A few years ago, at around the time Sandy swept through New York, Andrew Cuomo determined it looked gubernatorial and in charge for him to announce good news regarding the MTA. In the grand tradition of New York executives stretching back to 1968, Cuomo decided that the MTA could be used to boost his image with downstate voters, and now, every time good news comes out, his press office sends out an email “announcing” the happenings. Tunnels reopening? Sandy work on the R train wrapping early? New wireless service underground? Federal storm preparedness funds? It all comes from Cuomo’s office.
“What happens though when there is bad news?” you may wonder. Funny you should ask because that’s when Cuomo disappears faster than Keyser Soze. He’s more than willing to take credit for everything on which he had little to no affect; that is, after all, his prerogative as the MTA is a creation of the State of New York. But when something doesn’t go right, when there are bad headlines to be made, Cuomo does what many others have done before him — he tries to distance himself from the MTA. (He may even be exerting pressure to actively avoid bad news. From some accounts, the MTA may wait to announce the details of the 2015 fare hikes until after Election Day so Cuomo can avoid the bad press. Usually, the new fare schemes are announced in mid-October prior to a March fare hike. But I digress.)
This dynamic came to a head this week following the CPRB rejection of the MTA’s capital plan. In his comments about the capital plan, Cuomo, who you may recall is in charge of the MTA, seemed surprised that the thing had a $15 billion gap. He didn’t offer up any solutions and seems to think all is copacetic when it comes to MTA funding.
Here’s what he said to Capital New York: “The first budget from every agency also always calls for $15 billion. That’s part of the dance that we go through. That’s why I say it’s the initial, proposed budget. We’ll then look at that budget and go through, and we’ll come up with a realistic number. But we have a very real $4 billion surplus, and we have a 2 percent spending cap that I still follow. So that’s the discipline that’s in the process.”
When later asked about a funding scheme involving, say, congestion pricing, Cuomo was quick to dismiss the idea. As Kate Hinds reported, Cuomo simply said, “There’s no need for it. We have a surplus. Look, we had a $10 billion deficit, and we didn’t do tolls.” That $15 billion is just going to materialize out of thing air. (Or will Cuomo, as he intimated, use the money from the bank settlements to fund the MTA?)
For its part, in a rare act of defiance, the MTA seems to be toeing the capital line. While Cuomo has suggested the capital budget could be pared down — and it’s likely to come in below the current $32 billion price tag — Tom Prendergast spoke yesterday about the need for investing in the system. Streetsblog’s Stephen Miller was on hand to report as Prendergast defended the five-year plan. Disputing Cuomo’s earlier assertion that the proposal was “bloated,” as the governor said, Prendergast warned that he’d be willing to drive the MTA further into debt. “I don’t like greater debt finance, but I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll treat that finance as a bridge to another day.”
As Miller notes, Prendergast’s co-panelists discussing transit governance were quick to point to Cuomo as the ultimate arbiter of all things MTA, whether the governor admits it or not. Many MTA board members answer to Cuomo, and Prendergast is a Cuomo appointee who serves at the pleasure of the governor. While Cuomo may try to shirk the bad news and trumpet the good, this is his beast, as it was every governor’s before him since Nelson and David Rockefeller’s plan to depose Robert Moses. The $15 billion gap is at his feet. How he moves forward will speak volumes of his approach toward New York City and transit, and I’m not feeling particularly optimistic about it.