Home MTA Politics Skepticism and optimism as Cuomo calls for transit panel

Skepticism and optimism as Cuomo calls for transit panel

by Benjamin Kabak

On Wednesday afternoon, for some reason, Gov. Andrew Cuomo swooped in for a transit vist. In a seeming unsolicited letter to MTA CEO and Chairman, Cuomo urged the MTA to form a panel called the Transportation Reinvention Commission in an effort to focus the MTA on its needs for the next century. The letter came at an odd time and with plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but maybe, if things break the right way, the MTA and New York State could turn this into a positive step.

As the letter notes, Cuomo sent this massive to the MTA because their next five-year capital plan is due before the Board for approval in September. That can’t be the impetus behind it though because it would show a complete lack of comprehension of the capital process. Last year, the MTA released its 20-Year Needs Assessment which feeds and informs the capital plan. Does Cuomo think the MTA is going to slap together some $30 billion, five-year plan in less than four months? Does he think this panel can convene and issue recommendations ahead of any work on this plan? I hope not.

But this skepticism aside, Cuomo’s basic idea isn’t a bad one. Here’s his letter:

New York faces a pressing need to prepare the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for tomorrow’s challenges. To adapt its system for a changing world, a changing state and a changing climate, the MTA has a unique opportunity to proactively redesign how it serves its customers. The MTA is scheduled to submit a Capital Plan this fall to identify investment priorities for New York’s mass transit network. While past Capital Plans have focused on maintaining and expanding the existing MTA network, New York needs the MTA to develop a reinvention plan to make our subways and our entire transit system ready for the challenges of the next century.

I am recommending the MTA empanel a Transportation Reinvention Commission to examine its network and develop a plan for the future. The Commission should include international transportation experts and be selected by the MTA. It should hold public hearings as it develops findings and submit a preliminary report to me in advance of the MTA Board’s scheduled Capital Plan approval in September.

We have been operating the same subway system for the last 100 years. The next 100 years, however, look radically different for New York. The clear evidence of a changing climate in our nation makes more major storms like Superstorm Sandy a real and present threat. Increasing population, demographic shifts and record ridership pose new challenges to operating and maintaining our existing mass transit network, meeting and exceeding New Yorkers’ expectations, and spurring the continued growth of New York’s economy. Already, there are more than 8.5 million riders – more than the entire population of New York City – using MTA trains and busses every day. This Commission needs to fundamentally reexamine our subway system to meet these needs and expectations.

Cuomo’s assertion that “we have been operating the same subway system for the last 100 years” could not be further from the truth. In 1914, the BRT and IRT operated a bunch of streetcars and subway lines without the connections we know today, and the IND routings were barely a thought. The opening of Brooklyn’s 4th Ave. subway was still a year away, and only the Joralemon and Clark St. tunnels brought subways from Brooklyn to Manhattan. So we have not been operating the same subway for 100 years.

Yet, the next 100 years do look different. The MTA has to modernize a system that is, at parts, 100 years old; it has to meet growing demands for transit within the preexisting population and the growing population at large; it has to combat rising sea levels brought about by climate change and the threat of future flooding; and it has to figure out a way to grow at costs that aren’t astronomical. It also has to be more aggressive in thinking big than the Straphangers Campaign who, as a response to Cuomo’s letter, called for more Bus Rapid Transit.

So Cuomo has urged the MTA to appoint “international transportation experts” to this panel. Maybe they can figure out why everything costs so much in New York. Maybe they can look at work rules and personnel padding, at costs and timelines and project management, to figure out a way to reign in this problem. We may be skeptical because of Cuomo’s record and attention to transit, but at the least, this panel deserves a chance to do something. It won’t inform the next five-year capital plan, but it could have a deeper impact further down the road.

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Alex C May 7, 2014 - 11:49 pm

While I do appreciate the governor pretending to care, I doubt this panel will bring much of anything worthwhile. They’ll prepare some generic report on recommendations and nothing will change because the funding will never be there anyways.

SEAN May 8, 2014 - 11:46 am

Sandy might be the catch all phrase to atract the funding just like 9/11 or terrorism was able to drum up billions for all sorts of projects.

