Archive for MTA Politics

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seen here with a bridge, has been making a flurry of MTA moves lately to further cement his grip on the organization he controls, but the why of it all remains murky.

Over the past few weeks, thanks to Reinvent Albany’s lengthy report on MTA reform [pdf], I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure and role the MTA Board plays in agency governance. When you really drill down on it, you can easily reach the conclusion that the MTA Board is a meaningless entity designed for one thing and one thing only — giving the Governor of New York apparent cover for all matters MTA and serving as a convenient whipping boy when things go wrong.

Think about it: What exactly does the MTA Board do? It doesn’t hire or fire any part of the MTA management. The governor does, through his appointment of the MTA Chair and CEO (and approval of any agency president or other high-profile hires). It doesn’t negotiate contracts. It doesn’t set policy. It doesn’t develop a budget. It simply votes — up or down — on initiatives prepared by MTA staffers, who are all under the purview of gubernatorial appointees. Sometimes, the MTA Board raises a question or two and delays a vote for want of information, but the Board doesn’t and can’t shape policy. Ultimately, the Board just rubber-stamps major procurements and other initiatives put in front of it by the governor or those acting on his behalf.

Take, for example, the recent hullabaloo over overtime spending. It seems likely that some of the LIRR overtime accrual is the result of fraud that should be prosecuted, but most of the overtime spending at non-LIRR agencies and at New York City Transit in particular is a direct result of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Subway Action Plan and ongoing emergency order. As I detailed in a post on this subject in May, the Subway Action Plan and the Governor’s insistence on pushing through everything as fast as possible led to a huge spike in overtime spending.

By itself, that’s fine. The subways needed to be blitzed by repair work, and while I still believe Save Safe Seconds has had more of an impact on improved subway performance than the action plan, the action plan has helped (for example, by focusing on basics such as clearing out clogged drains). But Cuomo has been so obsessed with overtime spending that he can’t or won’t focus on the good overtime vs. the bad overtime. It’s all just a negative to him, and so he’s pushing through his own plan to combat overtime, exposing the MTA Board for the empty vessel it is.

During last month’s contentious meeting, most of the board members overruled the objections of Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s enforcer on the MTA Board, to turn down a request for the agency to hire a prosecutor to investigate fraud. These board members instead recommended a consultant to help the MTA reform its time-and-attendance practice while relying upon the new MTA Inspector General (appointed by Cuomo) and the proper state or county Attorneys General to prosecute the fraud. But that led to one disgruntled governor, and so he went to work.

As Dana Rubinstein reported for Politico New York last week, Cuomo simply overruled the MTA Board and decided that the agency will hire a former prosector to investigate overtime abuses anyway. As Rubinstein notes, Carrie Cohen, the Morrison & Foerster partner who will be approved next week, will cover similar ground as the new MTA IG, and those who opposed the appointment initially weren’t happy. “This was all debated once and defeated,” John Samuelsen, TWU International president and MTA Board member, said to Rubinstein. “This has now become an example of, ‘If I don’t get my way the first time, we’re going to ram it down throats anyway.’”

Cuomo is a master at this type of exploitation, and he’s using the overtime scandal to dubious ends. Following the appointment of the new MTA IG and a subsequent tampering of a time-tracker at an LIRR office, another time clock was damaged, this time at a New York City Transit facility. Cuomo lumped the incidents together, but I’ve since been told by multiple MTA sources that the second incident was an accident. Furthermore, it impacted a time clock used by managers and not rank-and-file who are accused of running the overtime fraud. Cuomo, in public statements, claimed they were all related, and this may be another part of his unnecessary and one-sided battle with Andy Byford. I’ll come back to motive shortly.

Meanwhile, Cuomo is barely even trying to hide the way he’s manipulating the MTA. Take the makeup of the Board. We know Cuomo controls the plurality of Board seats, for what that’s worth when discussing a rubber-stamp organization, and lately, he’s taken to making the most of it. Word recently emerged that Cuomo was looking to name Albany-based state budget director Robert Mujica and Linda Lacewell, the current nominee for Superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, to the Board, but the governor doesn’t currently have two seats to fill.

The Post got to the bottom of things: Reportedly, Michael Lynton, confirmed to the MTA just this spring, will be (or has been) booted from the Board, allegedly for being too independent. Fernando Ferrer will also be leaving his post. Replacing Lynton with Mujica will require the state legislature to waive residency requirements, and it’s not at first clear why they should. Is Mujica that important to the MTA Board for the legislature to waive these requirements in a last-minute hearing this week or next? If they do waive these requirements, what’s stopping Cuomo from naming upstate allies to a downstate board anyway?

Cuomo, in a radio appearance on Alan Chartock’s show last week, claimed Lynton’s independence had nothing to do with the move. Said the governor to his pal on WAMC:

Michael Lynton, when I put him on, the need was to bring new tech firms into the MTA sphere because the MTA keeps contracting with these bad contractors who I believe they have an incestuous relationship with. And the new issue became these, over the past couple of weeks, the US attorney’s investigation the Queens DA in vandalism of time and attendance systems. So, the way a coach will shift players depending on what’s happening on the court, basketball, and the need Michael Lynton, who’s great, and is from the tech world and I think that bringing new tech vendors. Today the need is financial expertise, anti-fraud systems. So I switched for the state budget director, who is a financial wizard, in my opinion, and can safeguard the state money and the Department of Financial Services commissioner who is a former federal prosecutor and is very good on financial fraud. It had nothing to do with Fernando Ferrer or Michael Lynton, who are both great, I’m going to put them on other boards.

But this move isn’t an innocent one. In a long and rambling statement released during the height of the L train debate in January, Mujica called for full gubernatorial control of the MTA Board. It was a bit of a sleight of hand since, as I’ve detailed above, the governor already controls the management and operations of the MTA, but you can see why and how Cuomo is stacking the board with third-term loyalists. These appointees play fast and loose with their own financial disclosure requirements and may not even live in the MTA service area. This doesn’t strike me as a shift toward better governance.

So back to the question of motive. For all of these machinations, maneuvers and public misdirections, I’m hard-pressed to figure out what Cuomo is after and why. He may, as has been loudly discussed in transit circles over the past few weeks, be looking to push out those who are outside of his circle and who get credit for good work they do. He may be leaning on the MTA, a prominent organization and one that plays a large role in the city and state, as a way to reward those still loyal to him after nearly nine years in office. He may simply have it in his head that he can fix things. But as with many areas, his moves seem to be responsive and reactive rather than proactive, and he’s not attacking the roots of the MTA’s many problems (or allowing those who can free rein to operate).

The MTA sits on the edge of a cliff, and one push in the wrong direction can send everyone and everything tumbling off it yet again. Is Cuomo chipping away at the foundation or building a stronger one? I lean toward the former but wish for the latter, and I don’t know why or where it all goes from here.

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Andy Byford, seen here on an L train, needs the Governor to support, rather than fight, him to be able to see through his plan to fix the subways. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

A few weeks ago, when the Emma Fitzsimmons’ story on Andrew Cuomo’s inability to coexist with Andy Byford first broke in April, the governor took exception to the story. In an appearance on Alan Chartock’s show on WAMC, Cuomo slammed the paper over the story.

“I think they have to sell newspapers. I think that is the way of the world. I think it’s symptomatic of our political system now. You have less public trust in newspapers, in politicians,” he said to Chartock, who just chuckled along with his friend the Governor. Cuomo continued, “There’s a chairman who runs the authority. In this case it’s Pat Foye. And I deal with the chairman. It’s very rare for me to deal with a division head directly.”

To Cuomo, in his public statements at least, Andy Byford, the president of New York City Transit and a globally respected leader in his fielder, was simply a division head, and the Governor of New York couldn’t be bothered with those.

Unsurprisingly, Cuomo’s statement was mere hyperbole. As two MTA sources have since told me, Cuomo regularly talks to actual division heads and even lower-ranking MTA employees. A few days before his appearance on Chartock, Cuomo was on the phone with managers in Transit’s Division of Operations Planning discussing signal timers and speed restrictions, my sources have told me, and in the intervening weeks, Cuomo and his MTA loyalists have continued to involve themselves in Byford’s Save Safe Seconds campaign to speed up the subways and repair faulty signals and recalibrate unnecessarily slow speed limits.

Cuomo, according to a senior MTA official, has tried to implement his own version of moving fast and breaking things, Mark Zuckerberg’s now infamous motto that hasn’t aged too well. The governor, I’ve been told only talks to certain members of the signals team (but not, according to my sources, Byford) and has repeatedly asked why the MTA cannot simply implement a blanket increase in speed and be done with it. The same senior source explained that Transit is implementing the speed increases in a methodical way to ensure passenger safety is paramount, and Cuomo’s approach would be both inefficient and not nearly as safe.

But signals are just one area where the governor has resisted Transit’s — and by extension, Byford’s — authority. As Larry Schwartz and Andy Byford discussed at last week’s MTA Board meeting, the ongoing Grand Central 4/5/6 rehabilitation project is another source of conflict. Byford’s and Schwartz’s exchange was the first the public had heard of any issues with this project, and while it’s a lengthy and messy one, Transit has kept most of the second busiest subway station in NYC open and accessible during a comprehensive rebuild of the station.

Still, as one MTA source relayed to me, a few weeks ago, Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, arrived at Grand Central during the height of rush hour and amidst a delay in service on the Lexington Ave. line. She witnessed capacity crowd conditions and promptly raised concerns about the project. Now, Cuomo and his allies on the MTA Board are making noises about the project. One source told me they objected to the replacement of a staircase rather than a repair, and Cuomo’s allies are making noises about removing the project from Transit’s purview and placing it under the auspices of Capital Construction. There’s no real need to do this, and in fact, the complexity of the project and the need to ensure it doesn’t interfere with Lexington Ave. subway service would generally dictate that Transit oversees it. But that’s the nature of the impasse. Cuomo is in charge, and he wants what he wants whether it makes sense.

The back-and-forth between Cuomo and the professional staff at Transit doesn’t end here. One MTA official told me that nearly $1 billion worth of procurement orders are awaiting Cuomo’s signoff and are simply sitting on his desk waiting for action. Since the design-build threshold sits at $25 million, anything over must be design-build or receive a waiver, and Cuomo hasn’t moved on approving these projects. MTA insiders feel this stall tactic by Cuomo is another way for the governor to avoid doling out promised state capital funds to the MTA, on the one hand, while accusing the agency of spending too slowly on the other. Dave Colon explored this issue in a Gotham Gazette piece last month.

It’s one thing for Cuomo to be responsible for the MTA and in charge of the agency (which he is). It’s another for him to be openly or quietly antagonistic toward the men and women he’s tasked with fixing the subway because he either doesn’t like the attention they’ve gotten or worse. This saga came to a head again on Tuesday when WNYC and Gothamist ran a piece questioning the Byford-Cuomo relationship. Despite constant on-the-record denials by Byford to numerous reporters (including me) in recent weeks and one in the piece, WNYC claimed rumors about Byford’s departure were resurfacing. They’re not, but later in the day, Brian Lehrer asked the governor about his relationship with Cuomo, and Reinvent Albany transcribed the exchange.

