Archive for MTA Politics
Sal Albanese, a former City Council representative, is staging a long-shot bid for mayor from his home in Bay Ridge, and although he’s unlikely to land in City Hall come November, he’s become one of the few mayoral hopefuls to acknowledge transit issues. In an interview with a Brooklyn community paper, Albanese called for city control of the subway and bus system. “Too often, we have to go begging to the state legislature to get things done,” he said. “It’s a city service, and the mayor is the voice of the people of New York City, so it should be under mayoral control and the mayor should be accountable for it.”
Albanese said he envisions establishing a London-style system where the mayor is solely responsible for the transit system. The new city agency’s board would then be staffed with transit experts. “I wouldn’t have appointed Lhota. He’s a good administrator, but he doesn’t know anything about transit. It doesn’t make any sense,” he said of a potential GOP mayoral candidate and one-time MTA head.
City control over the Transit Authority has been a low-level concern on and off for years. It would bring local decision-making back to the city but could also absolve the state of funding commitments and more comprehensive regional planning. Whether or not Albanese is on the right track, however, is nearly immaterial as he is at least considering the issue. His opponents are not. Despite calling for middle class reform in her State of the City speech today, for instance, Christine Quinn uttered nary a word on transit. As Albanese said, “If we can’t move people around the city, properly, the economy is going to suffer.”
It’s been exactly a month since Joe Lhota stepped down as MTA CEO and Chair to run for mayor, and we’ve heard nothing at all about a potential replacement. Last time around, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a search committee, but this time around, as is often the case, Cuomo has seemingly forgotten that the MTA both exists and has two men sharing temporary duties as Chairman and Executive Director.
Still, that hasn’t stopped transit advocates and those invested heavily in the outcome of the proceedings — that is, contractors — from putting forward a name as a potential replacement. That name belongs to Tom Prendergast, the interim MTA Executive Director and current New York City Transit President. As Dana Rubinstein notes, some in the industry have begun to embrace Prendergast as a successor. She writes:
Denise Richardson, managing director of the General Contractors Association, told me Prendergast might make a lot of sense. “First of all, Tom is a world-renowned transportation system manager,” she said. “He was recruited out of the M.T.A. to go run the Vancouver system. He’s worked at the M.T.A. in various capacities a large chunk of his career. He was instrumental in developing the plan that was so succesfully excecuted with the storm. He knows the financial issues that the M.T.A. faces and he knows the political environment. And he knows certainly why the public loves the M.T.A., and he knows why the public doesn’t so much love the M.T.A.”
In short, he wouldn’t have much of a learning curve. That’s no small issue for an enormous and enormously complicated bureaucracy that’s seen six leaders in six years and has a capital plan up for renewal in 2015.
Nadine Lemmon, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Albany legislative advocate, put it this way, in an email yesterday: “It is no surprise that his name may be floating around, given his understanding and experience with the agency. What transit advocates would like is: 1) someone willing to make a commitment to sticking around, 2) who will continue the strong inroads Joe Lhota made with the legislature and customers, 3) who can be a strong champion that can help secure the funding needed for the next capital plan.”
Lemmon’s second rationale seems of particular importance to advocates, one of whom told me (anonymously, for fear of getting ahead of Governor Andrew Cuomo), “Whoever’s chosen should be willing to stay around, not somebody who is going to leave in a year or a two.”
Industry observers were quick to question if Richardson’s ready embrace is a net positive for New Yorkers. It’s certainly a positive for the construction industry, but with costs as high as they are now, taxpayers often do not emerge ahead in those scenarios.
Still, I echo Rubinstein’s last point in the excerpt above: Prendergast has been here for nearly four years and hasn’t shown a desire to leave. He’s well-respected internally which is more than we can say for predecessor at Transit, and he knows the various realms he would oversee as MTA head. If only for the stability of the organization and the ability to move quickly on a nomination, we could do far, far worse than Prendergast.