Patrick O'Hara May 8, 2014 - 1:22 am

Maybe we need to form a panel to figure out why we need so many different panels!

Eric F May 8, 2014 - 10:11 am

Before any such panel is convened, you’ll have to run a 5-year EIS process that will run 6,000 pages. When it’s done it will turn out that the facts it was based on are now out of date, thus requiring a re-start of the process.

johndmuller May 8, 2014 - 1:48 am

It’s pretty hard to look bad politically when you are calling for a study – it radiates a calm, reasonable, thoughtful approach. Only in the immediate aftermath of some kind of disaster does a study look bad, when people want decisive action rather than words. So Cuomo is safe so far.

If there is any behind the scenes action going on, the study could be used to plant whatever the preferred options are into the official dialog, so if there is a hidden agenda, it may pop out in the report.

Perhaps ammunition is being readied for some transit fundraising in Washington and he’s looking for a short list of nice sounding proposals with the appearance of some 3rd party backing (SAS anyone?).

More than likely we will see some very politically correct propositions with just the right blend (he hopes) of progressiveness and fiscal responsibility. It would be proper for there to be a balanced amount of attention paid to upstate interests (other than roads).

I just hope it is heavier on the infrastructure than the boilerplate and completely lacking in BRT.

Bolwerk May 8, 2014 - 9:04 am

It only makes you look good to calm, reasonable, thoughtful people though. Calling for a study perhaps shuts them up. While the study commences, so do transit raids, destructive infrastructure projects, and future-selling backroom deals. Irrational people tend to a have a lifetime of reason to hate and fear studies because studies, efficacious ones anyway, will tend to say things they don’t want to hear.

This may jive with what you’re saying, but the panel probably really is just another opportunity to re-state what the MTA has wanted to do anyway: finish the mega-projects, maintain what we have, change little about the organization, and maybe propose some token BRT routes.

Roxie May 8, 2014 - 4:56 am

The ‘pretend to give a shit so I can get away with raiding Transit’s funding’ strategy is working out great for Cuomo, I see.

Larry Greenfield May 8, 2014 - 7:21 am

First of all, there may be 8.5 million rides on the MTA every day, but not riders. The number of riders is far less, probably about half since most take round trips.
More importantly, however, is that the proposed Transportation Reinvention Commission will have no connection to the Port Authority’s planning process; there needs to be some integration of these two regional transportation entities, at least for long-range planning and funding purposes.

John-2 May 8, 2014 - 8:54 am

This does seem to be “Transportation Week” in Albany, as the MTA commission idea comes in hand with the announcement by Cuomo and Christie of a bi-state panel on Port Authority reforms. You’d like to hope that the two panels would at least talk to each other a little, since part of the problem with doing a unified reform of the area’s transportation system is that most of the time the MTA and PANYNJ act as if the other agency doesn’t exist.

As for the Transportation Reinvention Commission, it would be nice if it was being formed to recommend ways to maintain, improve and even expand the system, and because it was the governor’s baby, would actually be able to pry more funding out for the system (especially on the preventive maintenance politicians ignore, because voters usually don’t see where the money’s gone). But the ‘Reinvention’ part scares me, since this is both a re-election year and a governor who is keeping his options open for 2016, in case Hillary opts not to run for president. So I could just as easily see the new commission coming up with a bunch of ‘ohh-ahh’ sounding ideas that instead of improving the current system, would end up taking transportation funds away from the current system by just creating a bigger pie with the same amount of money.

SEAN May 8, 2014 - 12:01 pm

Whell at least the wheel is off the table since that was already reinvented. Please enough with the BRT bullcrap. As successful as SBS maybe, it’s not the 21st century transit mode for a growing metropolitan area that’s the size of NYC & everybody knows it.