Cuomo, you’ll note, referred again to the agency presidents as “division heads” and filibustered by talking about the LIRR overtime issues, a problem in which Andy Byford and New York City Transit have no role. After claiming that the MTA “needs to make major reforms” and that the MTA Board will decide Byford’s fate (it won’t; Cuomo will), the governor offered a lukewarm endorsement for Byford and the other agency presidents. The talk on fare hikes to fund Fast Forward, a plan Cuomo should endorse and embrace but won’t, and the claim that he’s on the side of the riders doesn’t ring true at all. Supporting the riders would mean throwing the full weight of his office behind a fully funded Fast Forward plan.

Later in the day, when I asked the governor’s office about his involvement in management and operations decision and his relationship with Byford, his office offered a statement: “The Governor supports Andy Byford; he said it himself on the radio this morning. We’ll leave the conspiracies and gossip to others.”

So as the relationship between the governor and the agency he controls seems to teeter along in some state of unrest — where the governor doesn’t appear to trust the experts he brought in and should trust to get the job done — where does that leave things? Based on the current status quo, Andy Byford isn’t leaving tomorrow or next week. That could change if Cuomo forces him out, and the looming MTA reorganization should be telling one way or another. Will Cuomo try to remove Save Safe Seconds or even the Fast Forward plan from Transit? Could that be a tipping point? We’ll find out soon.

Ultimately, as I wrote in April, I viewed Fitzsimmons’ original story that brought these simmering tensions into the open as a message from Byford’s proponents. Transit allies were trying to get the point across to the governor, in a suitably subtle way, that Cuomo needs Byford to fix the MTA more than Byford needs Cuomo. The governor, if he lets his NYC Transit president do his job, can take credit for being the chief executive of New York State who oversaw the revival of the MTA. Never mind that Cuomo’s neglect got the city into this position; Cuomo’s acceptance of an expert’s plan can get the city out of that position will earn him plaudits. It’s been a rocky few weeks since then, and Cuomo may not be able to step back and let the repair work proceed apace. But if Cuomo pushes out Byford, would anyone qualified and competent even want to take the job next? And where would that leave all of us?

For the sake of the city, this tension should subside, and the MTA funding should flow so repair and modernization work can continue. There’s no real need, other than ego, for any other outcome.

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When Andrew Cuomo wants results, things in New York tend to happen quickly. Case in point: MTA overtime spending and, in particular, the LIRR.

The Long Island Rail Road’s overtime spending issues have been a low-level concern for quite a well. Due to various work rules and pension calculations, overtime accrual can benefit workers in retirement, and Gov. Cuomo, who has pressured the MTA to sign off on labor agreements without management-suggested reforms that would combat high overtime costs, has grown tired of bad headlines about overtime payments. The Post recently reported on one LIRR worker who earned over $300,000 last year due, in part by logging over 3800 overtime hours, and the LIRR’s overtime costs have outpaced inflation over the past six years.

And so, Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s right-hand man and the chair of the MTA Board’s Finance Committee since September of 2016, suggested an emergency meeting. Since Schwartz is Cuomo’s direct proxy, when he says jump, the MTA asks, “How high?” The emergency meeting will be at held at 4 p.m. this Friday afternoon. MTA CEO and Chairman Pat Foye issued a statement on the meeting when it was announced late Wednesday: “The issues of excessive overtime and the inadequacy of the MTA time and attendance systems must be addressed, which is why last week I ordered an immediate investigation into these matters and why I am convening a special Board meeting on this issue this coming Friday. Overtime is an important and useful tool as we urgently seek to modernize our entire system but we must be sure it is being used effectively, accurately and appropriately.”

Now, general overtime spending and the LIRR time-and-attendance concerns are two separate issues. The LIRR issues The Post was willing to put firmly on Cuomo’s shoulders:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA, helped renegotiate the [LIRR labor] deal in 2014, averting a looming strike. That contract was renewed in 2016 with minimal changes, delaying any talks of serious reforms until last week, when that agreement expired, sources say. In 2014, Cuomo was happy to accept praise for stepping in to help hash out the contract over a seafood lunch in Midtown, with a subsequent MTA press release celebrating his role in the deal…But when asked on Thursday how he would ensure the next contract curbed overtime costs, Cuomo claimed he had no power to slam the brakes on the off-the-rails spending in a new deal…

In the 2014 contract, LIRR brass were seeking reforms to curtail payroll and overtime costs…Among them: scrapping the system that gives people with the most seniority first dibs on overtime and instead equalizing it among all employees based on attendance and overtime already worked, according to a federal report into the contract dispute. Other proposed measures included changing some double-time payments to time-and-a-half and eliminating extra pay given to conductors when they work on both a passenger and freight train in the same shift. None of the reforms was made, according to an MTA source.

If this sounds like a leader attempting to have his cake and eat it too, that’s because it is, and it’s a prime example of why good governance groups are skeptical of Cuomo’s faux-reform efforts. More on that shortly. Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, also sent a strident letter to MTA officials, bemoaning how “abuses in the attendance system demonstrate again that basic management control is lacking.” She has not — and will not — acknowledge how these “abuses” were essentially baked into the system when Cuomo approved the 2014 labor deals.

In the lead-up to today’s “emergency” Board meeting, the MTA first sicced its police force on LIRR workers, alleging that cops would enforce time-and-attendance practices. This drew an immediate backlash from the TWU, and the MTA hastily retreated on this Pinkerton-esque approach. Never mind that the MTA’s cops are among the most egregious abusers of overtime. We’ll see where enforcement goes after today’s meeting.

Meanwhile, back to “normal” overtime spending, a separate issue from LIRR bookkeeping. Here’s a quick snapshot of the MTA’s planned overtime spending and actuals with the total adjusted for inflation set to 2018 dollars during Andrew Cuomo’s entire tenure as governor (which coincides with his entire tenure as being responsible for the MTA). Figures are in “millions.”

As you can see, the MTA is consistently blowing past its overtime budgets, but the problem has seemingly increased significantly in 2017 and 2018. Last year, in fact, that MTA blew past its initial overtime estimates by $400 million. Why? Well, MTA Board materials point the biggest fingers at overtime spending due to Andrew Cuomo’s very own Subway Action Plan. His Emergency Order sets the stage for the MTA to spend without certain budget controls, and the governor’s demands that the MTA realize the goals of his Subway Action Plan have led to a steep increase in overtime spending. In both 2017 and 2019, the Subway Action Plan was one of the key drivers. Here’s what New York City Transit had to say in its Board materials: “Higher overtime expenses of $218.9 million (47.0 percent) were essentially driven by track, signals infrastructure, station maintenance and car equipment requirements, including Subway Action Plan (SAP) initiatives.” (The reports on 2017 expenditures said essentially the same thing regarding overtime and the Subway Action Plan.)

Will today’s emergency Board meeting focus on how Cuomo’s own initiatives are forcing the MTA to rely on increased overtime spending? I wouldn’t hold my breath. After all, Schwartz, the Cuomo confidante who called for this Board meeting, has been in charge of the Finance Committee since 2016 and has been receiving these OT reports monthly since then. Is he blaming the MTA for his own oversight failures? Why hasn’t Schwartz been aggressive in attacking overtime since he began serving on the Board when, as the chart shows, it was already clear the MTA couldn’t project or control overtime costs? It’s hard sometimes to look in the mirror.

Good governance group Reinvent Albany is equally skeptical. They called today’s meeting “political theater” and pointed to three key facts about overtime spending:

1. The Governor controls the day to day operations of the MTA via his ability to hire and fire the CEO of the MTA Patrick Foye. The CEO hires and fires the MTA agency presidents, including the president of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).

2. The MTA Board has no say over the day-to-day operations of the MTA and no involvement in day-to-day authorization or tracking of overtime.

3. There is no sudden overtime “emergency.” MTA management asks employees to perform overtime, all overtime is either at behest of management or approved in advance, and is carefully tracked. The MTA board and senior staff have frequently discussed overtime at MTA board meetings. There is no new information about overtime, just public embarrassment to the Governor and MTA caused by press coverage. Further, no public materials or agenda have been released for today’s meeting, showing that this response is being rushed and will not be a serious review.

I’ll give the final words to Reinvent Albany Executive Director John Kaehny: “The public will not trust the MTA until the Governor and his appointees acknowledge simple truths and stop with the political theater. The Governor controls the MTA through the CEO he hires and fires. Today’s ’emergency’ board meeting about overtime is a reaction to press coverage, not new information. MTA and LIRR management completely control the overtime process and know exactly what is going on. They ask employees to do overtime and track it carefully. What’s really going on is that the MTA hiring freeze and management pay freeze are creating dysfunction and shortages of skilled workers that are aggravated by work rules.”

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Speaker Corey Johnson laid out the case for municipal control of transit in March.

It’s been a little over two months since Corey Johnson unveiled his sweeping plan for city control of the subways and buses, and I want to revisit Johnson’s ideas and the reaction to his plan. The intervening weeks have been busy ones for transit in New York City, first with congestion pricing and Cuomo’s ramming his quasi-reform plan through Albany and recently with L train not-a-shutdown work and recent fare hikes. It is of course never a quiet day for transit news in New York City, but Johnson’s proposal simmers in the background, gaining traction in wonkish circles and awaiting his eventual mayoral campaign.

Yet, despite the prominence of the plan and the audacity of it, neither the mayor nor the governor have latched onto the idea. Now, I don’t expect the city to gain control of its transit network without a protracted negotiation with the state, and Bill de Blasio isn’t in a position to call for city control of transit at a time when the governor is begrudgingly owning leading the way out of the MTA’s current crisis. But their silence speaks loudly. Cuomo, as far as I can tell, addressed the plan once in an interview with the obsequious Alan Chartock on Northeast Public Radio’s WAMC, and the Mayor has said next to nothing.

Meanwhile, shortly after the City Council Speaker unveiled his proposal, he joined me on my podcast to discuss his thinking and the whys and wherefores of it all, and a few days later, Polly Trottenberg, DOT Commissioner and MTA Board member, joined Ben Max for an appearance on Gotham Gazette’s What’s the [Data] Point? podcast. It’s worth delving into their various responses to see how the governor in Albany, the City Council Speaker, and the long-serving DOT Commissioner view their various roles in shaping the region’s transportation landscape.

On Chartock’s roundtable, Cuomo reacts dismissively

Let’s start with Cuomo. He’s the one currently in charge of the MTA, and even if he’s too busy fighting with the guy he brought into clean up the mess, the mess is his. On the one hand, you may think Cuomo would latch onto Johnson’s proposal as a way to rid himself of a pesky political liability, but this is Andrew M. Cuomo we’re talking about. During his only public comments on the Speaker’s proposal, delivered during a media segment with his good buddy Alan Chartock, Cuomo was dismissive. You can listen here, and the exchange follows:

Chartock: I was fascinated this morning when I read the New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has a plan to have the city take charge of the subways. Now let’s face it. Corey Johnson has risen to be Speaker of the City Council. He’s term-limited. I’m sure he’d love to be mayor and so now he’s saying the mayor should be that guy on the subway. So that’s not surprising I suppose. And it would take away control of the subways from the MTA and give it to the mayor. What do you think?

