Archive for MTA Politics

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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We have lot of catching up to do, but let’s start with a true statement: Subway service has been abysmal lately. Not a rush hour goes by without signal problems somewhere, delays, rerouting, cramped quarters and unhappy commuters. With no real fixes to the MTA’s problems on the short-term horizon, the agency recently announced a modest plan to improve subway reliability. But without a multi-billion-dollar commitment to quickly overhaul its signal system, the plan — faster dispatching to fix problems — amounts to lipstick on a rapidly aging pig.

While talking about this plan earlier this week, Ronnie Hakim, the MTA’s interim director, told Dana Rubinstein that it “really started with a series of conversations with Governor Cuomo, where he just clearly recognized that from his perspective, subway service is just not meeting the needs of New Yorkers.” Service, Cuomo is reported to have said, is “not satisfactory.”

This sounds very much like something Cuomo, who has recently taken a keen interest in ribbon-cutting and fancy renderings, would want to avoid, and lo and behold, here is the latest via Dana Rubinstein at Politico New York:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, following weeks of service failures in New York City’s subways, told reporters Thursday that his responsibility for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority merely consists of appointing a few people to its board, a responsibility shared by Mayor Bill de Blasio and county executives across the state. The state-run authority, he said, is a “regional transportation system.”

“I have representation on the board,” the governor said. “The City of New York has representation on the board, so does Nassau, Suffolk, Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, other counties, okay?”

…When asked about that [six-point] plan on Thursday, Cuomo had this to say: “First, I didn’t propose short-term fixes. The MTA did.”

This is not, you may remember, the first time the Governor has tried to distance himself from the MTA’s problems. He tried to claim in 2015, unbelievable, that the MTA wasn’t a state agency because its services are provided downstate. But submitted for your consideration is a screenshot of my inbox:

GovCuomoAnnounces

Cuomo clearly wants to own all the good news produced by the MTA, but when it comes to the bad, he cuts and runs. It’s his MTA when he wants to host a party to celebrate the opening of the Second Ave. Subway. It’s his MTA when the city’s bridges begin to light up. It’s his MTA when it comes to building the Backwards AirTrain or overhauling the aesthetics of Penn Station. But he doesn’t want the MTA that can’t provide adequate and reliable rush hour service and would need to reconsider 24/7 citywide service to truly address its problems. He doesn’t want the MTA we all hate. He just wants the photo ops.

That’s now how this works; that’s not how any of this works. If Cuomo wants to be the man with the plan for New York state, let alone a national leader (Hah. I know.), this mess belongs to him, and he has to own it and fix it. It’s your MTA, Governor Cuomo, whether you announce it or not.

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On a recent visit to the Second Ave. Subway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stopped for a selfie with a member of the project's construction crew. (Via Gov. Cuomo on flickr)

On a recent visit to the Second Ave. Subway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stopped for a selfie with a member of the project’s construction crew. (Via Gov. Cuomo on flickr)

There is a bit of a long-running joke among the New York reporters on the MTA’s press distribution list. Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s odd assertion last year that the MTA is not a state agency, whenever the authority has good news to announce, the press release comes with Cuomo’s stamp of approval. “Governor Cuomo announces new countdown clocks” or “Governor Cuomo announces bus upgrades” or “Governor Cuomo announces LIRR third track.” He never sends out the releases with fare hike information, service changes or other bad news. When it’s convenient, the MTA is his.

On Tuesday, one of my all-time favorite “Governor Cuomo announces…” press releases hit my inbox. Gov. Cuomo, who just two days ago announced a Jan. 1 opening for the Second Ave. Subway, has now announced that the MTA is excitedly replacing every subway map in the system with over 13,600 new maps “featuring the new Second Avenue Subway line.”

Cuomo’s release even included a perfectly Cuomo quote about the new maps. “On every subway car, in every station, and throughout New York, installing these maps means that the Second Avenue Subway is finally here and will be open on time,” Governor Cuomo said. The W train’s return a few weeks ago certainly didn’t merit a press release from the Governor touting new maps.