David Brown May 8, 2014 - 7:57 am

Politicians love to do “Studies” during Election Years, so what makes this any different? If Cuomo wants to come up with some ideas to improve things, maybe he should start with having someone reading the Second Ave Sagas Blog. I am sure Ben and the posters will have some ideas for him (and best of all, it will not cost taxpayers a dime).

lawhawk May 8, 2014 - 8:55 am

Appearing to show concern over mass transit while not putting a single additional dollar in state funds towards the very system he’s responsible for. Perhaps he wants to know what the agency is going to prioritize in the next few years while he’s in office, but he knows the basics. Phase 2 of the SAS could be underway if the financing is put in place. That, more than any other project would relieve congestion and add capacity and redundancy to the subway system. Looking more broadly, figuring out a way to build another tunnel to NJ with input from NJ, Amtrak, and NJ Transit would address concerns on the NEC. Demanding a clear path to completion for the EAS is still another area, as is the addition MNR service in Westchester. SBS is low-hanging fruit, but we’ve got idiot legislators from Staten Island who want to undo what meager improvements SBS has brought to the City (Lanza wants to essentially eliminate bus lanes and prioritizing buses over cars on publicly-owned city streets by preventing enforcement against drivers who use the lane).

Bolwerk May 8, 2014 - 9:17 am

Is it just me, or is the choice of word “reinvention” a little ironic? The rest of the developed world knows how to do transit at lower costs. But we’re going to ignore that, since we’re NIH, and we have to “invent” the stuff that other places have known for decades.

They don’t want to hear about how things were done in the past, or how things are done in the present elsewhere in the world.

Larry Littlefield May 8, 2014 - 9:32 am

The MTA needs to plan for the gradual abandonment of the system due to deferred maintenance, rather than have it happen in an unplanned way.

Just project out the financial policies into the future. And factor in the level of real estate transfer taxes when the current bubble deflates.

John Doe May 8, 2014 - 10:19 am

To cut down on labor costs, lets round up all inmates at Rikers into chain gangs. They can perform meaningful work and pay their debt to society. Lets think outside the box people!! Think of all the money we can save. Those bloated, do nothing unions are on the demise!

Larry Littlefield May 8, 2014 - 10:42 am

Actually, all they need to do is get the commuter railroads to match the same cost level and productivity level of the TWU.

And have the TWU agree to higher wages for hard to recruit titles, and bring some of that capital work in house, perhaps with some managers from abroad.

lawhawk May 8, 2014 - 11:22 am

Could you imagine the howling if the MTA proposed eliminating the names LIRR and MNR, and started calling those railroads MTA Rail? Even something symbolic like that is probably enough to start WWIII in turf wars with politicians from Long Island demanding action to stop anything that might benefit commuters from beyond Long Island. It’s what will happen once ESA is done, and space is freed up for more service into Penn Station, even though the MTA should be looking at ways to maximize service through running trains (also in conjunction with NJ Transit).

SEAN May 8, 2014 - 11:42 am

I cant wait for that – it will be as entertaining as “The Heat” & “Gravity.”

It would be interesting to see the political fallout of such a proposal.

tacony May 8, 2014 - 12:04 pm

LIRR is a historic name but “Metro-North” is some dumb made-up crap from 1983. Those lines have changed names a bunch of times. New York and Harlem Railroad? New York Central? Penn Central? Conrail? Nobody’s granddad grew up calling it Metro-North. They could probably just start referring to them as the “MTA Harlem Line” “MTA New Haven Line” etc and nobody would miss the MNR name.

lawhawk May 8, 2014 - 12:43 pm

LIRR has historic connotations, but it’s also a symptom of all that ails commuter rail. A busted pension/disability system that fleeces taxpayers and riders alike, ancient workrules that favor no one but the workers, and the list goes on. Rolling MNR and LIRR into one entity should extend down to workplace reforms including consolidating the bureaucracy of both agencies. Riders should be demanding as much, but instead see continuation of existing conditions.

Larry Littlefield May 9, 2014 - 9:22 am

“Ancient workrules that favor no one but the workers.”

Not the workers. The grifters. I’d bet the workers on the LIRR are about as popular as Serpico was in the NYPD back in the day.

Nathanael May 12, 2014 - 12:41 pm
John-2 May 8, 2014 - 2:37 pm

After they spent several years and several million dollars hashing everything out between the respective divisions/fiefdoms, my guess is they’d probably keep the LIRR and MN names intact, and vote to change the name of the SIRT to “Metro-South”.

