Archive for MTA Politics

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

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

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

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

The Proposal

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

1. Reorganize the MTA

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

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

2. Congestion Pricing

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

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

3. Fare Hike Caps

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

4. MTA Board Appointments

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

5. Fare Evasion

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

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

6. Audit

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

7. Regional Transit Committee

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

8. The Columbia and Cornell Experts Return

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

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

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

9. Expedite the Subway Action Plan

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

10. Stop. Collaborate. Listen.

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

The Political Reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Advocates Chime In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories : Fare Hikes, MTA Politics
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo assesses the L train tunnel during a December tour.

There are always unintended consequences to governing carelessly by unexpected press conference and off-the-cuff commentary, and as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his team embarked on a tour to salvage whatever credibility they have left, it’s becoming clear that the crisis precipitated by Cuomo may open the door to MTA reform. Now, it’s a matter of who will take the reins and how.

Movement on MTA reform has been very slowly gaining speed over the past few months as more people have been paying attention to the way the MTA Board operations (or doesn’t) and the inherent contradictions in the current board structure. I’d urge to read Aaron Gordon’s November Signal Problems dispatch for more on that topic.

As Cuomo engaged in his offensive this week, when he gets going, the words just start to flow from his mouth, and he hit upon some nuggets that hit upon reform in a conversation with The Daily News. Kenneth Lovett and Dan Rivoli had more:

Frustrated by what he sees as an entrenched bureaucracy that lacks imagination to find new ways to do things, Gov. Cuomo said Monday it’s time to rebuild the MTA from ground up. “Blow up the MTA. Blow it up,” Cuomo said during a meeting with the Daily News Editorial Board…

“The L train is a window into a much bigger problem,” Cuomo told The News. He referred to a “passive conspiracy of the transportation industrial complex” where major capital projects are undertaken with the same contractors and vendors, and no competition for designs. Construction contractors typically pad their bills to the MTA by 25% — an “MTA premium” — because of the difficulty they have dealing with agency bureaucrats. MTA board members are trying to figure out how to lower their construction costs. “The MTA is so tedious to deal with that it developed a boutique industry of people who just are willing to deal with this thing called the MTA,” Cuomo said. “And the people who know how to do it normally came from the MTA and then go to the contractor and that’s why they know how to make the connection.”

…He plans to continue his effort to reform the agency — Cuomo in a recent speech said one of his priorities in the first 100 days of 2019 is to restructure the MTA and find it more funding. He said he is not afraid to take responsibility for what happens at the MTA, as long as he’s not “handcuffed.” “I am unique in governors who are willing to step up and sign on the bottom line,” he said of such projects as the building of a new Tappan Zee Bridge and installation of cashless tolling. “My people think it’s an act of madness,” Cuomo said of his quest for more power over the agency. “I don’t care. I have no problem stepping up and saying it’s me. More than any other governor. But I’m not going to say ‘it’s me’ handcuffed.”

Cuomo starts out strong, but his comments fizzle toward the end. He engaged in another diatribe on whether or not he controls the MTA (he does), and The News gave him more cover for this argument than I would have, allowing Cuomo to compare the MTA (which he controls) to the Port Authority (which no one controls). It’s not an apt comparison, and it reminds me of the problems with trusting Cuomo with MTA reform. Cuomo doesn’t listen to experts; rather, he thinks he is the expert. So if he has a vision for MTA reform (just like he has a vision for the L train work and a vision a backwards AirTrain), his vision will become reality whether it’s an improvement or not.

But in his opening remarks at least, he hit upon a key problem with the New York City transportation ecosystem: It is very much a transportation industrial complex with a very active revolving door shuttling the same people between the public and private sectors. This essentially eliminates any incentives for internal-driven MTA reform as the same people who sign off on contracts end up being the same people who benefit from runaway costs and project timelines in years rather than months and decades rather than years. The “difficulty” in dealing with agency bureaucrats is a feature, not a bug.