Cuomo: First of all, The New York Times loves to write stories; they’re sometimes loose with the facts. (Chartock chuckles.) New York City owns the subway system today; they lease it to the MTA. The lease can be canceled on one year’s notice. Just cancel the lease. You don’t have to take it over; you own it. Just cancel the MTA lease. All the hiring is done through the New York City civil service system. Why hasn’t a mayor taken it over? There are about 10 billion reasons, and that’s the 10 billion dollars the state gives to the MTA, primarily New York City Transit Authority, between operating and capital. If New York City took it over, they take it over. They don’t get the 10 billion in state funding.

Chartock: Well, why won’t they? They’ll say “Come on, governor. It’s not your money. It’s the taxpayer’s money. So give us the ten billion, and we’ll have the mayor run this thing, just like we do on education.”

Cuomo: No, you own it. It’s yours, you pay for it. God less you. (Chartock chuckles again.) Look, we fund Buffalo transit, Rochester transit, Albany transit. We don’t subsidize a local transit system or a regional transit system anywhere in this state to the tune of what we do with New York City because it’s the MTA and the state has participation. If you want to own, it’s yours. God Bless America.

Chartock: Well let me just pursue that, if I may sir, a little bit. Let me say, you have spoken in the past about the advantage of some sole responsible agent for these things and then you hold them responsible. New York City, for example, you gave that power to the mayor to fix the education system and you took that power away from the Board of Education that was moribund and everything else. Why wouldn’t that work here?

Cuomo: Yes, but New York City education is primarily funded by New York City. The state provides assistance the way they do with every local school district but it’s primarily funded by New York City. You want to take over the city subway system and you want to pay for the New York City subway system, God bless you. You want the state to take it over, and by the way, the state pays the lion’s share of the funding. Last capital plan, we paid $8 billion, the city paid $2 billion, because it’s a state agency. But if you want to take it over and you want to pay, that’s an option. And by the way, you don’t need state approval. Just call up the MTA today and say,” we’re canceling the lease, here’s your one-year notice.” (Chartock chuckles.) And then pay the bill.

Cuomo’s derision nearly speaks for itself, and it’s worse when you hear the half-informed contempt in his voice drip trough the audio. Johnson’s proposal discusses ways to reallocate the funds, ways to ensure regional transit is supported and ways to remove Albany from the equation. Cuomo doesn’t engage with the substance, and it’s not clear he even read the report before parrying with Chartock. I found this reaction quite unsatisfying and almost juvenile. Cuomo is in a position to be governor of New York state for as long as he wants, and it would behoove him to understand why local control of transit would be best for the state, best for the city and best for him.

Johnson discusses the philosophy behind his plan

Needless to say, during our conversation about his plan, Corey Johnson had more thoughtful things to say than the governor did in response. Calling for the buses or subways to come back under city control isn’t a new idea, and it’s one that sort of failed the first time around. So I wanted to understand from Johnson why this plan and why now. He spoke at length, as both a transit rider and policy leader, on the need to rethink transit governance:

This is the first time that an elected official with some level of prominence has decided not just to talk about it in a soundbite-like way, a one-off, two-off way, but to actually present a real plan that could be dissected, that could be modified, that could be added to…. We are in a crisis, and the crisis that we’re in stems from years of disinvestment, years of bad management, and also a lack of creativity on figuring out how to have a 22nd century mass transit system in New York City.

The reason why New York’s economy has grown decade after decade after decade is because of mass transit, is because of our subways and buses. If we want to continue to grow, if we want to be a center for economic activity and a lifeblood for the entire region, we need a mass transit system that works, and the current structure at the MTA is a system that was set up to deflect accountability.

We’re saying is there’s a better way to do this. There’s not just a better way to do it because of the day-to-day issues that riders face; there’s a better way to do it to actually be able to grow the system and expand the system, be creative with the system and do all sorts of things that other cities in Europe and around the United States have been able to do.

Johnson’s plan isn’t a simple cancellation of the lease, as much as Cuomo would like to rid himself of a problem that way. Rather, it involves rethinking governance to add a mobility czar in charge of subways, buses and streets, and then integrate planning and leadership across all of the ways New Yorkers use to travel around the city. It is not, Johnson said, “just looking at these things in their own silos, but actually saying how do you integrate subways and buses and bikes and pedestrians and safe and livable streets in a way that works for the entire city in a master plan-like way, not piecemeal, not one-off.”

No governor is going to choose New York City over the rest of the state. It’s not going to happen. But every mayor is going to have to ensure that the subways and buses run properly.

I don’t want to get too into the weeds on Johnson’s statements to me. After all, you can listen to the full interview, but I do want to look at Johnson’s approach and his reaction to the governor’s statements. In our discussions, the City Council Speaker mentioned Chicago and Los Angeles as examples of areas where mayoral control has led to more holistic planning, and he spoke about Andy Byford’s experiences in London, Sydney and Toronto. “We’re not creating something that no one’s ever done before, he said. “We’re modeling this idea off of what we’ve seen work in other places where you can have greater accountability, the flexibility to try new things, do new things, expand service.”

And what, I asked him, of Gov. Cuomo. Is this about him? After a long, pregnant pause, Johnson spoke. “Even if our current governor was not the governor,” he said. “I still think this would be the right proposal and right plan, and he is not the first governor that has been in charge of the MTA where things have not gone well for the public. Governor Pataki did all sorts of irresponsible things as it related to diverting MTA funding and not investing in the system in a way that was meaningful. So it’s not really about any governor, it’s not really about any mayor, it’s just about setting up a system that works for whoever the governor is and whoever the mayor is. No governor is going to choose New York City over the rest of the state. It’s not going to happen. But every mayor is going to have to ensure that the subways and buses run properly.”

I think about those last few sentences frequently as it seems to get to the crux of Johnson’s argument for local control. The governor won’t side with New York City for political reasons, but the mayor has to answer for local concerns. Johnson elaborated a bit when I pushed him more on Cuomo’s dismissive reaction:

I want to work with the governor, and the way to get things done in a way that benefits the 8.6 million people who live in New York City is to not have a public tit for tat with the governor.

New York City is a city that gives more to the state than we get back. And so there is a symbiotic relationship that exists between New York City and the state. The state funds plenty of programs that they don’t have direct authority and control over and you could work in safety valves where if things were not going well under this new authority, the state could intervene and take control in an emergency, if you had a fiscal crisis again, if you had a mayor that wasn’t doing well and it was screwing up the regional economy…To actually talk about those things, you actually have to have a substantive, thoughtful, comprehensive granular conversation on the details of it.

…When he’s gone, when we have a different governor and a different mayor and when the good times are here and when the bad times come, the system is set up to deflect accountability, to put a lid on creativity, to have any talk about expansion, to have accountability on a day-to-day basis, and that is not a good thing. So it has to be de-personalized. It can’t be about Andrew Cuomo, it can’t be about Bill de Blasio, it can’t be about Corey Johnson. It has to be about what is best for the governance and accountability for the future of New York City 20 years from now, 50 years from now, a century from now. That’s the type of planning that we need to do. That’s the planning that government typically doesn’t do. We do it on electoral cycles, every four years, and that’s what we need to move away from.

At the least, Corey Johnson is thinking on a far deeper level about the theoretical models for control and growth while Gov. Cuomo hasn’t shown the willingness to engage yet. Hopefully, he can get there. But there is a third party involved in this discussion, and to that end, let’s turn to Polly Trottenberg’s comments.

A non-committal response from the NYC DOT Commissioner (and MTA Board Member)

Polly Trottenberg spoke of the city’s role with regards to the MTA in a recent Gotham Gazette interview.

Shortly after I interviewed Corey Johnson, Polly Trottenberg made her appearance on Gotham Gazette’s What’s the [Data] Point? podcast, and the conversation was a good one. I’ve been critical of Trottenberg’s boss for dragging his — and the city’s — feet on street space prioritization, and I wonder if a stronger DOT commissioner could force the mayor’s hand more frequently. But Trottenberg hit the right notes.

“We’re certainly looking to reduce auto usage in the city and particularly to provide alternatives,” she said in response to a question about the city’s current plan. “Providing alternatives is what we very much focused on. If you want to get people out of their cars, you have to have good subway service, you have to have good bus service, you have to have safe protected bike lanes. What we see in New York is that when there’s good bus and subway service, people get out of their cars. When the MTA added those few subway stops on Second Avenue, we saw a real drop in traffic on the Upper East Side When you provide the alternatives people take them.”

Trottenberg’s words ring true: When the city makes alternatives available, people use them. After all, car owners are in the minority in New York and those who feel they have to drive are more than willing to leave their cars at home as soon as a better alternative comes around. But, as Trottenberg noted, “we have stopped growing out our subway system.”

She set an aggressive goal of three new stations per year. “Given the growth and economic dynamist of New York City, we should be opening three subway stops every year,” she said. “That’s the pace, if not faster. That’s how London and Paris and other big global cities are growing out their systems.”

Why New York isn’t building subway stations at that pace is the big question. We know work costs too much; we know work takes too long; we also know there isn’t an impetus from Albany to address these problems. So what then does Trottenberg, a high-ranking city official in an administration that hasn’t exactly embraced Johnson’s call, think of the Speaker’s plan for city control of transit? She danced around the question in her podcast appearance:

They’re certainly ambitious…We are a city that’s very consultive. We have our local elected officials, we have our state elected officals, and lots of folks get interested in these projects…Transportation projects are keenly felt by people in their daily lives. I don’t want to pretend it’s not a big deal when we put in a bus or bike lane or really make radical changes in the street. People feel deeply about that stuff for it and against it…

I think there’s no question we have a great leader in Andy Byford. I think we have to give him the resources and support he needs for what is clearly starting to be a real turnaround for the subway system…I do think the MTA board is a non-transparent and not particularly transparent construct. I think the city has a role to play. We are a big investor in the MTA. It most directly impacts the lives of our citizens, and I’d like to see the city’s priorities really considered and be more a part of what the MTA is focused on.

When it comes to the MTA, the governance questions are a lot deeper than just the board…You really need to take a deeper look at how the whole capital plan comes together, the role of our legislature, the business community…By the time you get to the board the process is sort of cooked. I’d like to see the MTA and city leading up more closely to whatever happens on Board day.

I wouldn’t expect Trottenberg to embrace a politically controversial plan from the outset, but that’s a non-answer if ever there was one.

So where does this leave everything? I hesitate to say battle lines are being drawn because they’re not yet and probably won’t be unless and until Johnson’s plan becomes the centerpiece of an ongoing policy discussion or mayoral campaign. But it’s clear that the current term-limited administration is content to sit this one out while the governor will take his typical “not my idea” approach to someone else’s good idea. That is, he’ll deride it on principle without engaging on substance until it becomes politically expedient for him to shift his tone.

And that’s where things will stand. It’s likely the best and perhaps only way to truly fix the MTA and take control of our transit future will be city control of the buses and subways. The path from here to there, while clearer today than it was before March, remains muddled with countless games of politics yet to unfold.

