attention. In parts, the city officials ask the MTA to restore all service that has been cut over the years and urge the agency to reassess signal timers, another recent headline. “While the safety of the system needs to remain paramount,” the letter says, “it has become clear that the balance between safety and service when it comes to the signal timers installed since the 1990s needs to be reevaluated. In light of that fact that in most parts of the system construction of new lines is unrealistic in the near term, we must do all we can to maximize the capacity of the system we have.”

I’m somewhat skeptical this letter will do much to move the needle. After all, the city has already ponied up the money, and the letter doesn’t attach actionable conditions to the dollars. The city similarly dropped the ball a few years when the mayor walked into Cuomo’s trap on capital plan funding and failed to ensure its contributions would go toward identifiable city improvements. But the MTA has expressed a willingness to adhere to the city’s requests. Joe Lhota, last week, in fact said the MTA embraced the call for transparency but didn’t respond to each of de Blasio and Johnson’s requests.

We’ll see what comes of it, but I think the closing paragraph of the letter hit the mark: “Failure is not an option and we firmly believe that a more transparent process can lead to better, more effective implementation. We are eager for everyone to put politics aside and support the important work of improving the commutes of millions of New Yorkers. Beyond the SAP, fixing the subway will require fundamentally changing the way the authority does business, including identifying non-City-tax-levy dollars to assist with funding improvements.”

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One of the strange twists and turns of the ongoing saga over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility for the current collapse of NYC’s subway system involved a breakfast and some finger pointing at Con Edison this past summer. While I was on vacation (and subsequently recovering from a broken bone I sustained while on that vacation), this story of odd finger-pointing unfolded to a certain denouement that had Con Edison paying for some costs regarding power delivery to the MTA. It seemed strange at the time and raised eyebrows within the New York political landscape, and after a report this weekend in The Daily News, it seems that the MTA may have fudged some numbers to allow the governor to blame, and get money from, Con Edison for unrelated (or at best, quasi-related) subway performance issues.

The story goes a little something like: In July, Cuomo delivered remarks at a breakfast hosted by the Association for a Better New York in which he laid the blame for MTA performance issues on the shoulders of Con Ed. “Over the last 12 months, 32,000 delays because of power related issues,” he said of the subways, “and they can either be a power surge or power shortage, but 32,000 delays. The MTA doesn’t control the power, Con Edison does. Con Edison has a duty to safely, prudently and effectively provide electricity that powers the subway system. Con Ed is a regulated utility under the state’s Public Service Commission. April 21 after the last outage I ordered an investigation of the Con Ed infrastructure after a particularly devastating failure. The investigation goes on but PSC has already found that Con Ed must make immediate and significant improvements in this system because the reliability depends on it.”

In mid-November, Politico New York reported that Con Ed would be taking on the costs of electrical repair work required by the MTA. Marie French and Dana Rubinstein termed the whole thing an “unusual financial arrangement” that would eventually shift costs to Con Ed’s NYC and Westchester customers anyway, and no one could put a finger on why this arrangement was necessary or if it even made sense. Now it seems it does not make sense, at least not without some loose accounting. Dan Rivoli broke the news this weekend:

Internal emails obtained by the Daily News show an MTA honcho pushing staff to come up with a higher number of subway delays blamed on power issues, before Gov. Cuomo made a public show of citing problems with Con Edison as the single biggest source of disruption for riders. As the Summer of Hell was in full swing, NYC Transit brass found a creative way to make power-tied delays appear more common. They expanded the types of incidents that could be defined as power-related, including circuit failures, and emergencies — like a person on the track — where the power is intentionally cut off.

The broader definition detailed in emails from July 25 to Aug. 9 allowed the MTA to quadruple the tally of power-related delays, to 32,000 from 8,000…The real number of power delays, according to senior subways performance analyst Kyle Kirschling, was about 8,000. NYC Transit chief of staff Naomi Renek wrote an email to staff members at 6:03 a.m. on July 25, saying that she was “looking for a higher delay number for power.”

Kirschling initially appeared stumped. “I can’t think of a way to make the ConEd/External power figures higher,” he replied to Renek, NYC Transit Executive Vice President Tim Mulligan and other transit staffers. Kirschling, in a subsequent email, said Con Ed was at fault for just 3,422 of those delays.

So how did Con Ed’s responsibility increase ten-fold? As Rivoli details in his reporting, the MTA simply changed the definition of a power problem to those well beyond the scope of power delivery issues under Con Edison’s purview to bring the number up from 3400 to 32,000. He write of one particularly egregious exchange:

Cuomo’s deputy press secretary Maxwell Morgan checked in with Renek, emailing her and another governor’s aide, Maria Michalos. “Naomi, do we have the total real number of power-related delays over last 12 months? Higher than the 8k?”

Renek responded with an explanation. “The 8k is the real number of power-only incidents,” she wrote. “However, incidents coded as signal can also be power-related. We can safely say that track circuit incidents are power-related, although power is not the root cause.”

Soon, she and Morgan were hashing out how to spin the numbers to the public. “How would you massage that language?” Morgan wrote. “Could we say ‘power-related issues caused more than 32,000 delays?’ ” Renek replied that it was better to couch the numbers by saying power “caused or contributed to” the delays.

Hilariously enough, in initial comments to Rivoli, the governor’s team claimed Cuomo was only the messenger, and the MTA has vehemently defended its calculations, even claiming Con Edison is responsible in situations in which power is intentionally cut to the tracks by the agency to respond to a problem. “Are you gonna tell me power cut from the tracks is not a power-related problem?” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said to Rivoli. (Don’t sleep either on Lhota, the MTA head, dismissing Kirschling, a six-year MTA vet, as a “bean-counter” in the Daily News piece. This has not gone over well with the rank-and-file at 2 Broadway as I’ve heard it.)

Under question later on Sunday, Cuomo repeatedly tried to shift blame to the MTA (which, for the record, he controls). “The MTA produced the numbers. The MTA says they’re accurate. I believe the MTA…I didn’t read the Daily News story. I was told about it briefly. I don’t know what the difference between power issues and power-related issues really are. You should talk to the MTA about that.”

So where does this leave everything? This is another story indicative of Cuomo’s attempts at blaming everyone else other than himself and his stewardship of the MTA for the MTA’s problems. It’s a tale of the governor’s people using downward pressure to force MTA employees to rewrite rules to make the governor look better while identifying a scapegoat dubiously responsible at best. It’s a story that demands an official investigation and again showcases how public trust in the MTA’s self-reported numbers should be essentially non-existent now. “It raises issues about accountability and it raises questions as to whether this is happening in other areas of subway performance,” John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said to The Times on Sunday. “How far does this go?” How far, indeed.