During his State of the State address yesterday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised a New York State transportation initiative. “It is big, it is bold, it is beautiful,” he said. “We did it in one year, instead of talking about it for ten.” He was not, of course, talking about an effort to better prepare our subway system for the next major storm or a push to realize a badly-needed transit expansion. It was, of course, about the Tappan Zee Bridge, made all the more galling because this unnecessary $3-$4 billion won’t have dedicated transit anything.
From Cuomo, this lack of attention to the New York City region’s transit needs is hardly anything new. Throughout his time as governor, he’s shown nothing more than a tepid embrace of rail-related projects and transit needs. The current silence from Albany on the vacancy atop the MTA and the lack of urgency behind finding a replacement for Joe Lhota speaks volumes.
This year, though, Cuomo had an opening and an opportunity to take a problem by the reins. The transit network is vulnerable, and a panel Cuomo assembled had, just days before his speech, issued a report calling for a bus network, system hardening and increased investment in transit. Instead, his 300-page pamphlet on the state mentions the MTA just once:
The following measures should be taken to make our transportation systems stronger in the face of future storms. With federal assistance, these measures can and will be taken by the MTA and other State agencies and authorities to harden our transportation systems against future threats:
- Flood-proof subways and bus depots with vertical roll-down doors, vent closures, inflatable bladders, and upsized fixed pumps (with back-up power sources);
- Mitigate scour on road and rail bridges with strategically placed riprap and other steps;
- Replace metal culverts with concrete on roads in flood-prone areas;
- Providing elevated or submersible pump control panels, pump feeders, and tide gates to address flooding at vulnerable airports;
- Install reverse flow tide gates to prevent flooding of docks, berths, terminal facilities, and connecting road and rail freight systems, and harden or elevate communication and electrical power infrastructure that services port facilities; and
- Upgrade aged locks and movable dams to allow for reliable management of water levels and maintain embankments to protect surrounding communities from flooding.
He did not mention financing issues, fare hikes or the debt bomb. He did not mention congestion control, environmental concerns or rail or bus expansion. He also didn’t even discuss a way to pay for any of the few upgrades he has proposed. Instead, he promised to avoid any tax increases and will instead go, hat in hand, to the federal government for a hand-out while building up the upstate road network.
For as much as Cuomo wants to push upstate development, the truth remains that New York State’s economy is powered by New York City, and New York City’s economy, as we have seen in the Sandy aftermath and as we knew beforehand, is powered by a robust transit network and infrastructure investments. Yes, it’s going to cost money to protect and maintain our subway system as new 21st Century challenges emerge, but if Cuomo wants to convince us of his grand progressive vision for New York State, then he has to be willing to tackle those challenges head on.
Just because transit was absent from the State of the State doesn’t mean nothing will happen. Cuomo still has the opportunity to appoint a strong and forceful transit advocate to head the MTA, and he has the power to push through financing measures. We can’t afford inaction, and we can’t afford to ignore the problems and recommendations. Waiting until next year, next time, will be too late, and the state executive has to lead.
The never-ending revolving door atop the MTA just keeps on swinging. According to a report in The Times, with dreams of the mayoralty flashing before his eyes, MTA Chairman and CEO Joe Lhota will step down from his post barely a year after assuming the office. As Lhota cannot run — or even talk about running — for mayor while serving as the head of a public agency, his resignation all but guarantees that he will at least publicly explore a campaign for Gracie Mansion.
With Lhota’s departure, he will have been the sixth person to leave the post since I started writing this column back in November of 2006. Lhota leaves just months before the MTA is set to raise fares and amidst praise of a fast response in light of the damage inflicted upon the system by Hurricane Sandy. Still, public perception of the MTA is not always a selling point in the city’s electoral politics, and Lhota will face a slate of high-profile, if less than inspiring, Democratic hopefuls as well.
And so the revolving door keeps moving. Someone else will have to head an agency requesting $5 billion in federal funds and in need of long-term fiscal and political stability. Who will it be next? And will they stay for longer than a year or so?
A few weeks ago, I mentioned the launch party for the Riders Alliance without providing too many more details about the organization. Pete Donohue profiled their efforts, but as a board member of the organization, I can speak more to their goals. It is a new transit advocacy group that should fill in the gaps left by the others in the field.