Cuomo, who spoke about MTA reform in the lead-up to his reelection last year, hasn’t given any indication that he has a vision beyond adding more seats under his control to the Board. I’m not quite sure where that gets him considering the MTA Board has never rejected a Cuomo initiative and he already has legal control over the agency. The reform must be structural and not cosmetic, and the L train mess, which has led everyone to rightly question the competency of the MTA, is an opportunity to push for major reforms. The problem, of course, is that the L train mess has also led everyone to question Cuomo’s competency here, and as I keep saying, no one currently involved has any credibility on the topic. Thus, the person spearheading reform shouldn’t be the person few trust.

Enter New York City. At an event at a subway stop in Bay Ridge promoting his effort to assess subway rider complaints, City Council Speaker (and current acting Public Advocate) Corey Johnson let slip that he is working on a proposal for city control of its subways and buses. Johnson didn’t offer details other than a promise to release a report within 60 days, but he had some intriguing things to say. “The detailed plan I will unveil in the next 60 days,” he said, “talks about debt obligation, bonding authority, the tunnels and the bridges, and it does not just talk about the subways and buses, but talks about breaking the car culture by investing in mass transit, prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists and making New York City a livable safe city.”

Analyzing the ins and outs of city control is both well outside the purview of this post and premature without a proposal in hand, but it’s clear that something’s a-brewin’ in New York over MTA governance and MTA control. If anything comes out of this crisis of confidence Andrew Cuomo created last week, a true push for MTA reform would be a welcome one, and the shape and a full public debate on structure of transit governance in New York City is one that is long overdue.

Categories : MTA Politics
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Joe Lhota’s abrupt departure cleared the way for snarky tabloid covers and a renewed focus on MTA issues in the wake of election day’s Democratic takeover of the State Senate.

As last Tuesday’s state election results rolled in and it became clear Democrats would win a decisive majority of the New York State Senate seats, I began to think about what this sea-change in Albany would mean for the MTA. Somewhat optimistically, I believe that unified Democratic control of the state legislature along with a resounding third-term for Andrew Cuomo should at least lead to a push to fund Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, likely via congestion pricing, and reform the MTA. But then Friday’s news landed with a bang, and the MTA once again found itself facing turmoil at the top.

It’s not quite clear why yet, but as Mayor Bill de Blasio was on the phone with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer for his weekly on-air Q-and-A session, news broke that Joe Lhota had resigned immediately as MTA Chair and CEO. Just three weeks ago, Lhota had told reporters on the record that he would not be stepping down after Election Day, and Lhota’s departure came as a surprise. It’s not clear what served as Lhota’s motivating factor for leaving. Subway performance has stabilized to a certain degree, and Lhota has seemingly set up the agency to begin a long and expensive modernization project. But his second tenure atop the MTA wasn’t as smooth as his first, and he left amidst heavy tabloid criticism long before the tough job of fixing the MTA was through.

The reasons for his departure remain a mystery. Good government groups had raised ethical concerns about his seemingly conflicting roles on the MSG Board and head of NYU Langone Hospital and have constantly noted that the MTA Board and CEO position is statutorily required to be a full-time job. Though Lhota alleged to have delegated authority, Reinvent Albany, among others, claims he simply wasn’t legally permitted to do that, and perhaps Lhota thought he would come under more scrutiny for apparent conflicts at a time when Albany’s focus should be on transit funding and capital spending reform rather than ethics clashes. But this is just speculation on my part, and maybe Cuomo just wanted someone else to spearhead the multi-billion-dollar request to fund Byford’s plan.

So now the MTA faces changes on two fronts — political and personnel — but there is no reason why the two should be separated. In fact, the personnel and the politics hands the New York State Senate its first opportunity to, well, do something. First, I believe the Reinvent Albany post I linked to above is spot-on. When Lhota came up for a confirmation hearing in 2017, the Senate dragged its collective feet until the final night, held a perfunctory hearing via a phone call with Lhota, and approved the veteran as MTA head without much ado. The next person to be nominated for the spot should be required to serve full-time with no outside income or other apparent conflicts and should face a full Senate confirmation with serious, probing questions about MTA performance, funding and cost reform. If the Democrats in the State Senate plans to exercise the powers recently granted to them, they can state with an informed grilling of the next person tasked with heading the MTA at this juncture.