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The world’s most expensive subway construction project opened a year ago. Can the MTA take the steps needed for cost reform? (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Why do New York rail construction projects cost so much? In essence, with a $5-$6 billion tag attached to Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway on the horizon (let alone the recent politicking over the fate of the Gateway Tunnel), this is the big question plaguing New York. With limited dollars not going nearly as far as they do the world over, the MTA’s cost problems are a significant barrier to New York City transit expansion.

For years, those watching the MTA have rung the alarm on the agency’s high construction costs. I’ve written about cost concerns and the ever-increasing budgets for big-ticket MTA capital projects for years, and I’m not alone. Alon Levy has, since this post in 2011, charted the absurd costs of U.S. rail construction in detailed comparisons with international peers, and Stephen Smith, via the @MarketUrbanism twitter feed, has beaten the cost drum. When challenged, MTA officials have acknowledged that construction costs, but no one has tackled the twin issues of cost transparency and cost control. No one, that is, until last week, when The Times ran a massive front-page story charting all the reasons why NYC transit construction are so high.

As the finale in the series that started with an in-depth look at our unfolding transit crisis, Brian Rosenthal, with help from Doris Burke and Alain Delaquérière, has done what the MTA or the New York State Comptroller should have done years ago: They scrutinized MTA spending and took a deep dive into the agency’s contracting practices, staffing policies and lack of productivity in a way that lays bare just how bad the MTA is at managing big-ticket construction projects or getting a good return on its dollar. The article is, essentially, the story of how institutionalized corruption has become the norm in New York City. I highly urge you to read the entire piece and peruse through my instant reaction Twitter thread from Friday. I’ll excerpt a bit here.

First, the lede in which no one knows what 200 people are doing as part of the East Side Access project, a $12.5 billion project that costs, as The Times notes, seven times more than similar work elsewhere:

An accountant discovered the discrepancy while reviewing the budget for new train platforms under Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there.

“Nobody knew what those people were doing, if they were doing anything,” said Michael Horodniceanu, who was then the head of construction at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs transit in New York. The workers were laid off, Mr. Horodniceanu said, but no one figured out how long they had been employed. “All we knew is they were each being paid about $1,000 every day.”

At the outset, the article blames everyone and dives in from there. I haven’t seen a more succinct summary of the MTA’s problems than this excerpt:

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show.
Construction companies, which have given millions of dollars in campaign donations in recent years, have increased their projected costs by up to 50 percent when bidding for work from the M.T.A., contractors say. Consulting firms, which have hired away scores of M.T.A. employees, have persuaded the authority to spend an unusual amount on design and management, statistics indicate.

Public officials, mired in bureaucracy, have not acted to curb the costs. The M.T.A. has not adopted best practices nor worked to increase competition in contracting, and it almost never punishes vendors for spending too much or taking too long, according to inspector general reports.

At the heart of the issue is the obscure way that construction costs are set in New York. Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

Meanwhile, when faced with the conclusions of The Times’ reporting, the MTA pointed to its favorite bogeyman — New York exceptionalism. Projects cost a lot in New York because things are expensive. MTA Chairman Joe Lhota pointed at ” aging utilities, expensive land, high density, strict regulations and large ridership requiring big stations.” In the reporters’ fact-based world, none of this would fly:

But the contractors said the other issues cited by the M.T.A. were challenges that all transit systems face. Density is the norm in cities where subway projects occur. Regulations are similar everywhere. All projects use the same equipment at the same prices. Land and other types of construction do not cost dramatically more in New York. Insurance costs more but is only a fraction of the budget. The M.T.A.’s stations have not been bigger (nor deeper) than is typical. “Those sound like cop-outs,” said Rob Muley, an executive at the John Holland engineering firm who has worked in Hong Kong and Singapore and visited the East Side Access project, after hearing Mr. Lhota’s reasons.

In Paris, which has famously powerful unions, the review found the lower costs were the result of efficient staffing, fierce vendor competition and scant use of consultants. In some ways, M.T.A. projects have been easier than work elsewhere. East Side Access uses an existing tunnel for nearly half its route. The hard rock under the city also is easy to blast through, and workers do not encounter ancient sites that need to be protected. “They’re claiming the age of the city is to blame?” asked Andy Mitchell, the former head of Crossrail, a project to build 13 miles of subway under the center of London, a city built 2,000 years ago. “Really?”

So what makes MTA projects cost so much? One answer is overstaffing. As I have detailed before, the MTA staffs upwards of 25 people on TBM projects while most other nations use around 10 for similar work. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

The documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere. There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. An extra person is required to be present for all concrete pumping, steam fitting, sheet metal work and other tasks.

In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on the Second Avenue subway and many similar projects around the world. That ratio does not include people who get lost in the sea of workers and get paid even though they have no apparent responsibility, as happened on East Side Access.

And then of course there is good old fashioned featherbedding. As Rosenthal details, the Sandhogs’ union gets a free perk just because the MTA uses TBMs, a technology that has been employed to dig subways for the better part of 50 or 60 years. As he writes, “One part of Local 147’s deal entitles the union to $450,000 for each tunnel-boring machine used. That is to make up for job losses from ‘technological advancement,’ even though the equipment has been standard for decades.”

Besides the obvious institutionalized corruption and back-patting, Rosenthal details how the MTA’s own practices lead to significantly higher costs. This is a key part:

Mr. Lhota, the M.T.A. chairman, agreed that leaving negotiations to unions and vendors may be problematic. “You’re right; in many ways, there’s this level of connection between the two,” he said. But the chairman said he did not know what could be done about it. Hiring nonunion labor is legal but not politically realistic for the M.T.A. The transit authority could get unions to agree to project-specific labor deals, but it has not.

The profit percentage taken by vendors also is itself a factor in the M.T.A.’s high costs. In other parts of the world, companies bidding on transit projects typically add 10 percent to their estimated costs to account for profit, overhead and change orders, contractors in five continents said. Final profit is usually less than 5 percent of the total project cost, which is sufficient given the size of the projects, the contractors said.

Things are much different in New York. In a series of interviews, dozens of M.T.A. contractors described how vendors routinely increase their estimated costs when bidding for work. First, the contractors said, the vendors add between 15 and 25 percent as an “M.T.A. Factor” because of how hard it can be to work within the bureaucracy of the transit authority. Then they add 10 percent as a contingency for possible changes. And then they add another 10-12 percent on top of all that for profit and overhead.

