Archive for MTA Politics

One element of our political times that unfolds constantly involves chaos. By introducing chaos to a situation, it’s far, far easier to get away with sleights-of-hands and other backroom dealings while the public is consumed with talking away and working through the chaos. It’s easy, in other words, to offer up a myriad of distractions while shuffling pieces behind the scenes to accomplish other political ends.

This isn’t an approach that’s particularly novel nor is it unique to any single politician or political party. It’s both a feature and a bug of the way news is produced and consumed amidst a 24-hour constant cycle of everything always being on, and New Yorkers keenly into transit have lived through this phenomenon for years. It started long ago when Andrew Cuomo begin his lengthy diatribes alleging, falsely, that he wasn’t in charge of the MTA. These were so successful that the New York City subway system was allowed to collapse and he still coasted to reelection, garnering significant support in the five boroughs.

During that period, instead of focusing on the lack of investment and the lack of leadership caused by politically-inspired churn atop the MTA, activists and journalists had to parry with Cuomo’s ahistorical account of the MTA. It was an exhausting, time-consuming distraction, and as the recent MTA Transformation Plan, approved last week by the Board despite unanimous public opposition, shows, we’re not out of these woods yet.

It’s been hard to keep track of all the MTA news lately, and only some of that is by design. We’ve had Con Edison blackouts that stranded trains during a recent heat wave, ongoing computer problems that led to a recent Friday evening meltdown for the ages, MTA Inspector General investigations into everything and, of course, the Transformation/Reorganization/Whatever You Want To Call It Plan.

The story behind the Transformation Plan itself is a simple one with some interesting twists and turns. A bunch of months ago, Gov. Cuomo called upon the MTA to transform itself. This, in and of itself, is something of a distraction because since Cuomo controls the MTA, a state agency, he can just reorder the transformation without going through the charade of a costly consultant study and Board vote. But the Board vote offers him a layer of plausible deniability. Even though he controls the management and operations of the MTA, a Board vote gives him cover to point fingers at a largely powerless group of people, all of whom he appointed. He has fully exploited the structure of the MTA to his political benefit time and time again while exerting full and total control over an agency that he rightly fully and totally controls. It’s chaos; it’s distracting; and it’s almost impressively genius. If only we all stood to benefit.

Since I last had a chance to analyze AlixPartners’ $4 million Transformation Plan a few days after it was made public, this sweeping plan to reorganize the MTA and cut a few hundred million dollars per year out of the agency’s expenses faced universal condemnation by the public and then a quick approval by the Board with only Veronica Vanterpool voting against it. I’ve never seen a charade so blatantly executed in public as the vote last week, and it’s hard to wrap my head around what happened. For hours on Wednesday morning, speaker after speaker took the microphone to speak out against the plan. Advocates condemned it as a rush job, not subject to proper public vetting that disempowered key leaders (such as Andy Byford) and failed to reform the core of the MTA. Others, speaking in support of Byford and Alex Elegudin’s renewed focus on accessibility, railed against the plan for once again treating the city’s most vulnerable as second-class transit riders. Others voiced support for Fast Forward and recent improvements (recent isolated performance meltdowns notwithstanding).

Still, the vote went on because it had to. The vote went on because the MTA was left up a creek without a paddle. It was mandated, legally, that the MTA Board approve this Transformation Plan, and they had no real choice. The key was a change in the state’s public authorities laws orchestrated by Cuomo during budget negotiations in June. The law, which you can read here, required the MTA to produce a transformation plan and approve — not vote on, but approve — the plan by July 31. Had the MTA Board voted down the plan, the agency would have been in violation of law, and it’s clear from MTA Board member and State Budget Director Robert Mujica’s comments on Wednesday that had the Board voted down the plan, the state would have withheld money the MTA badly needs. It was a legislative mandate through fiscal pressure, and another way Cuomo used the MTA Board to enact his will.