Essentially, the Riders Alliance is an organization with an aim of organizing transit riders into political blocks. As many people from one neighborhood want similar transit improvements, the Riders Alliance is focused on garnering grassroots support by organizing riders to pressure elected officials on funding and the MTA on service patterns. Eventually, if the organization can build enough popular support, its endgoal involves long-term solutions to New York City’s transit problems.
One of the Riders Alliance’s early efforts involves the G train. I think the G train gets a bad rap amongst its riders, but it certainly has its problems. Generally, the G train arrives on time and serves as a vital link between neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, but it doesn’t run particularly frequently. The short cars lead to crowded rush hour conditions, and its riders all want more service and better connections to other routes. In a sense, then, it’s ripe for a grassroots organizing effort, and that’s just what the Riders Alliance is doing.
As The Brooklyn Paper noted, the Riders Alliance is calling for better G train service. The group is working with residents to call for more frequent service and out-of-system transfers between the J/M/Z at Hewes St. The MTA isn’t so keen to give on these issues. Here’s the essential debate:
Members of the Riders Alliance claim the MTA is shooting itself in the foot by refusing to run G trains more reliably, allow free above-ground transfers to nearby lines, or add more rolling stock to the diminutive four-car line. “If they make the changes, the increased ridership will bring in the money that will justify the changes,” said Dustin Joyce, who claims the transit authority’s lack of interest in the line is hindering the growth of G-dependent neighborhoods including Greenpoint, Fort Greene, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, among others. “They could attract a lot more development in those neighborhoods if they had reliable transit.”
Infrastructure and transportation experts including New York University adjunct professor Sarah Kaufman say the MTA must do everything it can to lure more riders rather than let lousy service ride. “In other cities, transit companies are almost begging people to take transit instead of driving,” said Kaufman. “In New York City, trains are at capacity during rush hour, but that’s not true in the outer boroughs. There is room to attract more people into public transit in the outer boroughs and keep them out of traffic.”
But the MTA refutes the paradox and says it won’t budge until more riders flock to the much-maligned line. “We schedule service to match ridership,” said agency spokesman Charles Seaton, who added that the MTA has already made concessions G train riders when it dropped its own initiative to eliminate five beloved stops in Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, and Kensington earlier this year.
The Brooklyn Paper calls it a catch-22, and it’s one I’m inclined to believe. The G train has such a negative reputation amongst potential riders who live along the line that many will do all they can to avoid taking it. I’m no exception as a few weeks ago, I opted to take the 7 from Long Island City to Grand Central and the 4 to Brooklyn rather than take the G back to Park Slope. I didn’t want to risk a 10- or 15-minute wait late on a Friday night.
Picking up on this idea, Cap’n Transit notes that the G extension to Church Ave. has seemingly driven ridership and urges the MTA to at least give increased service a try. The only thing they have to lose is money, and they could gain it all back from increased ridership. It’s worth a try.
Ultimately, increased service — and a free transfer I barely discussed here — are simple fixes with which the MTA, if properly funded, could experiment. The MTA should be in the business of maximizing ridership but instead is in the business of maximizing economic efficiency as best it can while carrying billions in debt. A rider advocacy group with the right aim and the right focus could fix these problems, and the G train provides a perfect test run for the Riders Alliance as it launches an ambitious effort to re-imagine the city’s transit advocacy work.
A quick glance through local headlines these days may lead any long-time New Yorker to think the city has landed in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” With a mayoral election 11 months away, the name of one Joe Lhota has garnered a lot of ink as a potential Republican candidate. What kind of world do we live in where the head of the MTA, New York City’s much hated (in the court of public opinion) transit agency, can float a balloon of running for mayor?
Even as these rumors have swirled, Lhota himself hasn’t said much of anything. He did mention to The Daily News that he’s talked about it with his wife, and he’s said he’ll make a decision on whether or not to run in the coming weeks. Beyond that, though, his silence has seemingly frustrated reporters, as New York Magazine’s Andy Martin intimated last night.