The MTA takes a laissez-faire relationship to its contractors’ agreements with labor unions and then sits back as the contractors build in extra costs (and profit margins) to their agreements. No wonder the contractors want the MTA capital plan to be as expensive as possible as high amounts of available dollars lead them to realize more profits. And the examples are endless. Rosenthal notes that other countries’ bidding processes lead to as many as eight bids on complex construction work whereas the MTA sees two that often come in far higher than estimated. MTA Board members meanwile, are keen to wash thier hands of graft:

More than a dozen M.T.A. workers were fined for accepting gifts from contractors during that time, records show. One was Anil Parikh, the director of the Second Avenue subway project. He got a $2,500 ticket to a gala, a round of golf and dinner from a contractor in 2002. Years later, shortly after the line opened, he went to work for the contractor’s parent company, AECOM. Mr. Parikh and AECOM declined to comment.

A Times analysis of the 25 M.T.A. agency presidents who have left over the past two decades found that at least 18 of them became consultants or went to work for authority contractors, including many who have worked on expansion projects. “Is it rigged? Yes,” said Charles G. Moerdler, who has served on the M.T.A. board since 2010. “I don’t think it’s corrupt. But I think people like doing business with people they know, and so a few companies get all the work, and they can charge whatever they want.”

Firms that donate to politicians and operate a revolving door between their offices and the public sector are the only ones to bid on complex projects and they do so at inflated costs. It’s graft, and whether it’s legal is a big open question mark in my mind. But don’t sleep on MTA ineptitude either; the agency after all hired three “operational readiness” consultants for East Side Access ten years before construction work is set to wrap on the project. The waste and the rot run deep.

As you read The Times piece, you may be wondering what happens next. After all, MTA officials have been on the record acknowledging these problems for years, but they never act. Horodniceanu talked about overstaffing on TBM projects years ago, and he never acted. A faction on the MTA Board recently started raising concerns over contracting dollars, but the full board still voted to approve all projects. And the $6 billion Second Ave. Subway phase looms large.

As I see it, two people could fix this mess. One is Andrew Cuomo. He could exert the leverage he has over the MTA and the labor unions to get both sides to come to the table on a solution. Unfortunately, he has shown no willingness to challenge union costs, and he has used the MTA for political show only. The other person is New York State AG Eric Schneiderman who could use his office’s legal powers to investigate these contracts and, if legally feasible, start prosecuting all of these players for fraud. That would be a big shock to the New York state construction graft industry but is a reach legally with standards for proving this type of corruption very high these days.

Are we stuck then? Is the only outcome a well-deserved Pulitzer nomination for Rosenthal and The Times and vindication for Stephen Smith, Alon Levy, and the thousands of transit nerds who have listened to them over the years? I hope something more comes out of this series of articles. The future of reasonably priced transit projects in NYC depends on it. But even with everything out in the open, corruption has a way of persevering absent a major shock to the system that enabled it in the first place.

Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Being the next head of New York City Transit may sound like a thankless, no-win situation. Between a public rightly demanding something resembling reliable and trustworthy transit service and a boss in Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanding whatever half-developed idea pops into his head on any given morning, the constituencies for this presidency are fickle and, in the case of commuters facing another morning of subway meltdowns, angry. But that doesn’t stop many people from taking on the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of running and fixing the subways, and last week, the MTA announced that Andy Byford, from London by way of Sydney and Toronto, will assume the role of New York City Transit President by the end of the year.

Byford replaces Ronnie Hakim atop Transit. When Joe Lhota took over the MTA, Hakim moved into the position of MTA Managing Director, splitting responsibilities with MTA President Patrick Foye and MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber. “We are thrilled that Andy is going to lead NYC Transit during this time of great change,” Lhota said in a statement last week. “Our transit system is the backbone of the world’s greatest city and having someone of Andy’s caliber to lead it will help immensely, particularly when it comes to implementing the Subway Action Plan that we launched this summer. In order to truly stabilize, modernize and improve our transit system, we needed a leader who has done this work at world-class systems and Andy’s successes in Toronto are evidence that he is up to this critically important task.”

The British native started out working for the London Underground in the late 1980s before working in leadership for both South Eastern Trains and London’s Southern Railway. He spent a few years in Australia with RailCorp before moving to Toronto where he has led the Toronto Transit Commission since 2012. APTA recently named the TTC, under Byford, as its Outstanding Transit System of the Year, but not all has been wine and roses for Byford in Toronto. Some Torontonians have grown weary of near-annual fare hikes, and Toronto transit voice Steve Munro told The Times that Byford has grown “somewhat less receptive to criticism” over the years.

Still, Byford brings an international perspective to an agency that has been mired in New York Exceptionalism for years. The MTA has been seemingly shy or afraid about implementing best practices not invented here for reasons that have been tough to explain. If Byford can bring his learnings from London, Australia and Toronto to New York City, perhaps Transit can fight its way out of this crisis with an approach more robust than Lhota’s pet Subway Action Plan.

But Byford’s approach in Toronto and the legacy he leaves behind is almost besides the point as the 800 pound gorilla in New York’s room looms large. That gorilla is of course Andrew Cuomo and the influence he exerts over, well, everything. Byford brings a unique perspective to the insular MTA, but the question is whether Cuomo will listen. So far, he hasn’t as Byford participated in the laughably sterile MTA Reinvention Commission a few years ago and on a panel this past summer as part of the MTA genius campaign. Both led to recommendations that were routinely ignored in Albany.

In The Times last week, Marc Santora explored the question of politics and the ways in which Byford should or shouldn’t play politics. (It’s the companion piece, in a way, to Jim Dwyer’s full-on assault on the poor politics of transportation in New York right now.) Santora’s thesis is that Byford should avoid political fights, specifically the feud between Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. But Byford shouldn’t be afraid of taking positions, and I worry already that he’s going to thread too fine a needle. Take a look at this excerpt from Santora’s piece (the emphasis is mine) :

Mr. Cuomo supports a congestion pricing plan that would charge drivers entering the most crowded parts of Manhattan and is expected to offer a detailed proposal early next year. Mr. de Blasio has been steadfast in his opposition to congestion pricing, saying it would burden low-income New Yorkers, and has instead pushed a plan to raise taxes on wealthy residents.

Mr. Byford said he was “agnostic” about how the money is raised, adding that his task was to show that he could win political support by building a management team capable of running the subway. Transit advocates said he must also win over riders by quickly showing concrete gains, especially by improving on-time performance.