As part of this charade, a week before the Board vote, Cuomo sent a letter that sources within the MTA said came as a big surprise. You can read the missive right here, and you’ll see why one MTA source referred to it as an “unhinged rant.” It’s a rant about homelessness, time-and-attendance matters, speeds and signals and a reorganization plan with a purpose. It is in fact the chaos we’ve come to expect, a blurring of issues that obscures the reality that Cuomo knew all about the reorganization plan. In fact, I’ve heard from many sources that most folks within the MTA believe the AlixPartners plan was written long before this process was made public and serves to give cover to moves Cuomo wanted to make.

But that’s neither here nor there. The Governor of New York can do what he so pleases with the MTA as it is his to control. Following approval last week, Cuomo issued simply a two-sentence statement. “The MTA’s reorganization plan is a good start, but now it comes down to execution and sound management. The timelines should provide hard dates to assess progress,” he said. So the question now is: Does any of this matter or is it just politics as usual?

It matters. It matters because of the political message the Transformation Plan sends to key cogs such as Andy Byford and Pete Tomlin. It matters because of the ongoing hiring freeze that is rapidly draining the MTA of any talent current serving in-house and ensuring that any young talent looking to enter the transit field is frozen out of the largest transit agency in the country. It matters because it disenfranchised the public, through advocates whose concerns were ignored. It matters too because we’ve heard deafening silence from anyone else in Albany tasked with MTA oversight, a lukewarm milquetoast throw-away statement from the mayor who hasn’t even read the full Transformation Plan and a vehement statement in opposition from Corey Johnson.

Meanwhile, the Plan itself effectively disempowers all agency presidents, transfers key projects to MTA Capital Construction (the biggest source of MTA construction problems over the past decade and a half), borrows from Fast Forward while shunting aside Fast Forward’s main proponent, and erases progress spearheaded by people who aren’t Andrew Cuomo. The report talks too of “failure to attract talent” at a time when Byford has brought in a key accessibility proponent and a world-renowned signals expert. The former was not lost on accessibility advocates who raised such a stink last week that Cuomo enforcer Larry Schwartz had to promise additional accessible stations to save face.

Behind the plan, other efforts are at play to lessen the impact of those making a difference but conflicting with Cuomo. The new COO/Managing Director-type role proposed by the Transformation Plan is open only to outside candidates (so Cuomo can handpick the role and ensure Byford, for instance, can’t apply), and Transdev, a private transit operator, has been poking around the MTA of late. Remember that the initial versions of the plan initially called for subways and buses to be separated. That line was killed shortly before publication when advocates vehemently objected, but speculation is rife that Transdev will ultimately take over the city’s bus system. I’ll have more on that story in the coming weeks.

For now, Byford — and this is really about Byford — will serve on the new signals panel, another Cuomo attempt to step on feet. I’ll have more on that later too. But where this all leads is anyone’s guess. The MTA needs reform and reorganization, but it needs careful reform and reorganization. The people who are competent should be promoted and supported, but instead, we seem to be stuck in a chaotic process of reorganization spurred on to minimize the influence of those most competent who have been praised publicly. It’s petty politics, and it’s a whole bunch of chaos as we’re trying to cut through the noise toward a better commute. There’s no real way out here either, and the MTA’s millions of customers are simply pawns in an unnecessary political game of distraction, obfuscation and chaos.

Categories : MTA Politics
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The highly-anticipated MTA Transformation Plan was released to the public on Friday afternoon. Did it live up to the hype?

While I was away on vacation, the lead-up to Friday’s unveiling of AlixPartners’ much-ballyhooed MTA Transformation Plan seemed to reinforce the political nature of the plan. Amidst ever-louder rumors that the recommendations had been written long ago by someone other than the consultants with the $4 million contract, Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that not everyone would be happy with the plan, and early reporting indicated that Andy Byford could be stripped of some responsibilities and power (largely, it was theoried, as a short-sighted move in Cuomo’s ongoing one-sided grudge match against the popular and highly competent NYC Transit President). Palace intrigue stories ruled the roost.