Separately, with the election in the rear-view and Cuomo seemingly on board with a congestion pricing plan, the Senate can get back to the business of legislating. Now that the Democrats have a strong pro-congestion pricing caucus, passing a plan, with money for transit, should be a top priority. Congestion pricing will also help clear up NYC streets which have become nearly impassable during nearly every hour of the day. This may rely on Cuomo pushing the issue a bit. He spoke at length during the campaign of congestion pricing but also, as Gotham Gazette noted, offered something of a carrot to reluctant representatives. Of this initiative, Samar Khurshid wrote:

Cuomo has pushed for a comprehensive congestion pricing program to fund the MTA, arrest the decline of New York City’s subway system, and reduce the clog of Manhattan streets. But Democrats, particularly in the outer boroughs and in suburban areas around the city, are far from unanimous on the proposal. Cuomo seemed to recognize these differences in appearances in early October on Long Island and South Brooklyn. In Long Island, he pledged to make the city “pay its fair share for the MTA,” while at the Brooklyn event, he pledged to secure funding for the beleaguered transit authority through congestion pricing.

How that horse-trading plays out is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the Governor embraces the Mayor’s endless calls for yet another millionaire’s tax to fund transit; perhaps he continues his disinformation feud over MTA funding responsibilities. Still, it seems as though Cuomo is lining up something to ensure suburban representatives pass congestion pricing when the issue comes to the forefront. We have to be careful with congestion pricing though because it is not the only path to MTA funding. We need congestion pricing for a variety of reasons (including easing the lost productivity and environmental harm caused by endless congestion), but as I wrote last month, the revenue will not be sufficient to shore up the MTA’s finances. Still, any additional funding mechanisms will have to pass muster in Albany, and the state representatives are well away all eyes are on them.

To that end, the State Senate and Assembly should reinsert themselves in the oversight process. The various committees tasked with keeping an eye on the MTA have held one joint hearing on the authority over the past three or four sessions, and that hearing turned into a personal gripe-fest with legislators complaining more about bus stops being moved 100 feet rather than structural issues with MTA operations and spending. The state governing bodies must be willing to hold the MTA accountability for its inability to spend money efficiently or build timely. The city’s and state’s futures depend on it.

Ultimately, these are tall orders for a newly-unified government and a party that hasn’t had much success when it has been able to set the state agenda. Though the “three men in a room” model of state governance will likely fall by the wayside with unified Democratic control, Cuomo has indicated that he plans to stay heavily involved in the legislative agenda, but he is also cognizant of how a failure to fix the MTA may reflect poorly on him as he commences a run at the White House in 2020 (however misguided I personally believe that to be for him). If the opportunity exists to keep Cuomo’s attention focused on the New York City subways, then, by all means, everyone invested in improving transit should seize that opportunity.

With Lhota out and Albany gearing up to address MTA issues, transit will be at the forefront of the legislative agenda for the foreseeable future. The next MTA Chair and CEO has to be someone who has Albany’s ears and Albany’s trust on key issues and must be someone who can fight for Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan. At the same time, the State Senate and Assembly must put the MTA under a microscope, actions Albany has generally avoided as legislators often feel dealing with the MTA is a lose-lose proposition. I’m cautiously optimistic change in Albany and change atop the MTA can quickly lead to good outcomes. If it does not, the transit death spiral we’re desperately trying to avoid will inch closer and closer.

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In a few hours, the polls in New York will open on an election that, at one point, may have been viewed as a referendum on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s leadership of the MTA. For a few months, before the noise from Washington overwhelmed local issues, it seemed as though Cuomo was going to have to take responsibility for the ongoing decline of the subways during his eight-year watch. But after dispatching Cynthia Nixon, who failed to turn the subway crisis into a campaign issue with traction, and drawing Marc Molinaro, a largely ineffectual candidate with a semi-decent plan to reform MTA (while also defunding it, in part), Cuomo will waltz to victory on Tuesday with some vague promises to push through an overtaxed congestion pricing and fight for the subways.

