Archive for MTA Politics

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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One of the strange twists and turns of the ongoing saga over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility for the current collapse of NYC’s subway system involved a breakfast and some finger pointing at Con Edison this past summer. While I was on vacation (and subsequently recovering from a broken bone I sustained while on that vacation), this story of odd finger-pointing unfolded to a certain denouement that had Con Edison paying for some costs regarding power delivery to the MTA. It seemed strange at the time and raised eyebrows within the New York political landscape, and after a report this weekend in The Daily News, it seems that the MTA may have fudged some numbers to allow the governor to blame, and get money from, Con Edison for unrelated (or at best, quasi-related) subway performance issues.

The story goes a little something like: In July, Cuomo delivered remarks at a breakfast hosted by the Association for a Better New York in which he laid the blame for MTA performance issues on the shoulders of Con Ed. “Over the last 12 months, 32,000 delays because of power related issues,” he said of the subways, “and they can either be a power surge or power shortage, but 32,000 delays. The MTA doesn’t control the power, Con Edison does. Con Edison has a duty to safely, prudently and effectively provide electricity that powers the subway system. Con Ed is a regulated utility under the state’s Public Service Commission. April 21 after the last outage I ordered an investigation of the Con Ed infrastructure after a particularly devastating failure. The investigation goes on but PSC has already found that Con Ed must make immediate and significant improvements in this system because the reliability depends on it.”

In mid-November, Politico New York reported that Con Ed would be taking on the costs of electrical repair work required by the MTA. Marie French and Dana Rubinstein termed the whole thing an “unusual financial arrangement” that would eventually shift costs to Con Ed’s NYC and Westchester customers anyway, and no one could put a finger on why this arrangement was necessary or if it even made sense. Now it seems it does not make sense, at least not without some loose accounting. Dan Rivoli broke the news this weekend:

Internal emails obtained by the Daily News show an MTA honcho pushing staff to come up with a higher number of subway delays blamed on power issues, before Gov. Cuomo made a public show of citing problems with Con Edison as the single biggest source of disruption for riders. As the Summer of Hell was in full swing, NYC Transit brass found a creative way to make power-tied delays appear more common. They expanded the types of incidents that could be defined as power-related, including circuit failures, and emergencies — like a person on the track — where the power is intentionally cut off.

The broader definition detailed in emails from July 25 to Aug. 9 allowed the MTA to quadruple the tally of power-related delays, to 32,000 from 8,000…The real number of power delays, according to senior subways performance analyst Kyle Kirschling, was about 8,000. NYC Transit chief of staff Naomi Renek wrote an email to staff members at 6:03 a.m. on July 25, saying that she was “looking for a higher delay number for power.”

Kirschling initially appeared stumped. “I can’t think of a way to make the ConEd/External power figures higher,” he replied to Renek, NYC Transit Executive Vice President Tim Mulligan and other transit staffers. Kirschling, in a subsequent email, said Con Ed was at fault for just 3,422 of those delays.

So how did Con Ed’s responsibility increase ten-fold? As Rivoli details in his reporting, the MTA simply changed the definition of a power problem to those well beyond the scope of power delivery issues under Con Edison’s purview to bring the number up from 3400 to 32,000. He write of one particularly egregious exchange:

Cuomo’s deputy press secretary Maxwell Morgan checked in with Renek, emailing her and another governor’s aide, Maria Michalos. “Naomi, do we have the total real number of power-related delays over last 12 months? Higher than the 8k?”

Renek responded with an explanation. “The 8k is the real number of power-only incidents,” she wrote. “However, incidents coded as signal can also be power-related. We can safely say that track circuit incidents are power-related, although power is not the root cause.”

Soon, she and Morgan were hashing out how to spin the numbers to the public. “How would you massage that language?” Morgan wrote. “Could we say ‘power-related issues caused more than 32,000 delays?’ ” Renek replied that it was better to couch the numbers by saying power “caused or contributed to” the delays.

Hilariously enough, in initial comments to Rivoli, the governor’s team claimed Cuomo was only the messenger, and the MTA has vehemently defended its calculations, even claiming Con Edison is responsible in situations in which power is intentionally cut to the tracks by the agency to respond to a problem. “Are you gonna tell me power cut from the tracks is not a power-related problem?” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said to Rivoli. (Don’t sleep either on Lhota, the MTA head, dismissing Kirschling, a six-year MTA vet, as a “bean-counter” in the Daily News piece. This has not gone over well with the rank-and-file at 2 Broadway as I’ve heard it.)

Under question later on Sunday, Cuomo repeatedly tried to shift blame to the MTA (which, for the record, he controls). “The MTA produced the numbers. The MTA says they’re accurate. I believe the MTA…I didn’t read the Daily News story. I was told about it briefly. I don’t know what the difference between power issues and power-related issues really are. You should talk to the MTA about that.”