While I am amused by Cuomo’s press release tactics and it can come off as self-serving at times, there’s a larger lesson than the politics of gaining positive press. When Gov. Cuomo is involved in matters of transit and the MTA, in particular, good things happen and bad things are avoided. In other words, having a strong chief executive willing to take some ownership of transit investments is something New Yorkers fighting for better transit should encourage.

A recent piece in The Times is particularly telling. Last week, Emma Fitzsimmons wrote about Cuomo’s hands-on approach to wrapping up the Second Ave. Subway. Although Cuomo’s fingerprints have become more apparent in recent weeks as the Phase 1 work has neared its finish line, Cuomo’s intense involvement in this project stretches back to 2015 when the MTA and its contractors wanted to delay the opening by a significant amount of time. Fitzsimmons writes:

The notorious Second Avenue subway, nearly a century in the making, is inches from the finish line, and Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has made it his mission to complete the project by New Year’s Eve. On regular visits to the line’s three new stations, he obsesses over design details and equipment glitches at a surprising level of involvement for a governor, which some critics say seems primarily aimed at promoting his image…

For months, Mr. Cuomo has held weekly meetings at his office with the project’s leadership team to address — and sometimes vent about — the latest issues and concerns. He became more involved about a year and a half ago, he said, when officials at the authority told him they wanted to push back the long-established December 2016 deadline by a year or two. “The meetings are not a love fest,” said Charlie Hall, a construction manager from the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff who is overseeing the project. “The meetings started because there were issues, and things weren’t getting done. People are challenged in those meetings.”

On an unannounced stop at the 86th Street station a few months ago, Mr. Cuomo was angered to see no one was working on a problematic escalator, Melissa DeRosa, his chief of staff, said. He walked around shouting, “Who is working on the escalator?” until the person appeared, she added.

As Fitzsimmons notes, Cuomo’s critics wonder if this interest is a headline-grab as he positions himself for a 2020 run on the national stage, and on other projects, such as the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, Cuomo has pushed through a key project without identifying funding sources or fully justifying the need for the project. As many have told me, he has a tendency to latch onto projects without consulting with experts as to these project’s utility. (The LaGuardia AirTrain in the wrong direction is the prime example of the pitfalls of Cuomo’s approach.)

Yet, it is undeniable that having a governor who cares can get projects through tough spots. As Fitzsimmons notes, and as I highlighted in the excerpt above, Cuomo’s involvement has been instrumental in getting this project wrapped by the end of 2016. He can push competing forces — a contractor with no incentive to finish, an MTA Capital Construction staff afraid of turning operations over to Transit — to work together for a tight deadline.

So if Cuomo can turn results, the question then becomes how to focus him. How can activists get the Governor’s attention at the start when project scope and priorities are formed? How can transit experts get Cuomo’s ear so he latches onto the right projects at the right time? These aren’t just idle questions; they are important concerns that will affect the future of New York City for years and decades to come. With him projects can survive and perhaps thrive; without him, things seem to linger. Yet, his original ideas often seem frustratingly short-sighted and small in scope and impact. It is the great Cuomo conundrum and one that must be reconciled for future success.

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Open gangways and wider doors are part of the new design plan for the R-211s.

Open gangways and wider doors are part of the new design plan for the R-211s.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a funny relationship with the MTA. When the agency has good news that’s bound to grab headlines — such as fancy renderings of the next generation of rolling stock — he’s front and center with a press conference at the Transit Museum, his new favorite spot. When the news is bad, it’s everyone else’s responsibility to get the word out. That is, of course, his prerogative as the state’s chief executive, but that dynamic was on display again on Monday during Cuomo’s unveiling of the new designs.

The event was a sudden one, announced early on Monday morning during a period of the summer usually devoid of transit news. And once we drill down on the news, the developments came via the renderings rather than the initiatives. The announcement, a welcome one to be sure, served as a follow-up to both previous Cuomo news and long-standing MTA initiatives. Yet, for all of my skepticism, Cuomo deserves some credit as he’s pushing the MTA to move faster than the agency is used to moving, and riders should benefit.