I am willing to give Byford a pass because he’s the new guy, but being agnostic as to matters of transit, transportation equity and funding is a recipe for being a Cuomo pawn. We need a New York City Transit president who is willing to be a champion for New York City transit with a lower case t. He should fight for smart policies and intelligent funding that can help stabilize and modernize our old system. That will involve challenging Cuomo and taking sides that aren’t always popular in Albany. Will that play with the Governor? Will that help push Transit toward a future where delays and poor service aren’t the norms? It’s a tall task, and for now, it’s Byford’s.

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I’m writing this from an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean or perhaps Newfoundland by now. As those of you who follow me on Instagram know, I’ve spent the last week and a half in London on vacation taking in the sights of a changing city I haven’t seen since 2006 and enjoying a city with a functional transit network. Though the locals in London may complain about crowded rush hour trains and intermittent signal issues that make service less than reliable, outsiders can find a transit paradise.

Except for a weekend trip on the Overground, I never had to wait more than a handful of minutes for a train, and rush hour service means the next train arrives before you can even walk half the length of the platform. The buses run regularly and reliably, and the system is growing quickly. It shows what a city committed to transit can do.

On Saturday afternoon, while sitting in a brewery in a railway arch underneath the elevated Overground, I read Brian Rosenthal, Emma Fitzsimmons and Michael LaForgia’s stunning overview of a transit system in crisis. In what is the first in a series, three reporters from The Times held back no punches in blaming everyone, mayors and governors and labor leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, for the decline of the New York City subway system. As I sat in a revenue-generating productive reuse of potential dead space underneath transit, I absorbed this indictment via newspaper.

You can check out my overview on Twitter. I wrote up a series of threaded tweets with excerpts from the article, but let’s dive in. It’s well worth the time you may spend reading the entire piece if you haven’t already, but let’s discuss highlights. All excerpts below are from the piece itself.

How bad is it? Bad.

Signal problems and car equipment failures occur twice as frequently as a decade ago, but hundreds of mechanic positions have been cut because there is not enough money to pay them — even though the average total compensation for subway managers has grown to nearly $300,000 a year.

Daily ridership has nearly doubled in the past two decades to 5.7 million, but New York is the only major city in the world with fewer miles of track than it had during World War II. Efforts to add new lines have been hampered by generous agreements with labor unions and private contractors that have inflated construction costs to five times the international average.

New York’s subway now has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world, according to data collected from the 20 biggest. Just 65 percent of weekday trains reach their destinations on time, the lowest rate since the transit crisis of the 1970s, when graffiti-covered cars regularly broke down.

And whose fault is it? Everyone’s.

None of this happened on its own. It was the result of a series of decisions by both Republican and Democratic politicians — governors from George E. Pataki to Mr. Cuomo and mayors from Rudolph W. Giuliani to Bill de Blasio. Each of them cut the subway’s budget or co-opted it for their own priorities. They stripped a combined $1.5 billion from the M.T.A. by repeatedly diverting tax revenues earmarked for the subways and also by demanding large payments for financial advice, I.T. help and other services that transit leaders say the authority could have done without. They pressured the M.T.A. to spend billions of dollars on opulent station makeovers and other projects that did nothing to boost service or reliability, while leaving the actual movement of trains to rely on a 1930s-era signal system with fraying, cloth-covered cables. They saddled the M.T.A. with debt and engineered a deal with creditors that brought in quick cash but locked the authority into paying $5 billion in interest that it otherwise never would have had to pay.

At a high level, the article discusses the turnover plaguing the MTA, but it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of brain drain at an agency that cannot retain young talent and buries progressive voices underneath layers of bureaucracy. It talks about bloated management and salaries for thousands of people that outpace what New York City’s mayor or New York State’s governor make each year. “It’s genuinely shocking how much of every dollar that goes to the M.T.A. is spent on expenses that have nothing to do with running the subway,” former EDC head Seth Pinsky said to The Times.

The story The Times tells begins at a local level with Mayor Giuliani:

After more than a decade of spending, about $50 billion in today’s dollars, reliability soared. Cars traveled 10 times farther before breaking down. Riders returned in droves. It was a golden era; New York and its subway seemed to be on the rise together. Then, records show, officials pulled back.

It started with New York City’s mayors. While the M.T.A., the sprawling organization that operates the New York subway and bus lines, two commuter railroads and several bridges, is run by the state, the subway is owned by the city. In addition to creating confusion, this dynamic sparks funding battles.

Historically, the city has funded about 10 percent of the M.T.A.’s total budget. Mr. Giuliani decided to change that in 1994, when he became the city’s first Republican mayor in two decades. Facing a budget shortfall and eager to show he could run the city without raising taxes, he announced he would cut the city’s contribution to the M.T.A.’s operating and capital budgets by $400 million.

After Giuliani instituted disastrous cuts, neither transit-loving Michael Bloomberg nor pseudo-progressive Bill de Blasio did anything to reverse this lack of support. In today’s dollars, the city gives 75 percent less cash to help MTA operations than it did in 1990, and despite owning the subways, the city and its leaders spend more time fighting with state officials than working to solve the crisis. As the city has boomed, transit investment has lagged far behind, and we feel the effects every day.

But it’s not just a city problem.

Lawmakers in Albany trimmed funding for subway maintenance throughout the 1990s, records show, even as the state budget grew from $45 billion to $80 billion. Then they kept funding mostly flat for years, despite the surge in ridership.

Under Mr. Pataki, the state eliminated subsidies for the M.T.A., opting to make the authority rely entirely on fares, tolls and revenue from taxes and fees earmarked for transit. It also ended state funding for capital work. The move rankled the state comptroller at the time, H. Carl McCall, who warned that taxes and fees were unstable.

Mr. Pataki also started a trend of redirecting revenues from taxes. In 1995, he pushed through a state income tax cut and helped pay for it by taking more than $200 million in tax revenues that had been set aside for transit. His three successors followed suit. At least $850 million has been diverted in the past two decades, records show.

Bear Stearns helped refinance the MTA’s debt and helped fund Pataki reelection efforts, and the MTA’s debt bomb looms large over everything. It seemed at one time that Eliot Spitzer may have been keen to reverse this trend, but he was ousted by his own scandals. And we all know what Andrew Cuomo has – or hasn’t – done with transit over his tenure in Albany.