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Andy Byford spent Friday evening helping passengers with L train-related travel queries. Can the governor coexist with a strong NYC Transit head? (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

Few people in the New York City transit space really trust Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Sure, he delivered on his promise to shepherd congestion pricing through the legislature, but his top-down approach on setting priorities and moving mountains only for his whims leaves much to be desired. He orders those he controls to do his bidding, and he doesn’t like to listen to other ideas from people who may know better. Hence, a fixation on ultra wideband communications technology, last-minute meddling on the L train plans and a backwards Laguardia AirTrain, among many other problems.

Cuomo’s problem seems to stem from one of ego and arrogance. When faced with the reality that he is in charge of something — in the MTA’s case, a position he was dragged to kicking and screaming — Cuomo wants all the credit and none of the blame. The ideas on grand infrastructure are his so he can celebrate the ribbon-cutting. After doing it with the Second Ave. Subway, he is following the same path by ordering a review of East Side Access years after it would have made a difference. As governor, that’s his prerogative, but it leads to a more-than-healthy skepticism from those in the field.

What happens though when Cuomo finds someone competent and qualified to work under him and that person starts getting some of the credit? As we’ve seen, things can get ugly fast, and that’s what may be occurring as New York’s two Andys — Cuomo and Byford — try to co-exist uneasily in the transit space.

It’s not too hard to pinpoint when the relationship went south. After Cuomo stepped in with his L train plan, Byford embraced the idea of a less shutdown-y shutdown but, as the head of New York City Transit, wanted to ensure full transparent accountability. Byford promised an independent assessment of Cuomo’s new scope of work that would be completed before the full work started. Well, the full work started this weekend, and the only result of Byford’s words were a power play by the Governor who removed the L train work from NYC Transit’s scope and placed it under the purview of Janno Lieber and MTA’s capital construction division. The independent assessment never happened; the timeline and full scope of work remains murky; and the construction kicked off in earnest on Friday night. Talk about being sidelined.

Since then, it’s been a rocky few months. Cuomo has pushed forward on the ultra wideband project while Byford has tried to hold the line on a traditional wired approach to communications-based train control (my views on the project in a recent City & State roundtable), and Cuomo and Byford had something of a stand-off when Cuomo insulted MTA workers during public comments at a lobbyist breakfast earlier this year. Byford was defending his staff and people while Cuomo was trying to score political points.

It was hardly a surprise then to see a few articles appear in the New York press regarding the Byford-Cuomo relationship. The first was an Emma Fitzsimmons special in The Times which indicated that colleagues feared Byford may quit. She wrote:

Andy Byford, the transit executive who was hired to rescue New York City’s floundering subway, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have increasingly clashed over management of the system, and several of Mr. Byford’s colleagues said they feared he might quit. The two men did not speak between January and April, even as Mr. Byford was seeking to move forward on a sweeping $40 billion plan to overhaul the subway in the next decade.

If Mr. Byford, who was hired in November 2017, were to step down, it would be a major blow to efforts to improve the system, which has been plagued by antiquated equipment, cost overruns and rising complaints from riders about chronic mismanagement…Mr. Byford’s colleagues said he was troubled that he did not have the support that he believes he needs from Mr. Cuomo to carry out ambitious plans for the system. Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, in turn has felt that Mr. Byford has been reluctant to embrace new technology and needed to understand the governor’s role as the elected official most responsible for the performance of the subways.

Nolan Hicks of The Post ran a companion piece that seemed to downplay a Byford departure but highlighted his frustrations with Cuomo. Let Andy Byford do his job, Hicks’ sources were saying to the governor. “I think he really wants to be left to the do the job he was hired to do. He knows what needs to be done here, he’s done it in three other world cities and he’s got a plan to get these things done,” MTA board member Andrew Albert said.

“Let the man do his job” seems to be the message everyone wants to send to Gov. Cuomo, and it is the right one to send. Byford is here to do a job, and it would benefit Cuomo to let him. That would of course require Cuomo to tamp down on some of his baser instincts. It’s grating on our governor that Byford got The New Yorker treatment and a 60 Minutes puff piece last year, and it goes against his political instincts to share credit. “I feel that every sentence that praises Andy Byford shortens his life-span with Governor Cuomo,” one of The Post’s MTA’s sources said. “Every time, I hear a compliment for Andy Byford, I see another knife in his back.”

But in this case, it behooves Cuomo to put this behind him and share credit. The governor will be viewed as the politician who brought in the right people to fix the MTA’s mess, and Byford can be given enough free rein to do his job and do it successfully with the support of the powerful governor. It ought to be a win-win situation if Cuomo can help himself.

Whether Cuomo can help himself is a different story. In the wake of the reporting on Byford, Cuomo took to Alan Chartock’s radio show to defend himself, and he defending his lack of communication with Byford on the air. “There’s a chairman who runs the authority. In this case it’s Pat Foye, and I deal with the chairman.” he said. “It’s very rare for me to deal with a division head directly.” Shortly after the radio appearance, MTA sources told me Cuomo had in fact been on the phone with the heads of the MTA’s Division of Operations Planning to discuss signal timers and the efforts to speed up trains. So his claim that he doesn’t talk to division heads seems more like a flimsy attempt to defend the silent treatment he’s given Byford than anything based in the reality of how he governs.

Ultimately, though, I believe the stories had their intended effect: Byford said to both The Post and The Times that he doesn’t plan to go anywhere, and this weekend, he was front and center helping customers navigate around the L train work. “I love New York, I love this job, I believe in this system, I believe in this agency, and I’m here for the very long haul. The governor and I are partners in this fight and I want to stay in this job until it is done,” Byford said.

Meanwhile, if Cuomo listened, he heard an outpouring of support for his NYC Transit chief who he tabbed to fix the subway’s problems. Cutting bait now to install another “yes man” who refuses to challenge the governor when appropriate would undermine the progress Byford has made, and I have a feeling that message may just sink in. Instead, Cuomo will have to do what the rest of us learned to do in kindergarten: share. He can share that credit, and the city and MTA will be better off for it.

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The New Yorker featured a cover last week by Bruce McCall that seemed to portend this weekend’s approval of congestion pricing. (Via The New Yorker)

Revenue from traffic fee will bolster MTA capital spending

More than a decade after a backroom deal in Albany shelved Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing, New York City will finally be able to price private automobile access to Manhattan south of 60th Street as the Senate and Assembly passed a budget early Sunday morning that includes authorization for congestion pricing to fund the MTA. The vote makes New York City the first in the nation to implement traffic pricing, and the move should help clear up Manhattan’s congested streets while funding Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan to modernize the subway system.

According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who does deserve credit in pushing this plan through, the congestion pricing revenue will allow the MTA to bond out $15 billion for its capital plan, and the money will be supplemented by a mansion tax on the sale of properties at $25 million or more and an internet sales tax. “This budget,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement, “delivers on our promise to develop sustainable funding for the MTA and addresses critical transportation needs throughout the state.”

MTA officials too sang its praises. Pat Foye, current agency president and soon-to-be chairman, thanked Albany for supporting the traffic fee. “Today will long be viewed as a historic day for the transit system, the environment and the livability of the New York region. Central Business District Tolling is a transformative initiative that will improve our transit system, reduce air pollution, increase mobility, bolster the economy and, put simply, better the lives of all New Yorkers,” he said. “With the leadership of Governor Cuomo, who resurrected this plan and led the way to making it a reality, New York is taking a critical step towards providing MTA customers with the modern, reliable, robust system they want and deserve, while creating tens of thousands of jobs across the entire state.”

Transit advocates have been working on a congestion pricing push for months and took a deserved celebratory lap on Sunday. “This state budget is great news for subway and bus riders who have been advocating for fair and sustainable sources of funding to fix our ailing transit systems. The billions of dollars raised through congestion pricing and other new revenue sources will help modernize the MTA with new train signals, new subway cars, and faster and more reliable bus service,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “In the coming months, we look forward to working with the TBTA and the new Traffic Mobility Review Board to ensure that the final congestion pricing plan is is robust and comprehensive, and that new funding translates into a faster and more reliable commute for millions of daily riders.”

Nick Sifuentes, Executive Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, echoed those sentiments: “At long last, we’ll start to get our city moving again and make both crippling traffic congestion and constant subway breakdowns a thing of the past.

Yet, while advocates have worked tirelessly to push this weekend’s approval across the finish line, the hard work has only just begun as the devil will be in the details. The budget legislation that approved congestion pricing did not provide details of the plan. Rather, it mandates the aforementioned Traffic Mobility Review Board, a new six-member board under the auspices of the Tri-Borough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, develop the pricing plan, and already politicians are angling for exemptions and carve-outs that would water down the effectiveness of it all.

Mayor Bill de Blasio conditioned his approval, infuriatingly enough, on the amorphous guarantee that the pricing plan would include carve-outs. In press appearances and conversations with Brian Lehrer, the mayor has constantly pushed for the idea of exemptions for various people he feels must drive into Manhattan, and while access to the East Side hospitals should be a consideration, congestion pricing will live or die on the limited scope of the carve-outs and the rigorousness with which they are enforced.

In this age of parking placard corruption, spearheaded by lax NYPD enforcement and constant NYPD abuse, though, anyone questioning de Blasio’s blind adherence to carve-outs is right to do so. After all, far more New Yorkers heading to doctors in Manhattan take transit than drive, a favorite de Blasio talking point. Still, the arrival of congestion pricing in New York City should be a celebrated one among transit enthusiasts and urbanists alike. (I’ve written at length as to why congestion pricing is a progressive solution to NYC’s transportation woes, and I urge you to revisit my Curbed piece from last August.)

Yet, despite this great victory, I too share some of the reticence recently expressed by Nicole Gelinas in The Post over the haste and lack of details in the current congestion pricing push. As she wrote, the MTA has never provided a definite cost-breakdown for all elements of the Fast Forward plan, and the state hasn’t actually given the MTA most of the $8 billion Cuomo committed a few years ago. “As it is, the MTA struggles to spend the money it already has when it comes to long-term physical assets, she noted. “The MTA is nearing the end of a regular five-year infrastructure-upgrade program, money to be invested in projects between 2015 and 2019, and to cost $33.3 billion. But it only has spent $10.9 billion of that money.”

I’ve expressed concerns about the overall framing of this congestion pricing push and have cautioned against treating congestion pricing as a solution to traffic and transit together. We need congestion pricing. It will help clear up our roads, but it must come with a pre-implementation guarantee of additional transit service in areas without robust subway access. I worry that treating it as a fix-all for transit funding and for the subways is overpromising on much needed benefits. Furthermore, as Gelinas pointed out on Sunday, the Traffic Mobility Review Board seems primed to hand over significant control of local New York City streets to suburban legislatures, a potentially damaging mistake that could harm the successful of comprehensive congestion pricing.