Monday’s press conference focused around Cuomo’s plan to close 31 stations for speedier renovation work and the MTA’s plan to bring open gangway rolling stock to the New York City subway. The news isn’t new, but the renderings are. And they admittedly look good.

A new color scheme, brighter LED lights and a return of the properly-hued route designation bullets are a part of Antenna's design for the new subway cars.

A new color scheme, brighter LED lights and a return of the properly-hued route designation bullets are a part of Antenna’s design for the new subway cars.

These projects are part of the $27 billion five-year capital plan on which Cuomo finally focused earlier this year, and he’s taking his valedictory lap while the going is good. “New York deserves a world-class transportation network, worthy of its role as the heartbeat of the 21st century economy,” he said. “The MTA design team developed a bold and visionary reimagining of the quintessential commuter experience, incorporating best practices from global transit systems, and focusing on our core mission to renew, enhance and expand. We are going to do more than renovate; we are bringing subway stations to a higher standard than ever before, and the new vision for subway cars will increase capacity and reduce overcrowding and delays.”

That last element is key. At a time when upgrading the signal system to accommodate more trains will take years or decades, changing the design of the New York City subway cars to bring it in line with international standards can improve capacity by around 8-10 percent without much additional expense. After all, rolling stock replacement is part of the MTA’s regular investment cycle, and adding open gangways represents a negligible cost in excess of the money spent on a new cars.

Monday’s announcement came couched in some interesting language. The MTA has the option to add “up to 750” cars with open gangways, but the plans are still as they were a few months ago. As part of the upcoming R-211 contract, the agency is going to order a 10-car pilot to test open gangways. If this test is successful, the agency can order an additional 740 cars with open gangways. This was the plan in January, and it remains the plan now. But the bidding will start soon as Cuomo puts pressure on the agency to speed up the procurement process. Still, it’s my understanding the first open gangways won’t arrive for 40 months or so, and if the contract is awarded before the end of the year, it’ll still be 2020 before the prototypes arrive.

Cuomo deserves praise for moving this process along, but the MTA has been working on this for years. It’s an important distinction to make. Meanwhile, in addition to open gangways, the cars will come with improved grab bars and doorways that are 58 inches wide instead of 50 inches. The colors incorporate the state’s blue and gold motif and align with the buses Cuomo has been pushing. Flip seats (that likely will always remain down), dynamic video screens and USB charging ports (always) are features of the new cars as well. The properly-hued subway bullets are making their triumphant return as well, a welcome part of the new design. If anything, now, the New York City subways will be aligned with international design standards, and the renderings produced by Antenna, the company behind the WMATA’ss 7000 series rolling stock and the LinkNYC kiosks, did a great job.

The design-build subway stations will include numerous upgrades to enhance the passenger experience.

The design-build subway stations will include numerous upgrades to enhance the passenger experience.

Meanwhile, we have a better idea of the new station design as well. As part of the MTA’s effort to speed up work, the agency is implementing a design-build process at 31 stations that were, not coincidentally, up for renovation. The new look includes better lighting and wayfinding, countdown clocks (somehow on the B division), new floor materials and, of course, USB charging ports. Everything in 2016 must have USB charging ports. The first three stations to get this treatment are Prospect Ave., Bay Ridge Ave. and 53rd St. along the BMT’s 4th Ave. line and work should begin either by the end of the year or early in 2017. As the renderings show, it’s a modern look for the MTA’s subway stations which are brighter and seemingly friendlier.

Redesigned station entrances will feature dynamic screens that provide updated subway service status messages.

Redesigned station entrances will feature dynamic screens that provide updated subway service status messages.

This is all good news and should be accepted as good news. It’s easy to focus on the MTA’s big picture problems, but at the same time, constant investment in the state of good repair of the infrastructure involves well designed rolling stock and technologically advanced stations. The open gangways help with capacity and delays caused by crowded trains; the stations create a more welcoming environment. The MTA needs to continue to grow and invest in the long-term less sexy projects that will truly expand transit, but if Cuomo wants to focus on the MTA, let’s let him.