So where does this leave everything? This is another story indicative of Cuomo’s attempts at blaming everyone else other than himself and his stewardship of the MTA for the MTA’s problems. It’s a tale of the governor’s people using downward pressure to force MTA employees to rewrite rules to make the governor look better while identifying a scapegoat dubiously responsible at best. It’s a story that demands an official investigation and again showcases how public trust in the MTA’s self-reported numbers should be essentially non-existent now. “It raises issues about accountability and it raises questions as to whether this is happening in other areas of subway performance,” John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said to The Times on Sunday. “How far does this go?” How far, indeed.

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The world’s most expensive subway construction project opened a year ago. Can the MTA take the steps needed for cost reform? (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Why do New York rail construction projects cost so much? In essence, with a $5-$6 billion tag attached to Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway on the horizon (let alone the recent politicking over the fate of the Gateway Tunnel), this is the big question plaguing New York. With limited dollars not going nearly as far as they do the world over, the MTA’s cost problems are a significant barrier to New York City transit expansion.

For years, those watching the MTA have rung the alarm on the agency’s high construction costs. I’ve written about cost concerns and the ever-increasing budgets for big-ticket MTA capital projects for years, and I’m not alone. Alon Levy has, since this post in 2011, charted the absurd costs of U.S. rail construction in detailed comparisons with international peers, and Stephen Smith, via the @MarketUrbanism twitter feed, has beaten the cost drum. When challenged, MTA officials have acknowledged that construction costs, but no one has tackled the twin issues of cost transparency and cost control. No one, that is, until last week, when The Times ran a massive front-page story charting all the reasons why NYC transit construction are so high.

As the finale in the series that started with an in-depth look at our unfolding transit crisis, Brian Rosenthal, with help from Doris Burke and Alain Delaquérière, has done what the MTA or the New York State Comptroller should have done years ago: They scrutinized MTA spending and took a deep dive into the agency’s contracting practices, staffing policies and lack of productivity in a way that lays bare just how bad the MTA is at managing big-ticket construction projects or getting a good return on its dollar. The article is, essentially, the story of how institutionalized corruption has become the norm in New York City. I highly urge you to read the entire piece and peruse through my instant reaction Twitter thread from Friday. I’ll excerpt a bit here.

First, the lede in which no one knows what 200 people are doing as part of the East Side Access project, a $12.5 billion project that costs, as The Times notes, seven times more than similar work elsewhere:

An accountant discovered the discrepancy while reviewing the budget for new train platforms under Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there.

“Nobody knew what those people were doing, if they were doing anything,” said Michael Horodniceanu, who was then the head of construction at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs transit in New York. The workers were laid off, Mr. Horodniceanu said, but no one figured out how long they had been employed. “All we knew is they were each being paid about $1,000 every day.”

At the outset, the article blames everyone and dives in from there. I haven’t seen a more succinct summary of the MTA’s problems than this excerpt:

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show.
Construction companies, which have given millions of dollars in campaign donations in recent years, have increased their projected costs by up to 50 percent when bidding for work from the M.T.A., contractors say. Consulting firms, which have hired away scores of M.T.A. employees, have persuaded the authority to spend an unusual amount on design and management, statistics indicate.

Public officials, mired in bureaucracy, have not acted to curb the costs. The M.T.A. has not adopted best practices nor worked to increase competition in contracting, and it almost never punishes vendors for spending too much or taking too long, according to inspector general reports.

At the heart of the issue is the obscure way that construction costs are set in New York. Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

Meanwhile, when faced with the conclusions of The Times’ reporting, the MTA pointed to its favorite bogeyman — New York exceptionalism. Projects cost a lot in New York because things are expensive. MTA Chairman Joe Lhota pointed at ” aging utilities, expensive land, high density, strict regulations and large ridership requiring big stations.” In the reporters’ fact-based world, none of this would fly:

But the contractors said the other issues cited by the M.T.A. were challenges that all transit systems face. Density is the norm in cities where subway projects occur. Regulations are similar everywhere. All projects use the same equipment at the same prices. Land and other types of construction do not cost dramatically more in New York. Insurance costs more but is only a fraction of the budget. The M.T.A.’s stations have not been bigger (nor deeper) than is typical. “Those sound like cop-outs,” said Rob Muley, an executive at the John Holland engineering firm who has worked in Hong Kong and Singapore and visited the East Side Access project, after hearing Mr. Lhota’s reasons.