Despite this skepticism, though, I’ve spoken with numerous advocates who have urged me and others to celebrate this win, and environmental groups and transit advocates alike are looking forward to clearing the city streets. Plus, the budget finally includes a dedicated lockbox that Cuomo claims he will enforce to “ensure that 100% of this revenue goes to the MTA capital budget and prohibits the use of these revenues for non-capital spending.” (Whether this is an ultimate good remains to be seen. Some congestion pricing revenue should go to increased operations spending to ensure the transit system can withstand the boost in ridership a properly crafted traffic pricing plan should create.)

Other MTA reforms raise eyebrows

But — and when it comes to Andrew Cuomo and transit, there’s always a “but” involved — the legislature also passed Cuomo’s (and de Blasio’s) MTA faux-reform package. I wrote at length about this reform package a few weeks ago when it was first announced, and it’s worth revising the details here. Some of the key reforms are as follows:

  • An MTA reorganization plan issued by the agency by June, which is off to an auspicious start as the MTA recently gave away the deal to a contractor in a no-bid $2 million contract.
  • A long-awaited forensic audit and efficiency review.
  • The Cornell and Columbia professors who have limited expertise in MTA capital construction will review major projects.
  • A 20-year capital needs assessment beginning in 2023. For what it’s worth, the MTA usually issued a 20-year needs proposal every five years to coincide with the capital budget, but we have yet to see one this year.
  • Increasing the competitive procurement threshold to $1 million (from $100,000) to speed up the contracting process.
  • MTA Board appointees that are coterminous with the tenure of the official appointing the board member, a move that favors the term limit-free governor over the term-limited mayor.
  • A requirement that any Capital Program Review Board member who does not approve of the MTA capital plan issue a written explanation for their veto, and provide the MTA the opportunity to respond and revise the plan so the member may withdraw their veto.

All told, these measures give the governor, who already controls the MTA even more power and siphons more say in the future of its transit network away from New York City. If anything, this should lead to more dialogue around Corey Johnson’s proposal to bring the subways and buses back under city control, a topic I plan to revisit soon.)

Ands I mentioned, good governance groups are not happy with these proposals. Reinvent Albany dissected the plan in February and aired additional criticism over the weekend after the MTA reforms were essentially approved, debate-free, during a late-night budgeting session.

That’s an inauspicious start for MTA reform if ever there was one, and the good governance group wasn’t the one party voicing its concerns. Allen Cappelli, a former MTA Board member who was effectively pushed out over disagreements with the governor, told The Post, doing away with independent staggered appointments was “the wrong thing to do.” Cappelli added, “Cuomo has been the problem, not the solution. He’s been reluctant to fund the MTA properly. He’s deflecting.”

Cuomo loyalist named to head MTA; donor picked for Board

And just how is Cuomo exercising this new control? Well, we caught a glimpse of it late last week when he nominated Pat Foye to head the MTA and named a big-time donor to the board. Foye’s nomination came after Joe Lhota left abruptly last fall, and it’s a very Andrew Cuomo pick. Foye worked for Cuomo in 2011, served as Executive Director of the Port Authority (and president of the PATH train) from 2011 to 2017 and has been President of the MTA — a new position — since August 2017. He had the following to say about being named Chairman:

“As a lifelong rider – and a daily customer – of the MTA, I can think of no higher honor or more important challenge than serving at the helm of an agency that connects millions of people each day to their jobs, schools, families, and friends. There is no question that we have a great deal of work ahead of us, to bring truly innovative and meaningful reform to the agency and provide the service and system New Yorkers deserve.

I want to thank Governor Cuomo for this honor and opportunity. I have been honored to serve the Governor and the people of the State of New York. I know the new leadership team we have in place is up to this challenge, and I want to thank my colleagues for their hard work and commitment to making the MTA a more efficient and effective place. I especially want to thank our union member partners, who work tirelessly every day to keep this region moving. And I’m grateful to both Acting Chair Fernando Ferrer and our former Chairman Joe Lhota for their past guidance and leadership. I look forward to working with our customers, elected officials, the MTA Board and advocates as we continue to improve and build a transit system that truly works for all New Yorkers.”

On its own, Foye’s appointment isn’t a bad one, but it’s a very inside-the-box, Cuomo-loyalist approach to the MTA. Foye knows who he answers to, and he knows what Cuomo wants. He likely will give Byford enough leeway to implement the most substantive pieces of the Fast Forward plan, but this is an appointment designed to indicate to Byford and others inside the agency that Cuomo is very much in control. As Reinvent Albany’s John Kaehny said to Politco New York, “He’s an experienced technocrat and knows the transportation lay of the land and he’s trusted by the governor and he’s been reasonably accessible to the public, or certainly was when he was at the Port Authority. I would say it’s the conservative choice and the expected choice.”

New names fill MTA Board

Cuomo’s other MTA Board appointments are in a similar vein. Cuomo named Haeda B. Mihaltses, currently the Mets’ Vice President of External Affairs, to the Board. Mihaltses spent 12 years in the Bloomberg administration and worked for Peter Vallone before that. She replaces Peter Ward, a 2016 Cuomo appointee, and will be a fine Board member. But I chuckled at another Cuomo appointee named last week.

The governor tabbed Michael Lynton, the one-time CEO of Sony Entertainment, to the Board as well. While you would never know it from the governor’s press release, Lynton earned headlines a few years back during the Sony email leak when his extensive fundraising ties to the governor were laid bare for the public to see. We know full well where Lynton’s sympathies lie, and we can see exactly how Cuomo uses his own people to enhance and underscore his control of the MTA. (Lynton replaces Charles Moerdler, an eight-year board vet who was nominated by David Paterson in 2010 and whose appointment had expired in 2016. Moerdler had recently raised eyebrows with his aggressive calls to criminalize all subway and bus fare evasion.)

Also joining the MTA Board will be a new representative from Suffolk County as holdover Mitch Pally has been replaced by Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association. Pally was a 14-year vet whose last term expired in 2016 as well and had pushed the MTA to avoid its upcoming fare hike. David Mack and and Sarah Feinberg, a Federal Railroad Administration official during President Obama’s tenure, joined the Board in recent weeks as well. Mack, who has a history with Cuomo and the MTA. fills Nassau County’s empty seat while Feinberg replaces Schott Rechler. Rhonda Herman was named as Westchester County’s rep which may bounce Andrew Saul from the Board. With the recent departure of Carl Weisbrod, I believe that gives the mayor the chance to suggest a new board member as well.

Ultimately, this was a good week for New York City and a good week for MTA funding. We wasted a decade spinning our wheels on congestion pricing and still have to push through a properly limited plan to ensure it isn’t captured by special interests, but New York City’s streets will finally be priced. Congestion pricing can only improve from here. Where things stand with MTA reform and governance is an open question. Gov. Andre Cuomo, barely a friend of transit, continues to assert his control, as is his right, but it seems unlikely his plans will actually fix the MTA or its inefficient cost and construction problems. For that, we may just need a better governor, a more forceful mayor and a new way to approach transit governance that does not rely so heavily on loyalists and donors.

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Speaker Corey Johnson laid out the case for municipal control of transit with a sweeping and comprehensive approach to streets in a speech and 100-page report on Tuesday.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson thrust himself into the debate over the future of the MTA in a big way on Tuesday during his State of the City speech as he called for the city, and not the state, to control its subways and buses. Instead of the MTA, Johnson envisions a Big Apple Transit Authority to oversee transit and the city’s bridges and tunnels while introducing top-to-bottom reforms and introducing congestion pricing to NYC.

“Municipal control means we decide how our system is run,” Johnson said during his speech. “We decide how we raise our money, and we decide how we spend it.”

The proposal to unwind the MTA is the centerpiece of a companion report [pdf] that stretches to over 100 pages and includes a truly comprehensive vision change New York City streets by prioritizing mass mobility over private automobile use. It calls for significant investment in bus prioritization technology and a massive increase in bus lanes; planning for a truly comprehensive network of safe bike lanes; and a reduction of private automobile ownership by 50% over 30 years.

It is, in nearly every sense, a rebuke of de Blasio Administration’s lackluster approach to transit and a welcome wrench thrown in the ongoing discussion over the MTA. As Bill de Blasio falls for Cuomo’s bait-and-switch on MTA reform while showing his willingness to cede more city input on transit to the state as part of the 10-point deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic proposal announced last week, Corey Johnson has created a vision for a more mobile New York freed from the tyranny of the car.

Inside the Plan

With 104 pages to get through, it’s going to take some time to digest this report, but my initial take is that it is extremely thorough and well done. We knew Johnson had been working on this report for a while, and I was worried that calls for local control would gloss over the issue of the lack of city taxing authority to compensate for lost state revenue. But Johnson and his team devote significant attention to the need for more city financial power, and he adroitly couples this call with a lengthy discussion on all aspects of transit reform, from capital procurement process to labor costs and work rules, and continued support for commuter railroads and regional planning.

I’ll have a more detailed examination of the ins and outs of the reports in upcoming posts. For today, let’s run through some highlights. As I see it, the proposal includes an easy part and a hard part. Let’s start with the har part — which is of course the local control of the buses and subways.

As I mentioned, Johnson begins with a call to bring New York City Transit, MBSTOA, MTA Bus, the Staten Island Railway, the former Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and a portion of MTA HQ under one entity city-controlled entity called Big Apple Transit. The BAT would be a city agency on par with NYC DOT, under the auspicies of a Mobility Czar (akin to today’s DOT Commissioner) and fully controlled by the mayor. A board would oversee the BAT, and the board would be drawn from New Yorkers who use transit. The BAT, Johnson said, would be modeled on the Water Board, run as part of the city budgeting process and subject to outside scrutiny. The capital planning process would shift to a 10-year scope with far more transparency than currently in place.

In terms of finances, Johnson gets very creative. The MTA would survive to retire its massive debt, and thus, revenue would flow through BAT to the MTA until the debt is gone. But going forward, BAT would issue its on bonds, a move Cap’n Transit was particularly fond of in early reactions. Congestion pricing and increase in city taxation powers to offset lost state revenue are required, and Johnson wants to exploit intricacies of the Trump tax law to impose levies that remain fully deductible for corporations under federal law. Again, this is complicated, and I’ll have more on that in upcoming posts. This is the crux of the proposal, and it lives or dies with the city’s ability to raise sufficient revenue without relying on fare hikes.

Johnson then runs through the litany of typical transit reform initiatives: end inefficient procurement; address labor costs; implement work rule reforms, etc. He promises to support regional planning and commuter rail (including free up additional money for commuter rail investment), and he issued a nod to sustaining and building out the Fair Fares program.

Now, all of that requires cooperation and willing partners in Albany. We’ll come back to that, but let’s run down the easy part. To one degree or another, the city could do just about everything else Johnson proposed nearly immediately. It is, he says, a “master plan for city streets” designed to “Bring cohesion to what is now a patchwork system of upgrades,” clear shots fired across the bow of the de Blasio Administration.

To that end, Johnson wants to focus on buses. He wants to install at least 30 miles of truly dedicated and physically separated bus lanes a year; introduce signal priority technology to at least 1000 intersections per year; and implement a bus network redesign by 2025. He calls for a comprehensive livable streets program with more plazas and shared streets, accessible intersections citywide by 2030, and at least 50 miles of actually protected bike lanes a year with a fully connected bike network by 2030.