As a closing note, it was interesting to hear the Governor speak about his renewed emphasis on transit. He told one story about his family. ““My daughters were home for the weekend,” he said. “They came up to Westchester, and I got the lecture about the MTA.” Trains were too crowded, and they wanted dad, who’s in charge of the MTA, to do something about it. But there’s another side to this as well, as Dana Rubinstein related. When pressed on the renewed focus on transit investment, he responded with a tautology. There is a new emphasis on the MTA “because there is a new emphasis on the MTA.” And that’s where we are right now.

As the MTA has put the capital funding debacle temporarily in the rear view mirror and gears up for a planned December unveiling of the Second Ave. Subway, nearly 90 years in the making, something akin to benign neglect has settled over the MTA Board. Thanks to inaction on the part of the Governor who is supposed to pass along nominees, 14 out of the 23 MTA Board spots are currently holdover appointees (with some held over from as long ago as 2006) while two vacancies have sat empty for years and three other appointments are set to expire at the end of the month.

Now, for the second time in two years, the governor has passed along a slate of names for certain open positions — including three mayoral nominees — late in the legislative calendar. There is hope that the State Senate will have time to consider and confirm these appointments, but similar to last year, the legislative calendar has only five days remaining before breaking until January. With so little time left and based on conversations I’ve had, it isn’t in fact clear if Cuomo wants many of these nominations confirmed.

Kate Hinds of WNYC broke the news of the new appointments via Twitter tonight:

Of those listed, Vanterpool, Jones and Rodriguez, all de Blasio nominees, along with Peter Ward, a Cuomo appointee, had been sent to the Senate last year, but the Senate claimed it simply did not have time to assess these candidates. They’re joined this year by TWU President John Samuelsen, who would fill the union’s non-voting representative seat on the Board, and Charles Phillips, a major Cuomo campaign contributor. It’s not quite clear whose seat Phillips would fill, though all indications are that Allen Cappelli, a smart, loud and vocal advocate for sensible transit policy, will be off the Board.

In her story on the appointments Hinds gets into the motivation behind Cuomo’s inaction. When asked why he waited so long again to send these names to the Senate, the state’s chief executive said simply, “I don’t know.” It’s also still not clear if the rumblings of a conflict of interest with regards to the mayor’s appointment of Ydanis Rodriguez have been resolved.

Whether this is forward progress remains to be seen. Cuomo has an MTA Board now that, with a few exceptions, isn’t pushing back on his policies and poor funding practices. He hasn’t been too willing to approve the Mayor’s nominations who would be a bit more vocal regarding some of the state’s poor practices, and so he has seemingly been content to let the holdover Board members continue in their roles. We’ll find out over the next few weeks if the Senate is under pressure from Cuomo to hear these nominees, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the 2016 legislative session ends with, again, no action on MTA Board appointments. After all, the MTA has long been another pawn in the battle between Cuomo and de Blasio.

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Earlier this week, I took a look at how Gov. Andrew Cuomo is exerting his influence over the MTA, a state agency. Over at Mobilizing the Region, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s blog, Nadine Lemmon picked up this thread. She writes of the fact that three of the city’s four appointees to the MTA Board haven’t been confirmed even though the Senate has been sitting on their nominations for nearly a year:

[The Senate] finished the session without taking a vote on any of Mayor de Blasio’s picks — David Jones of the Community Service Society of New York, City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool. Now, almost a year later, the city’s representatives are still waiting in limbo.

New York City is supposed to have four of the 17 seats on the MTA board. Today, the city has one active voting member: Polly Trottenberg, the city’s Transportation Commissioner. John Banks and Jeffrey Kay — still technically on the board — are holdovers from the Bloomberg administration. The other seat has been vacant since early 2015 when former Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall quietly resigned from the board after just a few months.