A few weeks ago, on the eve of Cuomo’s primary, I wrote that the governor doesn’t like the subway and isn’t going to save it. That largely holds true tonight as well. There’s a chance Cuomo, who believes he can run for the White House in 2020, will embrace saving the subway as his signature moment and devote the right energy to Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, but there’s a better chance he’ll use the region’s infrastructure for a bunch of photo ops while highlighting projects that don’t solve our problems. The area’s best hope is for a Democratic-controlled State Senate to pass congestion pricing and perhaps exercise its oversight powers more often than once every three years. To that end, those in Bay Ridge should consider a vote for Andrew Gounardes, and those of us who live in former IDC districts should consider a vote for the challengers. Otherwise, #FlipYourBallot and vote YES on proposition 3 to impose modest term limits for Community Boards and hope for the best for transit.

With that said, it’s worth looking at the state of subway ridership on the eve of Gov. Cuomo’s second reelection effort. As I hinted at a few weeks ago, it’s not a pretty picture as ridership has essentially started to crater. After months of a steady decline, August saw a steep dip as average weekday subway ridership fell to just over 5 million riders a day, a drop of 2.5% from 2017, and combined weekend ridership fell by nearly 9%, the steepest year-over-year decline in decades.

These trend lines are heading in the wrong direction.

With the city’s economy continuing to add jobs, it seems that riders are fleeing the system and turning to other modes of travel for their commutes. The factors I explored a month ago are still at play, but this nosedive in August raises some serious red flags. Even during the slow summer months, when the MTA anticipates a dip, ridership was nearly 2 percent below projections (and the resultant farebox revenue missed its target as well). As ridership declines, the MTA’s finances grow strained, and city streets grow more crowded from the congestion caused by erstwhile subway riders resorting to for-hire vehicles. We head further toward that downward death spiral.

It’s not quite clear what anyone’s plan for this alarming modeshift may be. Cuomo is talking about congestion pricing which could push some folks back to the subways, and the MTA itself is touting Fast Forward. The latter though is a long-term solution with fewer short-term gains, and it’s not clear the powers-that-be are picking up on the problem. Make no mistake about it: A significant mode-shift away from transit to less sustainable modes of travel is a problem for the city’s productivity and environment, and a culture shift away from traveling anywhere, especially on the weekends, is a problem for the vibrancy of New York City. Without the subways, the city can’t function, and right now, month by month, we inch closer to that breaking point.

I worry about a disengaged Andrew Cuomo after the election when the subways aren’t fixed but no one is running against him on the issue. Will he still care or will we be stuck with what we have until he’s out of office? Photo ops won’t be enough to save the subways or our congested streets, and the transit death spiral could lock the entire region in its sour embrace sooner than we’d all like to contemplate.

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A magic wand isn’t going to fix the subway without a chief executive willing to push through reforms and support leadership. (Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

It’s no secret that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a car guy. He loves to talk about his personal collection of muscle cars, and on Friday, he had an opportunity to host his favorite type of ribbon cutting for the opening of the second span of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. He gathered his entire family on the bridge along with the usual collection of local politicians and Hillary Clinton, and he “opened” the bridge by driving FDR’s 1932 Packard across the new span. And then the bad news arrived.

As The Times reported on Monday, the Cuomo administration essentially bribed contractors to rush the finish of the span so the Governor could host the opening before Thursday’s Democratic primary election, but the bridge couldn’t actually to open to traffic because engineers found that the old one had destabilized and is at risk of collapsing onto the new one. In a way, it’s a perfect metaphor for Cuomo who governs by press release and ribbon cuttings, trumpeting other people’s accomplishments, and it mirrors the way he treated the Second Ave. Subway. He demanded the project open by the end of 2016 even though an extensive punch list remained (and still remains). He wants his photo ops, and come hell or high water, he’ll get them.

Cuomo’s grinning appearance on the bridge on Friday was in marked contrast to his Thursday press conference in Penn Station in which he debuted a new entrance to Penn Station and some Moynihan Station-related improvements. He spoke about catacombs and the general dinginess of Penn Station in ways that clearly made talking about transit sound like a chore for him. His muscle cars and FDR’s Packard it was not.