“We need to break the car culture,” Johnson said to loud applause during his speech. This involves reducing city vehicle usage by 25 in five years and reducing citywide car ownership by half by 2050. These are laudable goals and ones that have for far too long been lacking city transportation planning. These are also goals, as I mentioned, completely within the scope of the city’s current powers.

The Political Reaction

A plan this large and in-depth demands a reaction, but it also demands careful consideration. Allies and opponents won’t materialize overnight, but many in New York chimed in today with various reactions. The Transit Literati who have grown sick of Gov. Cuomo and the opaqueness and problems of state control (me included) seemed to like the plan, but the notable reactions were from politicians saying not much of anything.

“The City already owns the New York City transit system,” a Cuomo spokesperson said. The governor is essentially daring the city to go nuclear in canceling the state’s lease of the subways, but this would leave the city with an inoperable asset and no funding plan. It’s a sniveling and conniving response at best.

Leroy Comrie, one of the State Senators tasked with MTA oversight, also didn’t seem amenable to the idea. “As a former city council member, I understand the desire for people to be parochial about their communities, but as a now-state official looking at the needs of the entire state and the impact of congestion on the entire metropolitan area, I understand we have to figure something out,” he said. I don’t know what’s parochial about good transit governance or the state’s largest city controlling how its residents and workers get around, and I question how much leeway we give Comrie, a five-year Senator and 18-year New York politician, to “figure something out” because he certainly hasn’t done much figuring out in two decades. I’m also still waiting to hear a strong case for extra-regional control of New York City Transit, but I digress.

Similarly, Carl Heastie, when told that Johnson wants the city to pass congestion pricing if the state does not, had a terse comment: “We believe [congestion pricing] falls within the purview of Albany.” If anything, these voices from Albany show that holding onto power simply for the sake of having power is important, and these men will give up a power they don’t really need and shouldn’t have easily.

Meanwhile, the mayor, who discovered the subways only last week, said essentially nothing, via a spokesperson: “While he appreciates the Speaker’s transit vision and contribution, the Mayor is focused on immediate actions to fix the broken subway system. Our subways are in the middle of a crisis that needs an immediate solution. The Mayor stands with millions of riders depending on action right now. We have four weeks to deliver sustainable revenue sources capable of turning this crisis around.”

A few advocates unfortunately echoed these sentiments. While the Straphangers Campaigned praised Johnson and issued a call for “serious debate,” others did not want to change the subject away from congestion pricing. “Let’s deal with getting the MTA funded first, and then we can discuss how and who controls it after we get through that hurdle,” Nick Sifuentes, head of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said.

In comments to Politoco, the Riders Alliance had a similar view and seemed almost annoyed by a truly comprehensive rethinking of transit. “We’ve worked for years to demonstrate to everyone that it is Cuomo’s MTA, that the MTA is in fact run by the state and controlled by the governor. We’re at the point now where that’s been acknowledged. Now the challenge is to get funding out of the state,” Danny Pearlstein, the group’s policy director, said.

My Take: A bomb thrown toward transit complacency

The mayor’s statement and those from the leading advocacy groups seem to indicate that too many are putting all their MTA eggs in the congestion pricing basket. They seem to view congestion pricing as an “immediate fix” to the MTA’s woes, and this is misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Congestion pricing will solve other city problems while providing a new revenue stream for transit investment, and it’s an outcome NYC desperately needs. It will not “fix” the MTA; only aggressive reform and careful oversight will do that. Congestion pricing has to be implemented carefully and properly to work, and tying it into some magical MTA fix will harm both the efficacy of congestion pricing and real MTA reform efforts.

To that end, this is a plan worth probing and likely one worth pursuing. At a bare minimum, a reorganized mess winds up more efficiency than the disorganized mess it replaces, and even modest gains in all the areas Johnson’s proposal tackles would realize huge benefits from the transit system and city at large. If this plan works, it could go a long way toward solving operations, governance and spending issues that plague the MTA. It’s certainly worth debating.

Ultimately, Corey Johnson threw a bomb into a complacent crowd of people who have had years to solve the problem and have done nothing, and they don’t know how to react. That crowd includes seasoned politicians, transit advocates and outside authorities on how the MTA is run. Corey Johnson has succeeded where Cuomo, de Blasio and countless others before them have failed: He has shaken up the status quo and introduced a viable, new proposal into the mix. We’ll see where it goes from here.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio see here on something called the sub-way. (Photo via NYC Mayor’s Office on Instagram)

The mayor of New York City rode the subway last week, and it was a Big Deal.

In most cities similarly transit-dependent as NYC, the simple fact that the mayor took a took a 19-minute, one-way, nine-stop subway ride from his gym to City Hall wouldn’t even merit an announcement, but New York isn’t most cities. In 2019, in New York City, a mayoral subway ride warranted a special announcement in the mayor’s public schedule, a press coterie, an Instagram post, and a media availability session afterwards. In year six of the Bill de Blasio Administration, this brouhaha around a subway ride — something as necessary as breathing to millions of New Yorkers every day — is a clear sign that something, somewhere went wrong with our mayor’s approach to transit, and the mayor’s comments afterwards laid bare the depths of the problem.

The purpose of the Great Mayoral Subway Ride of 2019 was to drum up support for an MTA reform-and-funding plan reliant and congestion pricing, and the mayor seemed to view it as a personal fact-finding mission. To start the press conference, Streetsblog’s Gersh Kuntzman asked the mayor what he learned from his subway ride, and the answer is something to behold. “What I gleaned,” the mayor said, “is people really depend on their subways. They need their subways to work and they are frustrated.”

Marinate in that statement; soak it in. The Mayor of New York City learned last week that New Yorkers, his fellow citizens of this city since he moved back here for college in 1980 and his constituents since he first won a City Council seat in 2002, really depend on their subways. This too is what a bunch of out-of-towners visiting from Nebraska learn on their first trips through the New York City subways.

The mayor continued with his answer:

A lot of people I talked to said I don’t know when I’m ever going to get to work. Some days I get to work on time, some days I’m a half hour late, 45 minutes late, you can hear the frustration. And you can hear the urgency. And I will tell you, this was just going out there, talking to a bunch of New Yorkers, I wouldn’t have been shocked by any number of reactions. What I heard consistently was a demand for action and a belief that we need a plan, we need it to be voted on now. So my message to all the strap hangers was this is the last best chance to get something done. The Governor and I have a plan, it’s going to actually turn around the MTA – we need people to support it. And most people responded very favorably.

Is this new to the mayor? Has he bothered to look into constituent complaints about the subway that have grown exponentially in volume over the past two or three years? Does he know how New York City works?

The mayor’s initial answer speaks to a six-year problem transit and livable streets advocates have long had with the mayor: He does not seem to understand New York City. The mayor has long been a self-proclaimed motorist first and a transit rider/pedestrian a distant second. Practically speaking, this means the mayor has a vastly different relationship with travel around the city than most New Yorkers who haven’t had the privilege of free car rides and free parking in Manhattan for the bulk of their professional careers.

During his tenure, the mayor has implemented a disjointed transit and transportation policy at best. My views on the NYC Ferry system are well-documented in my past posts on this site and on Curbed, and the BQX leaves much to be desired as a signature transit proposal. The Department of Transportation has made some strides toward its Vision Zero goal, but the city has no overall policy for reducing private vehicle use and congestion while promoting more equitable means of travel or safer streets for people who walk, ride their bikes or take the buses or subways. We do not have a mayor devoted to an aggressive policy of prioritizing street space for high-capacity buses — which could include city-implemented physically separated lanes, a citywide signal prioritization efforts, aggressive enforcement of bus lanes and/or a reduction of parking placards that lead to private cars parked in what are supposed to travel lanes for buses. We do not have a mayor devoted toward building a bike network that provides safe spaces for low-income travel. Instead, city vehicle miles are up; placards are ascendant and abuse rampant; and the mayor cannot even maintain a reasonable pace for something as simple as bike rack installation, let alone bus route rollout.

The ongoing debate over the 14th Street Busway is a prime example of de Blasio’s insufficient and non-supportive approach to transit promotion. The Busway, proposed for the L train shutdown that isn’t, could have been a model for a better way to move people across town. The current M14 routes maintain speeds below 4 miles per hour — or walking pace for healthy adults — and the traffic means that everyone who needs to rely on a bus can’t get anywhere particularly quickly. It’s an access issue and one that should get to the heart of the Mayor’s old “Tale of Two Cities” campaign rhetoric. But when Gov. Cuomo pulled the plug on the L train shutdown, the mayor threw the Busway to the wolves, and instead of strong executive support, it’s been up to local politicians who understand transit and transit advocates to fight to maintain these modest upgrades on one out of Manhattan’s 255 crosstown blocks.

Further afield, the mayor has constantly gotten outfoxed by the governor on issues relating to subway funding and governance. In fact, during the same press conference, the mayor played right into Cuomo’s hands. When defending the MTA reform/congestion pricing plan, the Mayor essentially ceded any say in MTA matters to the governor:

“This is a very bold plan…You know the estimate now is over $20 billion. That sounds bold to me – changing the entire governance structure of the MTA, finally assigning responsibility fully to the State and the Governor, a whole lot more checks and balances in terms of how the MTA does it’s work because we have all seen the problems. I think professionalizing the work and adding more transparency makes a lot of sense. So, this is perfectly bold.

“To the question of City revenue – clearly most of what happens with our subways and buses comes from straphangers, comes from tax payers, comes from New York City government, that’s where most of the revenue comes from already. But we didn’t have a governance structure that made sense. You think having four members on such a big board gets us anywhere? It hasn’t. So I would rather have – the equivalent I make is like mayoral control of education, I would rather have one person in charge, it clearly should be the Governor.

Later on, the mayor was challenged on this issue of gubernatorial control. Why, he was asked, is he more comfortable with control now if the Governor has presided over the MTA for the last eight years New Yorkers are not satisfied? He responded:

Because I don’t believe there has been clear, public acknowledgement of who is in charge. That is – you know better than anyone, the MTA structure was created for the purpose of making sure that no one was seen to be in charge. This is saying out loud, everyone understands, again, the equivalent of mayoral control of education, gubernatorial control of the MTA, full accountability, there have to be some checks and balances as always, but full accountability. And I think it changes everything.

There hasn’t been a clear, public acknowledgment of who is in charge because Andrew Cuomo rightly determined years ago that it benefits Andrew Cuomo to try to argue against reality and de Blasio went along with it because he couldn’t articulate an argument against the view that no one was in charge of the MTA. Through these words, de Blasio is essentially ceding any say in transit matters fully to Albany and Governor Cuomo. Before this proposal was revealed, Cuomo had full control over the MTA, but the city could exert a voice. In this instance last week after his very special subway ride, Bill de Blasio seems to be giving up even that voice on a local concern as vital as transit matters. It’s a state problem now, the mayor says, as he washes his hands of this mess. Whether city or state control would be best for New York City’s transit system is a separate issue worthy of a long post, but either way, Bill de Blasio isn’t too interested in fighting for his constituents to ensure Albany doesn’t keep mucking it all up again and again. Ain’t my issue now, he says.