The missing representation is especially problematic when you consider that over 93 percent of the MTA’s ridership is on New York City Transit subways and buses, the MTA Bus Company and Staten Island Railway. The counties served by Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road have as many votes as New York City, but those systems account for less than 7 percent of total ridership. New York City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer thinks the city ought to have not only a full four-person slate, but the majority of the MTA’s board seats. Nobody can fault the Senate for wanting to do their “due diligence,” but how can 10 months not be enough time to vet a handful of appointees?

While TSTC has a good point here, there is a bit of a rub: One of the mayor’s MTA appointees may not be eligible to serve. In February, the Daily News reported that Rodriguez, as an elected official to City Council, may have a conflict in serving on the MTA Board. He can’t owe a fiduciary duty to both the MTA and his elected constituents, and it’s not clear if his nomination can go forward. While the fate of Rodriguez’s role on the MTA is up in the air, Cuomo’s people claim they have asked the mayor to re-submit his nominations for the board, but de Blasio hasn’t done so yet. So the MTA is again a pawn in a pointless game between the mayor and the governor in which New Yorkers lose. Take that for what you will.

Meanwhile, we have service advisories to cover this week. Click through for the details. Read More→

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Queens council representative Jimmy Van Bramer wants more city control over its subways and buses.

One of the real political oddities that arose out of the 1968 creation of the MTA concerns control. Since the MTA is a state agency, Albany controls the mechanism that run a subway system operated entirely within New York City. Gov. Andrew Cuomo gets to appoint the people in charge of both day-to-day operations and the agency’s oversight board. The city nominally controls four out of 17 board seats, but even those require state sign-off (and as you can imagine, the frosty relationship between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t inspired Cuomo to move on three mayoral suggestions). So when Cuomo spends years ignoring the MTA and then starts meddling with the wrong kinds of transit projects, city officials are right to grow weary of this setup.

Today, in Crain’s New York, City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer calls for more city control of the subways and buses. Van Bramer represents 7 train riders who recently held a town hall with MTA bigwigs over unreliable Flushing line service, and he walked away unimpressed. “New York City Transit President Ronnie Hakim had some good answers,” he writes, “but on many issues, she left us scratching our heads. Hakim didn’t seem to know much about cross-honoring MetroCards on the Long Island Rail Road when service is disrupted. One of her colleagues dismissed our claim that service is worse on Mondays after weekend track work, only to have riders cite specific delays and disruptions that the agency forgot.”

Meanwhile, Van Bramer runs through the litany of complaints: The MTA’s service metrics show decreasing reliability while capital construction projects take years and cost too much with little public accountability for delays and disruptions. The biggest projects, dollar-wise, are benefiting suburban LIRR commuters rather than NYC subway riders, and Cuomo’s budget shenanigans which force the MTA to take on more debt mean, as Van Bramer notes, “Albany is setting New Yorkers up for massive fare and toll increases down the line.”

Van Bramer offers up this solution:

The city has increased its commitment to funding MTA capital improvements to $2.5 billion. Contrast that with Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties, which each have a full vote on the MTA board yet don’t contribute a cent to MTA upgrades from their budgets.

The city deserves a bigger say. I’m calling on the state to increase the city’s representation on the authority’s board, and have sponsored a City Council resolution to this effect. The city, after all, stands to gain the most from improved service—or suffer the harshest consequences if the system is neglected. Now is the time. With the city’s future hanging in the balance, it makes no sense for Albany and the suburbs to call the shots for our subways and buses.

It’s almost there, but maybe not quite. More seats on the authority’s board doesn’t really get the city the control it needs, and there’s an 800-pound gorilla — or a $13 billion one, if you prefer — in the room. Someone has to fund this giant subway system, and it ain’t cheap. If the city wants control, it’s going to need to figure out how to sustain funding sources, and while the taxes and fees that fund transit are largely levied within New York City, they are assessed at the state level. Will Albany be willing to shift this revenue to city coffers without a fight? And how do we improve on the mistakes inherent in city control for the first seven decades of the subway system’s existence? What happens when fare policies are inherently local and politicians have to run on the backs of fare hikes?