There is, of course, a reason for that silence, and that reason hasn’t been a part of the early articles. Joe Lhota is essentially barred by law from talking about running for mayor. Section 3-C of the Public Officers Law — a new section added by the Public Employee Ethics Reform Act of 2007 — prohibits Lhota, as the head of a state agency, from running for office, and the restrictions are even broader. Take a look at the plain text:
No commissioner, executive director or other head of any state agency…shall seek nomination or election to any compensated federal, state or local public office, or shall become a candidate for such office, unless such individual first resigns from his or her public employment, or requests and is granted by their appointing authority a leave of absence without pay. Such resignation or leave must commence before such individual engages in any campaign activities, including but not limited to, announcing a candidacy, circulating petitions, soliciting contributions, distributing literature, or taking any other action to actively promote oneself as a candidate for elective office.
The key part here is that last phrase. “Taking any other action to actively promote oneself as a candidate for elective office” is incredibly broad, and even acknowledging to the News, as Lhota did yesterday, that he’s thinking about it skirts that line. So of course, Lhota can’t comment on his thought process, especially if he’s leaning in the direction of running.
That still doesn’t answer the question though of whether or not he should run. I’ve come out against his candidacy, not on ideological grounds, but on transit grounds. The MTA has run through six Chairman/CEOs/Executive Directors since 2006, and a Lhota departure would just add to the instability at the top. He has a good mind for transit and can get things done. The MTA needs someone like that to lead for a few years.
Politically, he’d have to overcome being known as the head of the MTA — not quite a selling point in electoral politics — and he’d have to make a name for himself amidst a field of well-known, if not the most inspiring, Democratic candidates. That’s no small task, and it’s a challenge Lhota would have to face after leaving the MTA.
So as we sit here today on December 7, Joe Lhota isn’t running for mayor because he’s still running the MTA, and he can’t do both at once. If he steps down, we’ll know what his short-term political future will be, and the MTA will, once again, be up for grabs.
As the MTA and transit community at large begin to examine how best to move forward with protecting the system, somehow plugging the tunnels will take center stage during the debate. The MTA saw first-hand during Hurricane Sandy that a storm surge of 13 feet will swamp eight subway tunnels and two road tunnels between Manhattan and the land mass known as Long Island. Protecting that infrastructure from future flooding is of utmost importance, but even doing so raises some delicate issues.
During my Problem Solvers discussion on Wednesday night, MTA Bridges & Tunnels President James Ferrara spoke about protecting the infrastructure but as part of a larger conversation the city needs to have. During our panel discussion, Ferrara seemed a bit more skeptical than I am that another storm will arrive. He understands that it’s very costly to harden transportation infrastructure and seemed to believe that we shouldn’t do so for storms that happen once every 100 years. Of course, we’ve now had two hurricanes in two years along with a variety of other weird weather patterns, and the oceans are getting warmer.
But protecting the Montague St. Tunnel or the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel from future flooding isn’t as easy as installing a plug or dropping doors across the tunnel entrances. As Tom Abudllah, Transit’s Chief Environmental Engineer, said during my talk, the water has to go somewhere. If you seal off the tunnels, the water goes into the stations, and if you seal off the stations, well, then the water winds up all over the place at street level.
This realization played itself out in the media earlier this week when Joe Lhota started talking about shoring up the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. “I had one very prominent real estate builder who owns buildings in lower Manhattan—actually all over the city—thank me for allowing the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel to be used as a drainage ditch. I wasn’t particularly pleased with the comment,” he said to Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein. “The fact of the matter is, if I plug it up, we plug it up, the MTA plugs it up—if God forbid this happens again, the surge is the same or even higher, the water will go elsewhere.”
In Lower Manhattan, “elsewhere” means into buildings that house multi-national corporations and into expensive housing that’s popped up downtown over the past ten years. Bill Rudin was the real estate scion who thanked Lhota, and the two engaged in a weird sort of back-and-forth over Lhota’s comments. That’s pretty much besides the point.