In Paris, which has famously powerful unions, the review found the lower costs were the result of efficient staffing, fierce vendor competition and scant use of consultants. In some ways, M.T.A. projects have been easier than work elsewhere. East Side Access uses an existing tunnel for nearly half its route. The hard rock under the city also is easy to blast through, and workers do not encounter ancient sites that need to be protected. “They’re claiming the age of the city is to blame?” asked Andy Mitchell, the former head of Crossrail, a project to build 13 miles of subway under the center of London, a city built 2,000 years ago. “Really?”

So what makes MTA projects cost so much? One answer is overstaffing. As I have detailed before, the MTA staffs upwards of 25 people on TBM projects while most other nations use around 10 for similar work. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

The documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere. There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. An extra person is required to be present for all concrete pumping, steam fitting, sheet metal work and other tasks.

In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on the Second Avenue subway and many similar projects around the world. That ratio does not include people who get lost in the sea of workers and get paid even though they have no apparent responsibility, as happened on East Side Access.

And then of course there is good old fashioned featherbedding. As Rosenthal details, the Sandhogs’ union gets a free perk just because the MTA uses TBMs, a technology that has been employed to dig subways for the better part of 50 or 60 years. As he writes, “One part of Local 147’s deal entitles the union to $450,000 for each tunnel-boring machine used. That is to make up for job losses from ‘technological advancement,’ even though the equipment has been standard for decades.”

Besides the obvious institutionalized corruption and back-patting, Rosenthal details how the MTA’s own practices lead to significantly higher costs. This is a key part:

Mr. Lhota, the M.T.A. chairman, agreed that leaving negotiations to unions and vendors may be problematic. “You’re right; in many ways, there’s this level of connection between the two,” he said. But the chairman said he did not know what could be done about it. Hiring nonunion labor is legal but not politically realistic for the M.T.A. The transit authority could get unions to agree to project-specific labor deals, but it has not.

The profit percentage taken by vendors also is itself a factor in the M.T.A.’s high costs. In other parts of the world, companies bidding on transit projects typically add 10 percent to their estimated costs to account for profit, overhead and change orders, contractors in five continents said. Final profit is usually less than 5 percent of the total project cost, which is sufficient given the size of the projects, the contractors said.

Things are much different in New York. In a series of interviews, dozens of M.T.A. contractors described how vendors routinely increase their estimated costs when bidding for work. First, the contractors said, the vendors add between 15 and 25 percent as an “M.T.A. Factor” because of how hard it can be to work within the bureaucracy of the transit authority. Then they add 10 percent as a contingency for possible changes. And then they add another 10-12 percent on top of all that for profit and overhead.

The MTA takes a laissez-faire relationship to its contractors’ agreements with labor unions and then sits back as the contractors build in extra costs (and profit margins) to their agreements. No wonder the contractors want the MTA capital plan to be as expensive as possible as high amounts of available dollars lead them to realize more profits. And the examples are endless. Rosenthal notes that other countries’ bidding processes lead to as many as eight bids on complex construction work whereas the MTA sees two that often come in far higher than estimated. MTA Board members meanwile, are keen to wash thier hands of graft:

More than a dozen M.T.A. workers were fined for accepting gifts from contractors during that time, records show. One was Anil Parikh, the director of the Second Avenue subway project. He got a $2,500 ticket to a gala, a round of golf and dinner from a contractor in 2002. Years later, shortly after the line opened, he went to work for the contractor’s parent company, AECOM. Mr. Parikh and AECOM declined to comment.

A Times analysis of the 25 M.T.A. agency presidents who have left over the past two decades found that at least 18 of them became consultants or went to work for authority contractors, including many who have worked on expansion projects. “Is it rigged? Yes,” said Charles G. Moerdler, who has served on the M.T.A. board since 2010. “I don’t think it’s corrupt. But I think people like doing business with people they know, and so a few companies get all the work, and they can charge whatever they want.”

Firms that donate to politicians and operate a revolving door between their offices and the public sector are the only ones to bid on complex projects and they do so at inflated costs. It’s graft, and whether it’s legal is a big open question mark in my mind. But don’t sleep on MTA ineptitude either; the agency after all hired three “operational readiness” consultants for East Side Access ten years before construction work is set to wrap on the project. The waste and the rot run deep.

As you read The Times piece, you may be wondering what happens next. After all, MTA officials have been on the record acknowledging these problems for years, but they never act. Horodniceanu talked about overstaffing on TBM projects years ago, and he never acted. A faction on the MTA Board recently started raising concerns over contracting dollars, but the full board still voted to approve all projects. And the $6 billion Second Ave. Subway phase looms large.

As I see it, two people could fix this mess. One is Andrew Cuomo. He could exert the leverage he has over the MTA and the labor unions to get both sides to come to the table on a solution. Unfortunately, he has shown no willingness to challenge union costs, and he has used the MTA for political show only. The other person is New York State AG Eric Schneiderman who could use his office’s legal powers to investigate these contracts and, if legally feasible, start prosecuting all of these players for fraud. That would be a big shock to the New York state construction graft industry but is a reach legally with standards for proving this type of corruption very high these days.