The current set-up is messy, and it doesn’t help when the priorities of New York’s chief executive aren’t aligned with the transit needs of its largest city. But city control, while perhaps containing an element of common sense, may not be the simple fix we would want it to be. Ultimately, the city should have more of a say over its transit system and future, but how that control is implemented is up for debate.

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As last summer’s inaction over the MTA’s capital plan cast a pall over transit expansion in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had an odd exchange with reporters. When asked why the state seemed so averse to assisting a state agency, Cuomo indicated that the MTA was not a state agency because its headquarters were downstate. It was an answer that defied logic or reality, but it seemed to suggest that Cuomo wanted nothing to do with an important state agency he ostensibly controlled because admitting to control would involve taking on a whole raft of potential responsibilities and headaches.

What a difference a year makes. In the aftermath of the rush to approve a New York State budget on time, it seems that Cuomo, for better or worse, is asserting himself as chief executive in charge of the MTA. This time around, he’s doing it through the state’s new Design and Construction Corporation, another layer of advisory bureaucracy set up to make non-binding recommendations to state agencies on all projects worth more than $50 million. Like many transit-related projects Cuomo has touched lately, it’s a good idea — reform of capital spending — with poor execution, and the MTA isn’t quite sure what it means for the future of the agency.

Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend on Cuomo’s new-found interest in transit. He writes:

A new state agency is fueling anxiety about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s increasing involvement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, raising questions over how to run the nation’s largest transit network. Supporters of the agency, including some on the MTA’s board, welcome the Democratic governor’s influence and hope his creation will speed up transit projects and keep a lid on costs…

Mr. Cuomo’s push to tighten oversight on state construction projects comes as some inside the MTA face greater involvement by the governor’s aides into the affairs of what was designed by law as an agency insulated from politics. “You can’t criticize the governor for wanting control—that’s in the genetic makeup of governors,” said Richard Brodsky, who led an effort to beef up legal protections for New York’s public authorities when he was as a Democratic state assemblyman. “But there’s a danger that if the MTA board does not exercise independent, fiduciary judgment, you’ll end up with…decisions that are based more on the governor’s needs—or the governor’s or mayor’s needs—than they are on the needs of the system.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo said the governor is committed to improving the MTA and pointed to the budget deal a few weeks ago, which is expected to provide final approval for a $27 billion capital-spending plan to pay for repair, upgrade and expansion projects.

Tangel goes on to note that Cuomo’s involvement has received “mixed reviews.” Recent Cuomo allies appointed to public-facing roles at the MTA have been received with a mixture of shrugs and befuddlement while MTA staffers have what MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast (a Cuomo ally) has called a “healthy tension” between the governor and the bureaucrats in charge of the MTA, and overall, this isn’t a particularly easy news item to reconcile.

On the one hand, the MTA manages to run trains somewhat on time (though with diminishing on-time performance lately), but the agency has an awful track record on capital projects. The biggest-ticket items are delayed and over budget with costs so far out of line with international peers as to be laughable in many corners. Meanwhile, smaller projects — I’m looking at you, Culver Viaduct rehab — take years more than promised, and transparency on both the cause of delays and the reason for the extreme expenses is nearly non-existent. The agency is ripe, in other words, for an executive takeover that can get results.

But Cuomo, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in legacy-building than on sound transit investment and better oversight. He hasn’t upheld funding promises and seems more concerned with technology projects that do little to solve the underlying mobility issues affecting New York City. Even his grand ideas — a misguided Laguardia AirTrain via Willets Point, pushing through Penn Station and a costly Laguardia overhaul — are focused on moving people into and out of New York City rather than through and around the city. The priorities are skewed and, frankly, wrong in terms of investment, oversight and impact.