Meanwhile, The Times details the myriad ways the city and state has hobbled the MTA. The pieces tells of a bond issuance fee that has cost the MTA $328 million over 15 years, and Sheldon Silver’s threats to withdraw funding if the MTA didn’t sink over $750 million to fund cost overruns for the largely superfluous transit hub at Fulton St. Cuomo lately has pushed for his enhanced station initiative, targeting stations the MTA didn’t feel required renovations and without needed dollars for ADA compliance efforts, a potential source of liability for the MTA.

The Times also takes on the TWU and exposes Cuomo’s stunning hypocrisy at the same time. The article notes that subway works average $170,000 in salary, overtime and benefits. Their raises over the past 10 years far outstrip other public sector unions, and their current salaries dwarf average salaries in other major American cities. Plus, New York trains are still operated by two workers, a oddity that makes us unique the world over.

Union rules also drive up costs, including by requiring two M.T.A. employees on every train — one to drive, and one to oversee boarding. Virtually every other subway in the world staffs trains with only one worker; if New York did that, it would save nearly $200 million a year, according to an internal M.T.A. analysis obtained by The Times. Several M.T.A. officials involved in negotiating recent contracts said that there was one reason they accepted the union’s terms: Mr. Cuomo.

The governor, who is closely aligned with the union and has received $165,000 in campaign contributions from the labor group, once dispatched a top aide to deliver a message, they said. Pay the union and worry about finding the money later, the aide said, according to two former M.T.A. officials who were in the room.

Mr. Cuomo’s office said in a statement that the M.T.A. handled its own labor negotiations and that campaign contributions had not influenced any of his actions.

Cuomo, of course, was singing a different tune two years ago when he trumpeted his own involvement in TWU negotiations.

Meanwhile, no one wants to take responsibility for this mess. We have no champion to save the system, and those in charge are avoiding culpability. The MTA has cooked its books to show better performance than it has delivered, and Joe Lhota, brought in recently to oversee the MTA, seemed to avoid taking ownership of the problem.

Mr. Lhota said that quirks existed in all data and that M.T.A. officials handled the classification consistently. He rejected any suggestion that officials were manipulating numbers to make themselves look better or blame customers for problems. “The delays are solely the responsibility of the New York City Transit Authority,” he said, referring to the agency that runs the subway.

I’m not sure where we go from here but down. No one is stepping up to bring in direct funding for maintenance or a congestion pricing scheme that will rescue our streets and fund transit investments. We’re not getting an Overground or a Crossrail to save the city, and we can barely build capital projects, let alone at cost or on time. The newly reelected mayor doesn’t care, and the governor cares only to the extent he can trumpet his poorly-thought-out support for infrastructure into some kind of platform for his doomed 2020 White House run. For me, coming home from London, New York City’s transit looks bad, and it’s only going to get worse.

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Can Joe Lhota's action plan save the NYC subway from collapse? And how will the city and state work out their arguments over funding?

Can Joe Lhota’s action plan save the NYC subway from collapse? And how will the city and state work out their arguments over funding?

Over the past few weeks, months and even years, as the mayor and governor have engaged in a recent public war over responsibility for subway financing, with Gov. Cuomo using transit lapdogs to attempt to explain, incredibly, that funding the subway is a city rather than a state responsibility, a counter-narrative has emerged in some wonkier corners, and it’s a counter-narrative I have long embraced. The MTA does not actually need more money or more funding. It has an annual operations budget of over $15 billion and a five-year capital plan of nearly $30 billion. But as has been shown time and again, most notably by Alon Levy, the MTA’s spending is exponentially greater than every other subway system’s in the world. Before politicians send even more millions and billions into the black hole of spending that is the MTA, aggressively cost reform should be front and center on the table.

But we are instead left with a political game of hot potato, and instead of cost reform, we have an escalating war over money with the city and state each trying to outmaneuver each other in a ploy to get more money for subways. The latest battle in this war started while I was on vacation in Mexico two weeks ago when MTA Chairman Joe Lhota introduced the MTA action plan, a two-pronged approach with a $836 million Phase 1 that will serve as a short-term band aid and a Phase 2 that could cost at least $8 billion and that is designed to address the heart of the subway’s problems: a system-wide replacement of the subway’s signal system.

The Subway Action Plan was put together by the usual gang of NYC transit “experts” – your Wyldes, Doctoroffs, Samuelsens, Kalikos, Russianoffs and Mosses of the city without worldly input – and is available here as a lengthy pdf. In the short-term, they key elements are as follows:

  • Emergency track cleaning and repair initiatives as well as emergency signal repair efforts;
  • Increased subway car maintenance efficiency;
  • Potentially adding cars to certain C line trains;
  • A seatless-car pilot on the Times Square Shuttle and L trains that could add space for up to 25 more people per car (though this is decidedly unfriendly and went nowhere when first proposed in 2010);
  • More frequent station cleaning;
  • Streamlined EMS dispatch procedures and staging areas;
  • and

  • A variety of other management-oriented changes designed to improve subway operations.

These sound modest because they are, and the heavy lifting comes in Phase 2 when the MTA has to get down to the business of modernizing the backbone of the subway system. But the MTA feels these efforts can begin to attack the root of the frequent problems plaguing the system lately. The praise for the plan came in from a variety of corners with the MTA sending out press releases from David Dinkins and a former FRA administrator. But while the state offered to fund half of it, many of the statements — and some aggressive attacks by Cuomo’s friends at the TWU — were not-so-veiled attempts to draw more money out of Bill de Blasio and NYC.

Now on the one hand, this fight is ridiculous. New York City taxpayers are footing this bill whether the dollars are appropriated at the state level or the city level, and we’re the ones suffering through bad service and paying the fares each day. We’re paying no matter what. On the other hand, de Blasio and Cuomo are set to battle this out until one of them wins, whatever victory emerges.

For a week and a half, de Blasio refused to budge and Cuomo dug in…until Sunday when this story hit The Times. The mayor will propose a tax on those earning $500,000 or more that will help fund the subway action plan and the Fair Fares initiative to offer subsidized subway fares to low-income New Yorkers. This is part of a plan that Michael Gianaris, a state senator from Queens, has pushed recently and would affect approximately 32,000 New Yorker taxpayers.

Coincidentally (haha), both Joe Lhota and Andrew Cuomo put out similar statements praising the mayor’s move, but channeling Veruca Salt, they both demanded more now. “After saying the MTA doesn’t need money, we’re glad the Mayor reversed himself,” Joe Lhota said on behalf of the MTA. “However we need short-term emergency financing now. The Mayor should partner with us and match the state funding now so we can turn the trains around. There’s no question we need a long-term funding stream, but emergency train repairs can’t wait on what the state legislature may or may not do next year.”