Late in the day on Friday, the actual report landed, and it landed with both a thud and a hint at things to come. It promises the bare minimum of transformation while failing to explore true efficiencies such as combining the two commuter rail agencies into one with streamlined service and operations. Despite early word to the contrary, it ultimately didn’t end up recommending an immediate split of New York City Transit’s buses and subways into separate divisions, though contemplated such a split down the line, and it recommended that many MTA functions, particularly with respect to construction, be centralized under Capital Construction, without acknowledging the cost and performance issues that have plagued Capital Construction seemingly since its inception. As I’ll explore, transit advocates are particularly concerned with this proposal.

And of course there is the $40 billion plan: How does this transformation plan affect Andy Byford and his Fast Forward plan that, if allowed to proceed, would fix and modernize the subways? On that front, the plan isn’t particularly clear. It includes recommendations for a series of improvements — centers of excellence for customer communications, an accessibility guru, and a focus on maintenance and safety — that Byford has spent months implementing both as part of Fast Forward and as part of his job in repairing the transit network, but it also calls for removing all construction work, implicitly including signalling, the backbone of Fast Forward, from agency head purview to the Capital Construction group.

But here’s where things get murky: Despite the actual words in the report, multiple MTA officials have told me Byford will retain control and oversight of the bulk of Fast Forward, including the key resignalling initiatives. It’s possible that when the dust settles, Cuomo may find a way to push Byford out of that role as well or attempt to step on the NYC Transit president’s toes as he is trying to do with Save Safe Seconds. But for now, a report that simply should have embraced Fast Forward as the best practices model for reforming the key parts of the MTA seems to muddy the waters. It’s ultimately a superficial report without clear indication as to which, if any, international best practices it was modeled after, and sources tell me AlixPartners have struggled to defend even some of the more basic recommendations (such as splitting up buses and subways). It seems more akin to political cover for Cuomo’s ongoing attempts at controlling the minutiae of the multi-billion-dollar MTA, but that would just be par for course.

Inside the Plan: The Seven Recommendations

So with that in mind, let’s take a quick look at what this thing, available here as a pdf, actually says. Here are the seven recommendations:

  1. Recommendation: The MTA should refocus agencies on service delivery, core safety, operations and maintenance activities, and centralize all support functions. In the new organization, the agencies should focus exclusively on service delivery, safety, day-to-day operations and maintenance, rather than general support functions. The agencies will have reporting lines to a Chief Operating Officer. All other services will be merged and coordinated centrally with a goal of driving a higher level of services at lower costs. This would result in consolidation of more than 40 functional groups within the existing MTA Agencies to six departments in the new MTA organization. Furthermore, the Transformation Plan calls for changes to the fundamental ways the MTA does business in order to achieve more effective and efficient performance.
  2. Recommendation: MTA should centralize all capital-related functions across MTA into a new central group responsible for planning, development, and delivery of a Capital Program that improves service, the customer experience and accountability. To address slow, costly, and bureaucratic processes and to create accountability, all Capital-related functions across the MTA should be merged into a central group. This new capital group will be accountable for planning, development, and delivery of the Capital Program. This group would identify optimal project delivery (groupings, timing, delivery), increase competition in a historically constrained supplier market, and complete important capital projects that improve service and customer experience quicker.
  3. Recommendation: MTA should create a new central engineering function reporting to a new Chief Engineering Officer to set standards, ensure quality and sustainability of infrastructure. To address inconsistent engineering methods across agencies and eliminate the duplication of processes and standards and ensure quality and sustainability of infrastructure, a new central Engineering group reporting to a Chief Engineering Officer will establish clear engineering and maintenance standards to be executed consistently across all agencies. This will provide consistent standards and specifications and eliminate unnecessary complexity and duplication.
  4. Recommendation: MTA should create a new central customer communication function to provide high quality and consistent customer engagement led by communications specialists. To address many existing differing communication types (i.e., service updates, timetables, customer feedback, etc.) from several different agencies, MTA should centralize communications to clearly and consistently manage the message, medium and content.
  5. Recommendation: MTA should centralize all operating support functions (i.e., operating standards and service design) focusing agencies on service delivery. To eliminate silos and enable multimodal network design optimization, the MTA should centralize operating standards and service design. Currently each MTA agency has its own internal operations standards and service design capabilities, which would be better managed under one integrated function serving all agencies.
  6. Recommendation: MTA should centralize all human resource functions to reduce redundancies (such as differing organizational structures and too many layers across agencies) and drive clearer lines of accountability. The MTA should create a centralized human resources department focused on attracting, developing, and retaining the talent required to improve MTA performance and service delivery. This new entity will be tasked with clearly articulating a new talent strategy. This will help to resolve issues of duplication and improve analytics, data consistency, and data integrity.
  7. Recommendation: To drive the transformation, the MTA will require a selection of new leadership roles and capabilities [including a Chief Operating Office reporting to the CEO and the MTA Board, if the Board chooses; a Chief Transformation Officer reporting directly to the Board; and an MTA Accessibility Officer reporting directly to the CEO].