Ferrara spoke to this issue on Wednesday night at the Transit Museum, and he noted that we can’t just talk about protecting tunnels in a vacuum. It has to be part of a larger community discussion about protecting areas, neighborhoods, regions from the impact of flooding, storm surges and rising tides. This discussion has the potential to devolve into inaction though. Residents will come to appreciate having the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and other infrastructure as “drains” while those in charge of the infrastructure need to find a way to protect it. Someone will have to step into moderate, and our elected officials haven’t shown much leadership on, well, anything. It’s probably naive to expect them to find the ability to solve this more complex problem.
Ultimately, we have to remember that fixing these vulnerabilities isn’t as simple as unilateral MTA action. It’s never that simple, and the water doesn’t just disappear. So sooner rather than later, we’ll see this prickly process begin. Will real estate interests dominate transit? If history is any guide, it’s going to be an uphill battle to protect those tunnels.
Even as Joe Lhota himself refuses to comment on the rumors that he may run for mayor, his former City Hall boss is far more willing to discuss the possibility. In an interview with Daily News reporter Ken Lovett, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani said that Lhota will decide by Christmas if he wants to ditch the MTA and run for mayor. “I’d like to see him run for the city and for the Republican Party, but I want him to be aware of the fact that it’s a very tough road,” Giuliani said.
According to The News, Lhota would have to step down as CEO and Chairman of the MTA were he to run for mayor next year, and Giuliani notes that this is a decision Lhota is not taking lightly. “He’s trying to figure it out. He loves his job,” the former mayor said. Lhota, said Rudy, must decide if he can “raise the cash to run a viable campaign.” Were he to run, Lhota would face a GOP primary challenger in Adolfo Carrión and a slate of Democrats who are both out-polling and out-fundraising their Republican counterparts. Furthermore, despite high marks from the public for the MTA’s post-Sandy performance, any Democrat outpolled Lhota by a 60-9 margin in a recent Q poll.
As I’ve said in the past, I’d prefer to see Lhota stay with the MTA. Lhota is the fifth agency head in the last six years, and turmoil at the top has cost the MTA an opportunity to move forward. Lhota’s current term runs through 2015, and were he to stay, he could oversee the next capital plan, a MetroCard replacement project and other innovations that have stalled amidst turnover in the CEO/Chairman position. Though should we really expect that much stability with the MTA these days?
I started Second Ave. Sagas nearly six years ago, and for the MTA, six years is actually a key number. That’s the length of time a CEO/Chairman term should last. Somehow, it doesn’t always work out that way, and since starting the site, I’ve seen five men and women take over the authority’s reins. High turnover does not lend itself to much stability.
Since Jay Walder’s departure in late 2011, Joe Lhota has been the man at the top. Although I was initially skeptical of a non-transit wonk taking over the agency’s CEO and Chairman role, Lhota has shown a willingness to both learn on the job and zealously advocate for New York’s transit network. His current term expires on June 30 of 2015, and I have hopes that he’ll last that long. Someone should stick around.
In the aftermath of Sandy, though, New York’s political forces seem to be conspiring against the MTA and its long-term outlook. With a relatively weak field of Democratic mayoral candidates, the city’s independent and Republican politicos have been casting around for a suitably strong candidate to maintain their hold on City Hall. After the MTA’s generally stellar response to the storm, Lhota’s name has come up more than once.
This week, an important voice in the business community lent its pages to the cause as Greg David of Crain’s New York trumpeted Joe Lhota 2013. Here’s his take:
One person New Yorkers would have confidence in is Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota, who has shown what a good manager does in a crisis. He is clearly fiscally conservative, knows city government inside and out from his days as Rudy’s first deputy mayor, and appears eerily calm in a crisis (although he has been known to lose his temper in public at other times).
Mr. Lhota’s path for a mayoral candidacy begins and ends with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He’s the governor’s man now. If Mr. Cuomo cares about the competence of the next mayor and if he’d like a devoted ally at City Hall, Mr. Lhota fits the bill. The governor’s support for an independent candidacy would be very powerful.