Cuomo:

“The subway system is in crisis today. We need two things: immediate action, and a long-term modernization plan. One without the other fails the people of the city. “The State is currently evaluating a range of dedicated revenue proposals for the future to be discussed and advanced in January when the legislature returns. There is no doubt that we need a long-term dedicated funding stream. But there is also no doubt that we cannot wait to address the current crisis. Riders suffer every day and delaying repairs for at least a year is neither responsible nor responsive to the immediate problem, or riders’ pain.

“The City should partner with us and match the State funding now so we can begin Chairman Lhota’s overhaul plan immediately and move forward. We cannot ask New Yorkers to wait one year to start repairs.”

But there’s a rub: On Sunday evening, Zach Fink and Emma Fitzsimmons both reported that Cuomo may begin floating various forms of congestion pricing next year in his State of the State speech. As recently as his Friday appearance on “The Brian Lehrer Show,” Bill de Blasio proclaimed congestion pricing a non-starter due to the environment in Albany. The mayor, a motorist, has been loathe to carry the torch for a plan, but it could be, in the parlance of our times, something of a game of multi-dimensional chess. If de Blasio supports it, Cuomo won’t, and if Cuomo comes up with it first so that it’s one of his pet ideas, the governor will find a way to push it through.

So perhaps the endgame of this summer’s (and spring’s and fall’s and winter’s) bad subway service is a fight for and over congestion pricing. There are worse outcomes for the city; that’s for sure. But right now, the subways need Lhota’s action plan and better service before the bottom falls out. Let the politicians duke it out, and someone, for the love of all that’s holy, please pick up the mantle of cost reform.

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Gov. Cuomo wants to light up the MTA's bridges, but it seems superfluous in an era of subway decline.

Gov. Cuomo wants to light up the MTA’s bridges, but it seems superfluous in an era of subway decline.

Let’s talk for a few minutes about the Governor, New York City bridges and another Cuomo-inspired idea to turn those bridges into a coordinated light show in part in order to attract tourists to the city. This has been an ongoing plan of the Governor’s for a while, and similar to the backward AirTrain, it’s a top-down plan that does nothing to address fundamental issues of mobility plaguing New York while showing Cuomo’s misplaced priorities. And someone has to pay for it.

Enter Dana Rubinstein and her piece in Politico:

Before a spring meltdown turned into a full-on “summer of hell” for the city’s subways, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was proudly promoting a project to outfit the region’s bridges with pulsating, multi-colored LED lights that could provide choreographed light shows in concert with the city’s skyscrapers. “So, literally, you’ll have bridges all across the New York City area that are choreographed — nothing like this has been done on the planet,” Cuomo told reporters in January.

Now, amid daily reports of infrastructure failures and the governor’s sliding poll numbers, the Cuomo administration will not even say how much the lighting scheme will cost — except to dispute early, internal estimates it could cost more than $350 million — or where that money will come from. “This is definitively NOT being paid for by the MTA,” emailed Cuomo spokesman Jon Weinstein.

The project, part of a broader plan called “New York Crossings,” would outfit the MTA’s seven bridges and two tunnels — and the Port Authority’s George Washington Bridge — with pulsating, multicolored LED lights that can be choreographed with each other, with the Empire State Building and with One World Trade. But if not the MTA, who will be paying for it? “We are considering options,” Weinstein said, “but as it is a project to generate tourism and economic development, and uses technology for energy efficiency, it will be financed by [the New York Power Authority] and parts of the project could likely be funded by [Empire State Development].”

That may come as a surprise to board members of the New York Power Authority, who discussed an MTA lighting project at their meeting in January. They were told the project would be paid for by the MTA, which, like the Power Authority, is effectively controlled by the governor. In March, the NYPA board was presented with unaudited financial reports showing an LED lighting project for the MTA was slated to cost $216 million. That the MTA would foot the bill was also the understanding within the agency, according to two knowledgeable sources. Those sources also said the MTA has been working to mitigate costs in order to make the project more politically palatable.

Later in the day, the mayor finally took a stand supporting subway riders (who also happen to be his constituents).”I can tell you that people who ride the subway are not interested in a light show,” Bill de Blasio said to reporters. In response, toward the end of the day, the Governor’s press team issued a legally incorrect statement claiming all capital funding relating to the subway is the responsibility of the city, and this debate seemed destined to become another battle in the war between Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. The only casualties, besides the two politicians’ reputations as adults, are their overlapping constituents.

Politically in-fighting aside, the dust-up over the lights and Cuomo’s continued support for this show misplaced priorities and bad incentives. First, while I believe it’s ridiculous for Cuomo to tout the tourism benefits — who wants to stand near the Newtown Creek a mile from a subway stop watching traffic on the city’s most congested highway passes through the Kosciuszko Bridge? — bridge lights can and do drive visitors elsewhere. It’s not patently absurd on its face; it’s just the wrong transit priority and will incentivize bad behavior as it will lead to more cars on the road as people drive around looking at bridges. (See for instance this amusing exchange between SI Advance’s Anna Sanders and her parents.)

But it also highlights Cuomo’s fundamental misunderstanding of what’s important right now. The subway system is falling apart, and millions of New Yorkers — and visitors — can’t get around as easily and as reliably as they used to. This will have a much more negative impact on the city’s economy than the LED light show Cuomo wants to install on MTA bridges around the city. That no one knows who will pay for this or how much it will cost at a time when Cuomo’s pet projects are already draining other transit resources that should be available to address the subway crisis is icing on the cake. For now, the focus should be on shoring up mass transit. The light shows can wait.

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I’ve been thinking about some ways to keep this site moving in light of the time I have to spend on it these days. As you all know, new posts have been infrequent and without warning. The site isn’t dead, but I’m going to try a new format around these pages. My goal is a weekly post on Sunday nights/Monday morning with some key links at the end. I may try to do one or two posts during the week that are links to articles worth reading. You can also keep up on with my on Twitter as well. There’s a lot going on in transit these days — both noise and otherwise — and I don’t want to stay silent.

To that end, let’s dive into the news of last month: Shortly before the first end of the New York legislative session — in fact, with only a few hours to spare, Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally nominated a permanent MTA Chair. The move was a surprise as supposedly a committee was to be engaged in a big search for a replacement, but when the dust settled, Cuomo appointed Joe Lhota, the former MTA head, to resume his spot. Lhota agreed and was confirmed with hardly any hearing, a part of Albany’s continued failure to exercise its MTA oversight obligations. He’ll be the Chair but will keep his job at NYU Langone while delegating executive director duties to someone else. For now, that “someone else” is still Ronnie Hakim.