So where does that leave a more meddlesome Cuomo and the MTA of which he is very in charge? It’s not quite clear. I’ve heard from MTA sources that Cuomo’s inaction on the capital plan had a profoundly negative affect on agency morale and his sticking his nose in for legacy reasons isn’t helping. I think the problems run deeper than Prendergast indicated to Tangel, and yet, it’s Cuomo prerogative, as Richard Brodsky noted to The Journal, to be in charge of a state agency. So we’ll have to ride it out. It’s guardedly better that Cuomo is paying attention, but now, he has to focus on the right things. So far, he hasn’t, and that’s a problem for all of us.

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As the clock on March expired and the calendar flipped to April, New York State legislators passed a $155 billion budget. The state has a lot of money to play with, and as interest rates remain low, it’s very easy to borrow. It would be, in other words, a great time to fund mass transit through direct contributions, and even $3 billion in annual direct contributions would lead to a guaranteed $15 billion for the MTA’s five-year capital plan. This money would lessen the MTA’s need to borrow and then fund borrowing through fare revenue. Less than 2% of the state budget should go toward MTA capital improvements. But that’s not what happened.

As I explored shortly after the budget passed, the MTA didn’t get much out of it except for some funding earmarked toward future phases of the Second Ave. Subway and, apparently, a vague promise to approve the capital plan following a second round of amendments. Meanwhile, Cuomo has promised to fund a sliver of the MTA’s current five-year, $28 billion capital plan only when the agency has exhausted all other revenue streams. To that end, no one expects the MTA to realize any of this money until the mid-2020s, and Cuomo has insidiously allowed the MTA to raise its debt ceiling. Thus the agency can borrow even more before the state’s obligations to pony up a few billion dollars come due.

Over at NY1, Zack Fink broke the story:

After staying up all night, the New York State Senate finally voted on the last budget bills before 9 a.m. Friday. One of those bills raised the debt ceiling for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), allowing the agency to borrow up to $55 billion. “What kind of message does that send, that we’re allowing one state authority to issue more debt than the entire state of New York is allowed to?” said State Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island and Brooklyn. “It’s going to lead in the future to higher tolls, fares, and service cuts.”

…Observers said the new MTA debt ceiling explains how Cuomo will fund the agency’s ambitious capital program construction, which includes East Side Manhattan access to the Long Island Rail Road and the Second Avenue Subway. “Cuomo said he’s going to give $8.3 billion to MTA; he only showed up with $1 billion,” said Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute. “And so where is he going to get the rest of this money? Obviously there’s your answer.”

Critics say commuters will ultimately get hit with the bill. “Somebody has to pay for this. The MTA already has budget gaps over the next several years, so people’s fares and tolls will go up to pay for all this debt,” Gelinas said. “It’s just that the governor probably expects that this will happen after he leaves office.”

It is my understanding that the MTA’s debt will come in the form of so-called moral obligation bonds and not general obligations bonds. Thus, if the MTA defaults on its bond obligations in order to force bondholders to the table, the state will not step in to cover any outstanding debt service payments. In other words, by hook or by crook, we the subway and bus riders of New York City (along with the Metro-North and LIRR riders and those paying bridge and tunnel tolls) are stuck with mounting debt and mounting debt service obligations that would put more pressure on fares and the MTA’s ability to provide and expand service. That’s Gov. Cuomo’s New York.

Meanwhile, the Governor has promised upstate drivers parity and breaks on New York State Thruway tolls. It seems unlikely that they will be saddled with debt this high that could be easily avoided for a small percentage of the overall budget. Cuomo too has proposed a series of transit projects that aren’t in line with what the city needs. He’s singularly focused on improving the way people enter and exit New York City rather than on improving how they get around New York City once they’re here, and even some ideas — such as the Willets Point Laguardia AirTrain — are worse than doing nothing.

It’s easy to saddle future generations of New Yorkers who will never have the opportunity to vote for Cuomo or the current batch of legislators will the debt that arises out of transit ideas built today, whether they’re good or bad ideas, and that is exactly what our politicians have done. It’s a devious way to make decisions that affect us all for decades to come.

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