Are we stuck then? Is the only outcome a well-deserved Pulitzer nomination for Rosenthal and The Times and vindication for Stephen Smith, Alon Levy, and the thousands of transit nerds who have listened to them over the years? I hope something more comes out of this series of articles. The future of reasonably priced transit projects in NYC depends on it. But even with everything out in the open, corruption has a way of persevering absent a major shock to the system that enabled it in the first place.

Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Being the next head of New York City Transit may sound like a thankless, no-win situation. Between a public rightly demanding something resembling reliable and trustworthy transit service and a boss in Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanding whatever half-developed idea pops into his head on any given morning, the constituencies for this presidency are fickle and, in the case of commuters facing another morning of subway meltdowns, angry. But that doesn’t stop many people from taking on the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of running and fixing the subways, and last week, the MTA announced that Andy Byford, from London by way of Sydney and Toronto, will assume the role of New York City Transit President by the end of the year.

Byford replaces Ronnie Hakim atop Transit. When Joe Lhota took over the MTA, Hakim moved into the position of MTA Managing Director, splitting responsibilities with MTA President Patrick Foye and MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber. “We are thrilled that Andy is going to lead NYC Transit during this time of great change,” Lhota said in a statement last week. “Our transit system is the backbone of the world’s greatest city and having someone of Andy’s caliber to lead it will help immensely, particularly when it comes to implementing the Subway Action Plan that we launched this summer. In order to truly stabilize, modernize and improve our transit system, we needed a leader who has done this work at world-class systems and Andy’s successes in Toronto are evidence that he is up to this critically important task.”

The British native started out working for the London Underground in the late 1980s before working in leadership for both South Eastern Trains and London’s Southern Railway. He spent a few years in Australia with RailCorp before moving to Toronto where he has led the Toronto Transit Commission since 2012. APTA recently named the TTC, under Byford, as its Outstanding Transit System of the Year, but not all has been wine and roses for Byford in Toronto. Some Torontonians have grown weary of near-annual fare hikes, and Toronto transit voice Steve Munro told The Times that Byford has grown “somewhat less receptive to criticism” over the years.

Still, Byford brings an international perspective to an agency that has been mired in New York Exceptionalism for years. The MTA has been seemingly shy or afraid about implementing best practices not invented here for reasons that have been tough to explain. If Byford can bring his learnings from London, Australia and Toronto to New York City, perhaps Transit can fight its way out of this crisis with an approach more robust than Lhota’s pet Subway Action Plan.

But Byford’s approach in Toronto and the legacy he leaves behind is almost besides the point as the 800 pound gorilla in New York’s room looms large. That gorilla is of course Andrew Cuomo and the influence he exerts over, well, everything. Byford brings a unique perspective to the insular MTA, but the question is whether Cuomo will listen. So far, he hasn’t as Byford participated in the laughably sterile MTA Reinvention Commission a few years ago and on a panel this past summer as part of the MTA genius campaign. Both led to recommendations that were routinely ignored in Albany.

In The Times last week, Marc Santora explored the question of politics and the ways in which Byford should or shouldn’t play politics. (It’s the companion piece, in a way, to Jim Dwyer’s full-on assault on the poor politics of transportation in New York right now.) Santora’s thesis is that Byford should avoid political fights, specifically the feud between Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. But Byford shouldn’t be afraid of taking positions, and I worry already that he’s going to thread too fine a needle. Take a look at this excerpt from Santora’s piece (the emphasis is mine) :

Mr. Cuomo supports a congestion pricing plan that would charge drivers entering the most crowded parts of Manhattan and is expected to offer a detailed proposal early next year. Mr. de Blasio has been steadfast in his opposition to congestion pricing, saying it would burden low-income New Yorkers, and has instead pushed a plan to raise taxes on wealthy residents.

Mr. Byford said he was “agnostic” about how the money is raised, adding that his task was to show that he could win political support by building a management team capable of running the subway. Transit advocates said he must also win over riders by quickly showing concrete gains, especially by improving on-time performance.

I am willing to give Byford a pass because he’s the new guy, but being agnostic as to matters of transit, transportation equity and funding is a recipe for being a Cuomo pawn. We need a New York City Transit president who is willing to be a champion for New York City transit with a lower case t. He should fight for smart policies and intelligent funding that can help stabilize and modernize our old system. That will involve challenging Cuomo and taking sides that aren’t always popular in Albany. Will that play with the Governor? Will that help push Transit toward a future where delays and poor service aren’t the norms? It’s a tall task, and for now, it’s Byford’s.

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