To make matters worse, de Blasio undermined congestion pricing at the same time. He had already gone on record last week stating his belief that a millionaires’ tax, a plan that delivers none of the benefits of traffic control, would be best, and during his press availability, he spoke more on the watered-down congestion pricing proposal he support. He talked about how he has “taken the bridges out of the equation” and wants multiple hardship exemptions, a situation ripe for abuse on the same level as the city’s rampant placard abuse epidemic. He simply can’t speak to the benefits of reduced congestion in Manhattan or the need to envision a city without cars everywhere. It escapes his worldview and he will not try to understand this different perspective.

In a way, despite years of feuding, de Blasio and Cuomo are more alike than they would probably care to admit. They are of the view that what each determine to be the way forward is the only right one and no one can charge either man’s mind. For Cuomo, that leads to spending with dubious value and transit projects that cement his legacy as a builder. For the mayor, that means largely ignoring the need to defend New York City and its transit riders from a disinterested but meddlesome governor and ignoring the need to promote best and more efficient and equitable uses of city streets.

We’re stuck with Cuomo until he loses or decides not to run again, but the mayor’s term ends in 2021. When we have another choice, we pick someone who understand what transit means to New Yorkers and how best to shape a city so that mobility for all comes to the forefront. A subway ride for anyone, let alone the mayor who has to represent everyone, shouldn’t be a reason for a press conference; it should just be a part of the day, like it is for millions of other New Yorkers day in and day out.

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In a rare moment of political unity from the mayor and governor, Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo unveiled on Tuesday a ten-point plan to fund and reform the MTA. Notably, the plan showcases congestion pricing as the prime funding mechanism, and the announcement marks the first time the mayor has issued a public endorsement of congestion pricing. It also introduces an internet sales tax and the so-called “Weed for Rails” proposal NYU and Melissa Mark-Viverito introduced in December which directs cannabis excise tax dollars to transit funding.

All told, it’s an aggressive show of unity from the mayor and governor that could allow the MTA to bond out up to $22 billion a year for capital funding and should usher in an era of congestion pricing, in some form or another, to free up New York City’s overcrowded streets. But is it a good plan? Is it the right one for New York City? Does it deliver enough for beleaguered transit riders without giving away too much to a governor hellbent on exerting as much control as he can over an agency that, at its core, runs the transportation engine that powers New York City? Let’s dive in.

I’ve written this post as a series of segments so you can jump around if you’d like. I’ll tackle the proposal first; the political reaction second; feedback from other transit advocates third; and some concluding thoughts last.

A. Analysis of the Proposal
B. The Political Reaction
C. Transit Advocates Respond
D. My Take On The Whole Thing

The Proposal

The Governor and the Mayor’s ten-point plan arrived on Tuesday morning in the form of a massive press release. The Mayor put out a subsequent release with his own statement and spoke to reporters later in the day. Cuomo’s public statements came in the form of a friendly interview with Brian Lehrer. I’ll cover both of those in the next section. Let’s take a look at what the two politicians, not exactly friends or fans of transit, are proposing.

1. Reorganize the MTA

As the lead part of the proposal, the MTA is going to reorganize itself to create a more centralized governing body. As the two announced, “All common functions such as construction management, legal, engineering, procurement, human resources, advertising etc. will be consolidated and streamlined in a central operation. The individual divisions will focus on day-to-day management of their primary operation.” The MTA is expected to complete this plan by June and bring with it a change in culture “which will generate fresh ideas and new perspective from new and recently appointed senior and mid-level management recruited from the private sector and other cities and states.”

As an aside, for what it’s worth, the private sector does not have a magic wand that will fix the MTA, and based on current MTA hiring freezes and pay scales, most people moving into middle management roles from the private sector are unlikely to be top talent. That said, it’s not impossible to recruit top talent, but this is not likely to be a real fix. I touch on this more below in my analysis.

2. Congestion Pricing

Along with the MTA reorg, congestion pricing will become a reality with a go-live date of December 2020, following approval of the MTA’s next five-year capital plan. The congestion pricing zone will encompass Manhattan south of 61th St. and will be enforced via electronic cashless tolling, under the auspices of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

Revenue from congestion pricing — and the internet sales and cannabis excises taxes — would be placed into a transit lockbox, but there are certain exemptions, implemented at the direction of the notorious motorist Bill de Blasio: “Tolls would be variable providing discounts for off-peak hour travel. Emergency vehicles will be exempt from congestion pricing tolls. Other exemptions or discounts will be provided to a limited group of vehicles entering the CBD including vehicles operated by or transporting people with disabilities and individuals who have an identifiable hardship or limited ability to access medical facilities in the CBD.”

3. Fare Hike Caps

All fare hikes will be limited to “inflationary increases” of 2% per year (which they already are and have been for a while).

4. MTA Board Appointments

All MTA Board appointments will be coterminous with the terms of the official who made the appointment or recommendation. Thus, all mayoral appointees would expire upon the end of a mayoral administration and ditto for a governor, county executive, etc.

5. Fare Evasion

I’ll quote this one because I am truly exhausted and tired of this red herring of a conversation:

Partnership between the State and City is necessary to combat fare evasion. We cannot have a voluntary fare system and still maintain a system that ensures operational stability. The State will work with the MTA, City and District Attorneys to develop an enforcement strategy, with both personnel and station design modifications that do not criminalize fare evasion but instead prevent fare evasion, sanction violators and increase enforcement.

6. Audit

According to the press release, someone will audit the MTA to “determine their actual assets and liabilities” and provide budgetary statements that do not “strain financial credibility,” as Cuomo has consistently claimed, not incorrectly, that they do.

7. Regional Transit Committee

Seemingly replacing the opaque Capital Program Review Board, which effectively offers a veto point to the governor, mayor, Senate and Assembly over the MTA Capital Plan, a Regional Transit Committee, consisting of members “who have no existing financial relationship with the MTA” will review the Capital Plan and any toll and fare increases proposed “as necessary to fund the Capital Plan.” It’s not clear if this board will review toll and fare increases that fund only operations or why an additional layer of bureaucracy is needed here.

8. The Columbia and Cornell Experts Return

Not content to rest on his L train laurels, Cuomo is bringing back his pals from Cornell and Columbia to conduct construction review on every major project. The press release muddles terminology and glosses over the fact that Andy Byford recently brought in one of the foremost expert in signal technology to do exactly this, but take a read:

The MTA will have all major construction projects and planned projects pursued as “design build.” The MTA will do preliminary drawings only to the point necessary for bidding the project in a private sector competition based primarily on cost and timing of the project. Selections will be made with incentives and sanctions for performance. All major construction projects will be reviewed by construction and engineering experts who are not affiliated with the MTA or its consultants. The construction review team will be headed by the Deans of Cornell School of Engineering and Columbia School of Engineering to assure state of the art design and technology is being deployed. This group will also review the plans for signal system upgrade methodology and decide the best system to use, specifically comparing Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) to Ultra-Wide-Band (UWB) technology for safety, timeliness and cost. The MTA will be more aggressive in debarring failed contractors.

It’s not clear if these Cornell and Columbia deans have the expertise to review every MTA construction project or why they’re willing to engage in this charade. Notably, this item does not include actual cost control, a true reform that’s badly needed.

9. Expedite the Subway Action Plan

OK. This is really stretching a “ten items” list now.

10. Stop. Collaborate. Listen.

I quote: “The Governor and Mayor will work closely with the Legislature to effectuate provisions in this framework.” This shouldn’t count as an item, but it does. The bulk of this list arises out of items 1, 2, 7 and 8, and the rest are window-dressing. This is an four-item plan with some filler and a vague promise to enact (or maybe reenact?) current practices.

The Political Reaction

Following the release of this list, Cuomo and de Blasio spent some time defending the proposal, as they should. The mayor, who has long resisted the progressive pull of congestion pricing, threw some shade on the idea, as he does. He released the following statement:

“Working New Yorkers struggle every day to get around our city. We cannot let another year pass without action that makes people’s lives easier. This crisis runs deeper than ever before, and it’s now clear there is no way to address it without congestion pricing and other dedicated revenue streams. The time to act is now.

“The proposal we’re announcing today addresses concerns I’ve raised related to a lockbox for transit, fairness to the outer boroughs and accommodating hardships. I still believe a Millionaires Tax provides the best, most sustainable revenue source for the transit improvements our city needs. But the time to act is running out, and among all alternatives, congestion pricing has the greatest prospects for immediate success. In light of this reality, it is my hope that critics of congestion pricing will join me in acknowledging its necessity.

“I look forward to partnering with the Governor and the Legislature as we work to ensure this proposal to revitalize the MTA becomes a reality.”

I don’t believe the Mayor will ever get to the point of embracing congestion pricing. He is a self-proclaimed motorist who has spent years driving short distances easily covered by transit simply because he can and he likes it better. He doesn’t understand the environmental imperative for congestion pricing or the reality that the congestion-choking status quo is simply economically harmful and unsustainable for a vibrant urban area. He doesn’t care to learn how congestion pricing, if implemented properly, will clear the roads while boosting productivity and mobility. But if he’s willing to fight for this proposal, maybe that’s OK. Proponents need all the friends they can get, and that includes the mayor right now.

The governor, on the other hand, appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show shortly after releasing the press release and engaged in an enlightened discussion with the WNYC host. Cuomo talked about the exceedingly low percentage of New Yorkers driving into Manhattan and the need to clear streets to improve transit. “It doesn’t matter how well the bus is running if the bus is only going four miles an hour because there’s so much congestion,” Cuomo said of the congestion reduction benefits.

Overall, though, Cuomo said nothing new. He talked at length about the various arcane politics behind MTA governance and funding. He repeated his lies and half-truths about MTA control and spoke, as he often does, as one who does not control the MTA even though he very clearly does. He’s willing to go to bat for his plan, perhaps more than the mayor is, but that doesn’t get to the fundamental question as to whether this plan is good.

Some politicians weren’t convinced. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie expressed reservations about earmarking taxes from the legalization of recreational marijuana to transit. He feels these funds should go first to those who suffered due to the war on drugs.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson also expressed skepticism. He’s currently working on a proposal for city control of the buses and subways, an argument likely to be the centerpiece should Johnson run for mayor in 2021.

The Advocates Chime In

And what of the transit and good governance advocates? Unsurprisingly, reaction was mixed. Both the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Riders Alliance celebrated the pro-congestion pricing statement. Nik Sifuertes, head of TSTC called it a “smart, sensible framework for congestion pricing that builds on the successes of other cities and is tailored to New York City’s unique needs.”

John Raskin of the Riders Alliance noted the two leaders’ kumbaya moment. “When the governor and mayor put out a plan together, it means real momentum toward enacting congestion pricing to fix the subway,” he said. “The agreement reflects a growing recognition that congestion pricing alone won’t solve the transit crisis, but that it is the single largest source of revenue on the table and should be the cornerstone of a bigger funding package.”

Others were a bit more skeptical. Transit Center raised a concern about the requirement that any reorganization of the MTA be completed by June.