After nearly eight years of Gov. Cuomo, it’s become abundantly obvious that his disdain of public transit (and its riders) is a feature and not a bug. By most counts, he’s taken the subway only around 2-3 times during his gubernatorial tenure, and at least one of those was a special train from the Rockaways. Thus, this piece of reporting on Politico New York from Dana Rubinstein should come as no surprise: Cuomo’s disdain for public transit runs deep and is rooted in his outdated preconceptions about transit riders. Rubinstein writes:

Would-be governor Cynthia Nixon does straphanger photo ops. Council Speaker Corey Johnson does them, too. So occasionally does avowed motorist Mayor Bill de Blasio. Across the Hudson, Gov. Phil Murphy does it, on the foundering NJ Transit. In fact, perhaps the only major local politician who doesn’t do it is the one who controls New York’s crisis-ridden subway system. That would be Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

It’s not like his advisers haven’t tried to persuade him to give it a try. They’ve urged Cuomo, who is running for a third term, to ride the subway on more than one occasion, according to two knowledgeable sources. The governor has demurred. One explanation has it that the image of a “passive straphanger” doesn’t align with the governor’s can-do persona. It doesn’t enable him to don a windbreaker or grapple with machinery alongside predictably deferential transit workers.

The situation on the subways, on the other hand, is less controlled and rife with potential landmines. What if he pulls a Hillary Clinton and his swipe doesn’t work — on a Metrocard machine he’s responsible for, because he runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway? What if the countdown clocks his MTA installed are inaccurate? What if he gets heckled? “He’s smart enough to know that if he showed up on a subway platform at this point, he’d get his ass kicked,” said one Democratic political consultant who asked for anonymity, lest he suffer a similar fate.

Cuomo, a car guy who can’t recognize the limitations of automobile travel or the fact that he has no control over traffic or other drivers, thinks that the subway he controls is beneath him because of all the things that can go wrong. Talk about a telling psychological reaction to a collapsing subway. So instead of understanding the travails of subway riders, instead of knowing what his stewardship of the subways has wrought, Cuomo feels emasculated by the trains because he’s not the one behind the wheel, zooming down the 8th Ave. line with his pedal to the metal.

After two terms of this attitude toward transit, it’s clear that no matter what his allies claim, no matter the absurd gaslighting campaign from the TWU, no matter his supposed support for some congestion pricing plan, Andrew Cuomo doesn’t care about the subways and isn’t going to be the one to save them. He’s sucked all the oxygen out of the room arguing over the legal technicalities of control over the subway and the allocation of money for his aesthetically-orientated Enhanced Station Initiative without addressing how the taxpayer base — New York City residents and workers — is the same whether the money comes out of the state budget (as it should) or from the city. He’s spent years siphoning dollars away from the MTA’s budgets, whether for state-run ski slopes losing money or road projects. He has constantly refused to sign lockbox legislation that would put stringent strings on his MTA budgetary sleight-of-hand, and he barely endorsed Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan until his lack of support was on the verge of becoming a political albatross.

Meanwhile, on his watch, as we all know, progress at the MTA has slowed to a crawl. The agency was enjoying boom times in the late 2000s as focus on investment seemed to be catching up with reality, and as service improved, ridership boomed. But on Cuomo’, delays and problems have become daily occurrences as ridership has shown year-over-year declines for the better part of his second term in office. These trends are not stopping without significant cost reform and investment, and Cuomo hasn’t embraced either yet.

Meanwhile, on the capital side, Cuomo has dragged his feet (some say to make the city look bad) so that with the opening of the rebuilt WTC Cortlandt station on Saturday, there are no big-ticket subway expansion items under active construction right now. A few years ago, we had the 7 line extension, South Ferry, Fulton St. and the Second Ave. Subway all ongoing, and today, we have the promise of Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and nothing else. For a 21st Century city, this lack of growth and progress is a travesty that will hinder New York’s promise for decades to come.

On the edge of primary day, that leaves New Yorkers with a governor who doesn’t support transit, openly disdains it and won’t change his tune. Make no mistake about it: Governor Cuomo is in charge of the MTA and the New York City subways, and he has been a bad steward of the crown-jewel American subway system. If he earns himself the nomination on Thursday or a victory in November, I don’t expect anything to change, and neither should you. A Cuomo third term will bring more of the same: He’ll use the subways for photos ops without forging ahead on real progress, and without an aggressive primary challenger pushing him to act, do you think he’ll continue to embrace Andy Byford and his earnest push for improvement? After all, the subway, a lifeblood of New York City and the state, is too passive for the Can-Do Press-Release governor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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