At the time, in June, Lhota’s appointment seemed to me to be a bit of a “Hail Mary” move by a beleaguered governor. Lately, the subway’s performance decline has been notable, and a growing drumbeat has emerged out of New York City ensuring that Cuomo is named as the source of the problem, as he in charge of the MTA, and calling for him to do something. Right now, Cuomo needs someone to project competency, and Lhota projects competency. After all, he was in charge of the MTA during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and was credited with getting so much of the system up and running again relatively quickly after such a catastrophic storm. So Lhota, a member of the search committee, winds up with the job.

In the aftermath of Lhota’s appointment, Gov. Cuomo has declared a state of emergency for the MTA. It’s not quite clear if that has legal force, but it allowed Cuomo to garner headlines for promising an additional $1 billion in MTA funding. (It’s not quite clear where that $1 billion will go or if Cuomo understands how laughably small that amount is considering the cost of overhauling the signal system.) Lhota too in some of his first public comments, promised to overhaul the MTA too.

“Millions of New Yorkers depend on the MTA every day, and we must rebuild confidence in the authority with a complete overhaul of the system, he said during the Genius contest a few weeks ago, “identifying the root causes of our problems and taking immediate and decisive action to fix them. It is our responsibility to transport people as safely, quickly and efficiently as possible, and the current state of the subway system is unacceptable. In tandem with the Genius competition proposals, we will deploy a multi-faceted plan to restore confidence to the MTA and prove that we can deliver for our customers.”

Ultimately, though, the words are meaningless without actions, and actions haven’t come yet. To truly overhaul the MTA, as many have been saying for a while, requires a commitment to change at all levels. The MTA has to be able to deliver projects at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable timeframe. We need MTA projects to be competitive with European spending levels and not ten or even 100 times more expensive, and we need delivery timetables to be rapidly accelerated. The signal system project, for instance, is supposedly going to take decades, but the MTA should have a plan to shut down lines, one a time, and blitz the signal system. Could work be completed in 10 years instead of 40 with adequate attention, investment and mitigation? We the public do not know because the MTA itself, by all accounts, doesn’t know.

In Saturday’s New York Times, Joe Lhota responded to be an editorial calling for more MTA investment with a letter to the editor pushing the fiscal issue onto the shoulders of the legislature. He wants some attention on operations as well as capital. “The day-to-day operations of the subway desperately need an infusion of additional financial support from every level of government, including the city. Today, our customers pay a larger portion of the system’s operations from their daily fare than the customers of almost every other mass transit network in the country do,” Lhota wrote. “The burden of operations should not fall primarily on subway and bus riders; it’s time for all elected officials to use their budgets to support the transit system, which drives the region’s economy and makes New York possible.”

The MTA needs money, but funneling more money into a black hole won’t solve the problem. It needs to rethink who it is paying to do what, how much is being paid and how much productivity the money is generating. These aren’t easy questions, and they’ll face resistance from an entrenched bureaucracy and various special interests who don’t want the MTA’s monetary flood to slow to a trickle. These reforms — deep, structural reforms — are what Lhota must deliver to be successful. Otherwise, the state of emergency will deepen.

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It’s not controversial to state that the Governor of New York State controls the MTA. Our state’s executive directly appoints a plurality of MTA Board members, including the MTA Board Chair and all the bureaucrats tasked with leading the day-to-day operations of the transportation authority. The governor controls funding mechanisms and sets policy agendas, and this current governor has been particularly heavy-handed with pushing preferred projects and installing party loyalists in key positions.

But Governor Andrew Cuomo, faced with a daily crisis over subway service reliability, has, instead of fixing the subways, decided to draw the transit world into a different fight entirely. He wants full majority control of the MTA Board, and he wants it now. In a last-minute push as the Albany legislative session winds down, Cuomo announced via press release a move to expand his control over an agency he already controls. Cuomo’s proposal would allow him to appoint two more members to the vote and give his Board chair a second vote, thus granting the state eight appointees and nine Board votes, for a full majority of nine votes out of a proposed 17-vote structure.

Cuomo’s press release was mostly just an essay from the governor distorting the reality of MTA control. Make no mistakes about it: The governor controls the MTA, but he would have you believe otherwise. Said the guv:

“The MTA Board structure assumed regional participation in the metropolitan area’s transportation systems but left no one in charge. While New York State has six of the 14 voting seats – that is not control. There is no transformative plan that will require major change and possibly more investment that will be agreed upon by the various separate political bodies with competing needs. Complex projects don’t get effectively managed by unanimous agreement of large political bureaucracies. We don’t have 10 years to do this. The state will dedicate itself to the task and assume responsibility, but the state needs the authority.

…On the Second Avenue Subway project, for example, the MTA was floundering. The state took control of the projects using state personnel. The other members of the MTA Board did not oppose the state’s role as it was either not in their region or because they had no desire to participate in what appeared to be a doomed project. The Second Avenue Subway had been delayed for years and was projected to miss the deadline again. With the state’s intervention, we completed the task on deadline.

Some people assume the state’s six voting seats are the majority and say the state has control. Obviously, six is not a majority of the 14 voting seats, and many issues generate controversy that can cause the other jurisdictions to defeat the six votes. We have seen it already on questions of increasing local government’s operating expense contributions, but if their position is the state has control than actually providing that control should not be an issue. They can’t logically assert state control and oppose it at the same time.

In sum, let’s fix the fundamental and initial mistake – ‘put someone in charge.’ The state is the obvious entity to manage a regional network, and the state contributes a multiple of any other jurisdiction’s funding. The simple fact is if no one has the responsibility and the authority, fundamental, rapid change of any culture or system is impossible.”

This is classic Cuomo strawman. Despite his claims that many issues “can cause the other jurisdictions to defeat the six votes” the Governor controls, in practice, this doesn’t happen. Recent city appointees to the Board — most notably Veronica Vanterpool — have probed MTA dealings with a level of attention and detail not seen in recent years, but a voting bloc designed to combat Cuomo’s proposals simply hasn’t emerged. Cuomo gets his way because he has power over the MTA Board and controls the day-to-day operations of the agency.