But the most withering take came from Reinvent Albany, a good governance watchdog group pushing from reform and transparency in Albany. This group, headed by John Kaehny, raised “serious concerns” with the plan and wondered if the plan will do more harm than good. Reinvent Albany strongly supports congestion pricing and new revenue for the MTA, but we believe the MTA’s biggest organizational problem is the Governor’s endless political meddling and sidelining of the MTA and NYC Transit professional staff.”

Specifically, Reinvent Albany noted that Cuomo has yet to provide $7.3 billion of the promised $8.3 billion for the 2015-2019 Capital Plan and raised specific issues with the key items. I’ll quote a fe of them as these are astute and valuable observations.

  • Andy Byford, NYCT President stripped of power. The Governor’s proposed reorganization takes away a huge amount of fundamental management authority from New York City Transit President Andy Byford and shifts it to MTA Headquarters (HQ). What happens with Byford’s Fast Forward Plan if he can’t implement it? The governor proposes shifting engineering, contracting and construction management to MTA HQ. We note that MTA HQ has completely mismanaged the East Side Access project with up to $7B in cost overruns. (Item #1)
  • Congestion pricing proposal creates a gigantic new loophole by creating vast, vague exceptions for motorists. Given the disastrous experience with state and NYC issued parking placards, this is an invitation for abuse and petty corruption. (Item #2)
  • The Regional Transit Committee duplicates and subtracts from the MTA Board’s authority and will create even more confusion. If the legislature wants representation on the MTA board or changes to the board, it should make them instead of creating a confusing mess that further reduces accountability. The MTA board should determine fares, tolls, and budgets, etc. If it does it poorly, reform it. (Item #7)
  • The MTA, like other state authorities and agencies, should be run by professionals, not overseen by unqualified, arbitrarily selected academics hand-picked by the governor. There are many people in the world with more far more expertise on transit engineering and technology than the Deans of Columbia and Cornell engineering schools — including within the MTA. Why should these informal advisors to the governor determine what kind of signals technology the MTA uses? (Item #8)

The group further believes this effort by Cuomo is essentially a rush job with de Blasio’s blessing for the governor to shore up power and take over a city concern. “This is not the time to make major changes to redistribute power over the MTA’s governance structure, as there are too many stakeholders at risk,” the statement concludes. “Changes to the governance of the MTA should be made independently of the budget after full and thorough discussion by MTA stakeholders and the public.”

My Take

So after over 2000 words, you must be wondering where I come out. It’s no secret that I’m inherently skeptical of Andrew Cuomo’s views on transit. He hasn’t shown a willingness to understand transit’s primary role in the NYC economy, and he approaches projects with a very top-down attitude. What he wants to do is what goes, and he doesn’t speak to the experts. That’s how we end up with a fancy Moynihan Station headhouse a long block away from the subways and with no trans-Hudson capacity increases, the Backwards AirTrain and two airport rehabilitation projects that don’t expand runway space.

In this case, Cuomo seems to be punting on his own responsibilities as the executive in charge of the MTA while drawing the city into his funding fight and exerting control over New York City streets. He’s introducing a new layer of bureaucracy to MTA decision-making without tackling the fundamental cost, labor and management reforms the MTA desperately needs to succeed. He’s overseen a hiring freeze at the MTA while bringing in the academics without the right expertise to second-guess everything, and by appealing to the private sector — a sector not inherently better at the tasks with which the MTA struggles — he’ll attract bottom, rather than top, talent.

To make matters worse, Cuomo seems to be creating an MTA that embodies the worst of current practices. Centralized decision-making and procurement has led to a mess at MTA Capital Construction, an agency that constantly builds the world’s most expensive subways, tunnels, headhouses, and terminals. This isn’t the model to emulate, but it seems to be the one Cuomo is pushing. It also may sideline Andy Byford and remove his Fast Forward plan from the purview of New York City Transit, but various government sources denied that possibility throughout the day.

Don’t get me wrong: As I mentioned above, I’m quite pleased to see the mayor, begrudgingly at best, accept congestion pricing as the way forward, and I’m glad to see the governor will put his weight behind enacting a plan to start to limit traffic in Manhattan. That plan, of course, has to come with promised transit upgrades first and street redesigns to encourage higher volume and better quality usage.

Yet, for all of its words and promises, the plan seems to shuffle the deck chairs to give Cuomo control and more deniability. David Meyer, over at Streetsblog, picked up this theme in a post I’d urged you to read. I’ll quote:

The whole package represents a major power grab for Cuomo, whose eight-plus years as steward of the country’s largest transit system led to the greatest crisis it’s ever faced. Starved for money and facing criticism from all sides, the MTA has instituted a hiring freeze and is contemplating layoffs when it should be beefing up its operation to turn the system around. “Cuomo has blotted out all other political actors here,” said one longtime MTA observer. “These geniuses that he wants to bring in from Columbia, what do they think about hiring freezes and across-the-board cuts as a method for reinvigorating an organization?”

The observer noted that two previous attempts at inter-MTA consolidation have been abject failures. The first, MTA Capital Construction, created in the mid-2000s to improve the agency’s execution of mega-projects, is best known for its over-budget and delayed work on East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway. The second, the Business Service Center, is notoriously loathed within the agency for its incompetence and unresponsiveness. “If you like the BSC, you’ll love this. And I don’t know anybody who loves the BSC,” the observer said. “This is an arson to cover up a robbery.”

Every time Cuomo and de Blasio wade into the transit space, I hold my breath and hope for the best. These are not leaders who are strong on transit, and the city is, for better or worse at a turning point. Andy Byford’s plans to speed up the subways are starting to work, despite political winds blowing against him, but the turnaround could be modest if the governor and the mayor pull the rug out from underneath everyone. The two seem to want international experts to stick around to oversee a planned subway renaissance, and congestion pricing ought to help the beleaguered bus system in particular. But is this a good plan, endorsed by those who are experts in transit governance and management? It this the right plan for right now? I’m not yet convinced it is, but as always, the devil will be in the details which will come fast and furious as the June reorganization deadline looms.

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A $3 base fare for subway and bus rides were among the fare hike options the MTA decided to push off until February.

When 2018 drew to a close, a level of certainty seemed to surround the MTA. The long-planned L train shutdown loomed four months out; a looming vote on fare hikes seemed to be a mere formality; and with momentum building for a congestion pricing plan, Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan seemed well on the way to reality.

But then, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo, everything changed in the blink of an eye. Cuomo, circumventing the MTA Board, canceled the L train shutdown, sidelined Andy Byford from the project, and then capped off his month by pushing the MTA to delay the planned vote on the fare hikes. It was a flurry of activity orchestrated by the man in charge of the MTA who keeps insisting he isn’t pulling the strings, and it’s created uncertainty — and potentially budgetary pressures — at a time when the MTA can least afford to lose on the money.

The latest chapter in this saga began to unfold last week shortly before the MTA Board meeting that was planned to feature the fare hike vote. Now, as much as New Yorkers don’t want to pay more for what many perceive to be declining subway service, biennial fare hikes have been a feature of the MTA since the structure was approved as part of the 2010 bailout. Every two years, the fares increase by a modest amount, and these hikes, the best tool the MTA has for guaranteed revenue increases, have been met with relatively little resistance as the fare jumps are built into the budget.

But this time, after torpedoing the L train plans, Cuomo started speaking out against fare hikes, as Emma Fitzsimmons reported in The Times last week. Cuomo, expressing “no faith” in what his MTA says, urged the agency to avoid a fare hike. “Tighten your belt,” he said. “Make the place run better.”

In the same piece, former Cuomo aide and current MTA Board member Larry Schwartz said he was examining ways to tie fare hikes amorphously to, as he put it, “performance improvements” or would be otherwise “dead set” on voting for a hike. And then, during Thursday’s meeting, the MTA simply punted. Before any debate or alternative proposals could be presented publicly, the agency tabled all talks. “I’m concerned that we’re making a decision today when we need to be a little slower, a little more thoughtful, and need to consider a few more options,” Cuomo appointee Peter Ward said, moving to delay the discussion. The Board quickly decided to wait on debating fare hike proposals until the next meeting, currently scheduled for Wednesday, February 27.

What was so strange and abrupt about the move was how quickly it came about. The MTA Board had heard only some words from the governor and vague rumors of other proposals. After the vote, Schwartz said his efforts to develop a proposal tied to performance metrics was “in vain” despite internal conversations. To me, this is a good thing, as any attempt to tie guaranteed revenue to better service is one way to put the MTA on a path to a death spiral. If the agency can’t provide better service, the agency can’t raise fares or generate revenue for service at which point its only option is to cut service, thus leading to worse service, less revenue and that dreaded death spiral.

Much like with the L train shutdown shutdown, the “why” of the delayed fare hike vote remains an open-ended question. Dana Rubinstein tried to break it down. I’d urge you to read her entire piece, but I found this excerpt a succinct summary of this mess:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo controls the MTA’s L tunnel plans and the color of its tunnel tiles, but he claims he doesn’t control the MTA. The governor says he has “no faith” in the MTA’s leadership, which he helped appoint. He thinks the MTA doesn’t actually need more than $300 million a year in new fare revenue, because it can just “tighten” its belt and “make the place run better.” But he does think the MTA needs $1 billion a year in new revenue from congestion pricing, which he wants to see imposed on New York City. “It’s really hard to decipher,” said one board member, referring to the general state of MTA politics right now.

It’s well within Cuomo’s rights as the head of the state to attempt to reform the MTA, but running the agency as a fiefdom and operating behind closed doors at a time when the agency needs public support does little but undermine the MTA. With uncertainty clouding the fare hike discussion, it could now be a few months before the MTA can generate the revenue it claims it needs to avoid massive budget shortfalls. If new fare hike proposals are presented next month, the agency may need to hold additional public hearings, wait to vote on the new proposal and then wait to implement these proposals. Instead of a fare increase — and guaranteed revenue come April 1 — the MTA may have to wait to increase fares until July, losing out as much as $90 million it can’t afford to see wiped off the books. Ultimately, too, the public will pay for this politicking through increased hikes or service cuts.

To me, this is backsliding. After years of a commitment to transparency and a big show by Byford to produce a plan to do better, Cuomo has seemingly stepped in to blow everything up, and no one knows why. Did he do it because congestion pricing is now significantly closer to reality and he seems concerned about the political fallout from that move? Is he worried Corey Johnson and other city reps are making noises about re-asserting local control over subways and buses? Did someone actually shake him by his lapels to get him to focus on the L train and, by extension, the MTA?

No one yet knows why Cuomo is suddenly doing what he’s doing. But shortly after the fare hike vote was delayed, Cuomo had an about-face and acknowledged that the MTA would have to implement a rate hike sooner rather than later. It was an odd admission from the governor who had spent weeks slamming the agency for planning to raise fares and one that left observers scratching their heads even harder. Right now, Cuomo’s endgame is opaque and playing out on a day-to-day basis. Where this ends is up in the air, but riders, agency officials and MTA rank-and-file don’t know which way the wind will blow on any given day. And that’s no way to run a railroad.

Categories : Fare Hikes, MTA Politics
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