As you can see, these so-called transformations are hardly that transforming. Consolidating true back-office functions such as human resources, legal and communications are true efficiencies that should have been realized decades ago but speak of the siloed nature of the MTA’s sub-agencies. The rest of the recommendations are either covered by plans put forward by current leadership or seem flimsy. Why, for instance, should a transit agency not be in charge of operating standards and service design for its own service delivery? It doesn’t make sense, operationally or otherwise, to, say, remove oversight of operating standards and service design for buses and subways from the auspices of New York City Transit and place these responsibilities under a centralized agency. There is no inherent benefit to placing service design for commuter rail with service design for local buses and subways, and it works instead to create communications and inter-agency pain points. The report itself fails to argue why this type of consolidation would be useful and doesn’t name a signal transit agency that has implemented such an approach to ops planning and ops execution.

With respect to the personnel recommendations, in addition to the accessibility overlap, it’s also worth questioning the call for a COO. Ronnie Hakim is currently the Managing Director of the MTA, reporting to the agency’s CEO and Chair. If she isn’t already fulfilling the COO role AlixPartners identified, what exactly is her job at the MTA and how could it be reformed so that she is essentially this COO? Questions such as these — ones probing the role certain Cuomo allies play at the agency — were seemingly ignored.

Reactions to a ‘Rush Job’

Ultimately, this $4 million plan reads more like a basic PowerPoint presentation of bare concepts that aren’t truly transformational and contain wrong information about the MTA’s structure and history. It reads very much like a rush job thrown together to support the political buried within. One MTA source acknowledged the conceptual nature of the report, indicating that the Board expects more detailed plans in the final report due in September. But this is what the Board will vote on later this month, and advocates aren’t impressed. Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, did not mince words:

“A rushed, three-month process with no public input is a lesson in how not to do reform of the nation’s largest transit system. This brief report would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious for the millions of New Yorkers who rely on subways, buses, and commuter rail every single day. Especially with service improving, the governor should commit to an actual democratic process for MTA reform, not something done in, basically the dead of night.

The AlixPartners ‘plan’ relies heavily on the purposed ‘success’ of the governor’s Subway Action Plan, which has been wildly overstated by its proponents. Analysis by Aaron Gordon and others have shown that the SAP has actually not significantly improved service. If this plan relies on the SAP process as justification for wholesale change at the MTA, that foundation is pretty thin. The report’s revisionist history and factual inaccuracies just further the conclusion that this is not the way to handle sweeping reform of the single largest public entity in the state.”

Transit Center, too, released a strident statement objecting to the central tenet of the reorganization report. That transit watchdogs are so opposed to empowering capital construction, one of the more problematic elements of the MTA, with key modernization initiatives should be telling.

And so we’re left with an expensive report, an uncertain future for Andy Byford, the key leader with loads of public support, the most riding on the report and seemingly the touchiest relationship with the governor, and haziness around the recommendations. Will this transform the MTA or simply shuffle the deck chairs of this Titantic as Captain Cuomo steers the ship toward an iceberg? You can probably guess my answer.

Categories : MTA Politics
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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.

Categories : MTA Politics
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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.

Categories : MTA Politics
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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.

Categories : MTA Politics
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