This announcement came as a big surprise, especially at a time when the MTA has no permanent head. (As an amusing exchange between Dana Rubinstein and Fernando Ferrar laid bare, the current acting MTA chair isn’t too keen on this temporary arrangement lasting much longer.) On Monday night, the State Senate approved a Cuomo ally Scott Rechler to the MTA Board, seemingly out of nowhere, but Cuomo hasn’t named a permanent CEO/Chair or further explored his desire to split the position into two. Is he trying to distract from a leaderless MTA suffering through a crisis of reliability? Is he trying to shore up power ahead of securing point-of-no-return funding for his Moynihan Station mall or Backwards AirTrain or LIRR summer discount program (for which the MTA is already offering tickets even without Board approval)? This is speculation for now without concrete answers as Cuomo appears to be anticipating a hypothetical that does not currently exist and never has.

Jon Weinstein, the governor’s transportation spokesman, offered more clarity via Twitter but refused to respond to many reporters asking if the Board had ever overruled a governor. His statement bolstered the Governor’s claims but did little to shed light on the origins of this surprising move.

Meanwhile, advocates weren’t impressed. The Riders Alliance issued a strident statement on Tuesday afternoon. “Governor Cuomo’s MTA board proposal obscures the very real fact that the Governor already controls the MTA. The Governor appoints the MTA chair, the Governor appoints the most board members, the Governor dictates MTA spending priorities and the Governor dominates the State budget and legislative negotiations that determine how the MTA does its job. In practice, can the Governor point to any situation in which other MTA board members have teamed up to block his initiatives?” the group queried. “The problem is not MTA board structure; the problem is the absence of leadership and the lack of a credible plan from Governor Cuomo for how he will fix the subway. Riders don’t have the luxury of quibbling over MTA board governance when we know it’s not the real issue. We need a plan from the Governor and a reliable source of funding that can fix our disastrous commutes.”

Yet, on its surface, clear gubernatorial control isn’t an inherently negative idea. It would give the public a clear whipping boy for all things wrong with the MTA, and it would not allow Cuomo to take credit for the good while claiming the MTA isn’t under his control when constant bad news fills the headlines. It’s strange he would make a power grab at a time when tabloids are hammering bad subway service on a daily basis, but I’m having trouble sussing out how this move dilutes the MTA structure, unless Cuomo decided to use the power for bad intentions. He could appoint sycophants, but he’d still own the problem of bad subway service.

Interestingly, in fact, this isn’t the first time a Governor Cuomo has proposed such a move. Back in 1983, when I was but a wee lad of 2.5 months old, Mario Cuomo, who campaigned on abolishing the MTA, proposed the exact same thing. He wanted the MTA Chair to serve a term of indeterminate length at “the pleasure of the governor” and hoped to add three Board seats to cement the Albany-empowered majority. A few months later, Cuomo the elder backed down, and the largely toothless position of MTA Inspector General arose out of the brouhaha.

Will this year’s proposal meet the same fate? It’s clearly a late power-grab by Cuomo as Albany’s lawmaking clock ticks toward zoer, but Politco New York’s man in Albany Jimmy Vielkind found indifference and opposition to the proposal a few minutes after it was announced publicly. Either way, Cuomo seems to playing a game with the still-leaderless MTA that he already controls at a time when the agency, and the transportation systems it runs, need a champion, not a governor masquerading as a chessmaster.

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The Governor's presentation hit the right keywords but can it deliver on its substance?

The Governor’s presentation hit the right keywords but can it deliver on its substance?

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, is our Governor insane or are we, the subway-riding public of New York City, simply being played for a bunch of fools? And how many times can the same governor do the same thing in response to the same problem while being the same cause of the same bottleneck he always is? If I sound a bit cynical, well, I think I have good reason.

On Tuesday, after a week spent claiming the MTA wasn’t his responsibility or his problem, Governor Andrew Cuomo did an about-face and decided that, this week, while the headlines out there are for the gettin’, the MTA is once again his state agency. He took a well-deserved beating from transit advocates, and with the MTA facing mounting problems and a growing sense that the system is collapsing rapidly in on itself, Cuomo, with a rather tongue-in-cheek presentation [pdf] announced that not only will he be dead before the MTA finishes its signal system upgrades but that he may actually try to pretend to nudge the agency toward a faster solution. The whole thing is part of his new “MTA Transit Genius Challenge,” yet another attempt by the Governor to reinvent the New York City transit wheel.

The Challenge is a Cuomo special. It’s a panel that will hear ideas from other people, award someone $1 million in prize money and do nothing with the results. The panel is being billed as part of an “international competition” that will “convene participants from the technology, engineering and business sectors to address the subway’s three most vexing technology and design challenges.” These three areas are: 1) An aging signal system and a replacement plan that’s far too slow; 2) aging cars that are breaking down more often and the slow pace of development and delivery of new rolling stock; and 3) the, uh, lack of cellular and wifi connectivity in subway tunnels. I have no idea how number 3 made that list, but wifi/USB ports/”21st Century Technology” has been a Cuomo fetish for a few years.

(At the same time, Cuomo announced another panel of unqualified experts who are being tasked with solving Penn Station. One of the options they are considering involves turning operations over to the Port Authority. This is somehow going to fix something. I have no idea who thinks of these things, but I digress.)

If Cuomo’s panel idea sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. Do you remember the 2014 MTA Reinvention Commission? Cuomo convened this panel to advise on the 2015-2019 capital plan and longer-term challenges facing the MTA. It barely met, was stonewalled by Cuomo himself and then released an underwhelming report nearly eight weeks late. The MTA has implemented none of the buzzword-y recommendations that commission suggested and remains very much un-reinvented.

So will this be any different? Early assessments are not optimistic. Max Rivlin-Nalder, writing at the Village Voice, seemed skeptical; Streetsblog wants to see the MTA pay more attention to its internal experts whose voices have increasingly been lost to culture, bureaucracy and brain-drain over the past five years; and Stephen Miller rightly mocked the presentation, which seemed almost to be poking fun at subway commuters and their problems rather than taking these concerns seriously.

I can’t praise Cuomo for taking credit and responsibility for the MTA here because he’s not doing anything to fix it. He’s simply responding to a cavalcade of bad press from The Times opinions pages to the paper’s news coverage to Daily News opinions pages. He’s also not taking on the key obstacles — procurement reform; capital cost reform; and union work rules. Without a holistic approach to MTA reform, we’ll get snarky PowerPoints, a contest that will sputter out, and a promise that maybe the MTA will consider contracting with the person who comes up with the winning idea. Is this a fix or is this just business as usual for a governor constantly talking about reinventing the MTA but not actually doing anything about it?

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