Maybe the impact of and obsession with Sandy will fade in the next few weeks and the mayoral race will return to a debate about how much to raise taxes on the wealthy, how to impose the living-wage mandate, how many sick days businesses should be required to provide, and how to set aside more contracts for minority- and women-owned companies. If not, expect print and TV media to begin more critical coverage of the Democrats and build up the Lhota legend.
One way or another, Sandy — and any other megastorm — will dominate the New York City news coverage through the next election cycle. The current mayor and the next one will have to address the city’s vulnerability and infrastructure upgrades necessary to protect our assets, our homes and our economy. Lhota, a former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, certainly could do the job.
But I’m selfish. I’d like someone who can fight for transit to stick around for longer than a year or 18 months. One could also argue that heading up the MTA is nearly as important as being mayor. Is the political promotion worth it? It depends upon that person’s ambitions, but I’d like to hope Lhota will stick around to see his current job through. With budget issues and a capital campaign coming due, the next few years are key for the MTA, and stability at the top and advocacy from the top will remain vital.
The illustrious State Senator Lee Zeldin seemingly enjoys himself a tea party in the traditional sense of the phrase. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Nowhere is that more obvious than in his dealings with the MTA. After spending two years trying to take $1.5 billion away from the transit agency, Zeldin had the audacity to rail, loudly and broadly, against the current fare hike proposal.
In a statement that seems to ignore how all MTA agencies will be raising tolls and fares, Zeldin focused on his Long Island constituents’ key concern: LIRR fares. Let’s look at what Zeldin had to say.
“While proposing an average increase of 8.19% to 9.31% for LIRR riders, the MTA offers zero data of total projected revenue estimated to be brought in through the drastic fare and toll hikes throughout the MTA region. It’s ironic that the press release is posted under the ‘transparency’ feature to the MTA’s website, when the MTA fails to make any mention of the projected fiscal impact of these hikes on its budget.”
Zeldin cannot be forgiven for not paying attention as MTA CEO and Chairman Joe Lhota has said over and over again that each fare hike proposal will generate approximately $277 million in annual revenue for the MTA. If I know that, our elected officials should know that as well. He continues:
“While the MTA states that ‘year over year controllable costs’ have been reduced by 0.3%, there is still much more work to be done. Some of the areas ripe for further efficiencies include further reducing overtime, decreasing the number of excessive salaries over $200,000, reforming work rules, selling additional real estate, reducing the excessive number of managers and supervisors, and so much more.”
Here, Zeldin isn’t wrong, but he’s not right either. The MTA has already drastically reduced overtime expenditures, and at some point, it’s actually more cost-efficient to pay time-and-a-half for overtime than it is to hire new employees. Some of this other critiques — particularly with regard to reforming work rules — require action from Albany, and I have yet to see Zeldin take an active role in anything resembling work rule reform. Selling real estate is a one-time fix for a systemic problem. He went on:
The days are over for $2 billion taxpayer funded bailouts with no questions asked. Meanwhile, we are also not going to play the victim against sustained threats of significant fare and toll hikes or dramatic reductions of service as the primary alternatives. The time has come for the MTA to do more to look within for cost savings and start running more like a competitive business, than a bloated government bureaucracy.”
Zing! The only thing missing here from Bash-the-MTA Bingo is a claim of two sets of books. Here, it’s entirely unclear what Zeldin is talking about. Who’s playing the victim against threats of anything? The MTA is raising fares because it has to generate a few hundred million dollars, and they’ve laid those figures out on the table. If anything, this is classic victim-blaming by a State Senator.
It’s worth remember too what Zeldin has done as a State Senator. He ran for office on a platform focusing around repealing the MTA Payroll Mobility Tax, and he succeeded in rolling back approximately $300 million of that tax — coincidentally the same amount the MTA has to raise for this fare hike. Not satisfied, he has continued to call for a further reduction in the payroll tax rate without offering any substantial changes or sources of revenue in return. For this Long Island representative, it’s all been about blame without accepting any responsibility to dictate sound transportation policy, and he’s at it again.
New York, these are your politicians.