Patrick O'Hara May 8, 2014 - 12:47 pm

At one point in the arduous East Side Access planning process there was thought about that they would rename the LIRR to “Metro-South” or “Metro-East” or something silly like that. That idea seems to have gone away with the current incarnation of the project.

Michael K May 8, 2014 - 2:14 pm

Metro-South and Metro-East are no less or more silly than Metro-North.

LLQBTT May 9, 2014 - 2:09 pm

But re-naming is a waste of time and resources.

Kai B May 8, 2014 - 4:14 pm

This was already proposed (at least) once. Went nowhere:


johndmuller May 8, 2014 - 7:04 pm

Kai B: “This was already proposed (at least) once….”

Great, then it qualifies as Reinvention.

Alon Levy May 9, 2014 - 6:23 pm

The renaming is the least important part of modernization. Some metro areas with very well-integrated regional rail systems, such as Berlin and Zurich, maintain the old names of the rail lines alongside the numerical S-Bahn designations. In cities with that much branching, it’s necessary to maintain both designations. New York’s subway is similarly highly branched, and maintains both historical names like Queens Boulevard Line or even IRT/BMT/IND, alongside the numbers and letters of the routes.

So in this setup, I can see the historical name LIRR survive as a designation of multiple routes. It makes things more comprehensible, because there are two commuter lines in the region called the Main Line, one on the LIRR and one on the Erie Railroad. A through-routed train from New Jersey might be said to run on the Morristown Line and the LIRR Main Line, or on the Erie Main Line and the LIRR Montauk Line.

Nathanael May 12, 2014 - 12:37 pm

I think the MTA is actually trying to do this. The signals are that they’re ready for an all-out fight with the LIRR featherbedding unions.

The political fallout… good question. I’d say that the LI politicians in the minority party don’t matter, except that Cuomo seems to be leaning on support from them (because he’s crazy).

AMM May 8, 2014 - 12:39 pm


New York faces a pressing need to prepare the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for tomorrow’s challenges.

Hey, Cuomo: how about preparing the MTA for today’s challenges? Or even last century’s? Like fixing the damage caused by decades of neglect?

Preparing the MTA to meet any challenges at all costs money. I’m not going to see this as anything but hot air until we actually see money budgeted for fixing what’s broken.

pete May 9, 2014 - 8:28 am


This is just Cuomo gather control into his hand so the MTA doesn’t propose any high ticket items and therefore a much smaller capital budget. Its also no-show jobs/stipends for friends of the governor.

pete May 9, 2014 - 8:30 am

I expect that CitiBike will be bailed out by the MTA as one of the proposals. Also expect unfunded pension increases to “recruit top talent for the MTA”.

Larry Littlefield May 9, 2014 - 9:25 am

While we are ripping Cuomo, how much money (not dedicated tax funds but actual general revenues) will the state put into the MTA capital plan under this year’s budget?

And not including the Flushing extension, how much money will NYC put into the MTA Capital plan under Bill DeBlasio’s budget just announced?

Politicians know they can get away with NOT doing just about anything. Which is why the things they do are done in the dark, with “non-decisions” made later to keep things as they are.

Alon Levy May 9, 2014 - 12:40 pm

Great! More studies, which will not find a way to reduce construction costs (or operating costs), or modernize commuter rail, or direct resources to lines that are actually needed (Utica, Nostrand, Triboro) and away from airport connectors. Just what the MTA needs.

LLQBTT May 9, 2014 - 2:08 pm

The LAST thing that’s needed is another ‘blue ribbon’ panel. That costs money, and the MTA will foot the bill. All the ideas are out there already. What’s needed is: funding, an implementation strategy, an aggressive approach to spiraling labor and project costs and perhaps a small, versatile, team with authority to run these programs unaffected by all the usual outside forces.

But this is just an election year ploy for the prince to sure up his base of support for the Fall.

Eric May 10, 2014 - 5:15 pm

“While past Capital Plans have focused on maintaining and expanding the existing MTA network, New York needs the MTA to develop a reinvention plan to make our subways and our entire transit system ready for the challenges of the next century.”

I would say that “maintaining and expanding the existing MTA network” is a pretty good and clear description of what a transit agency should be doing (besides operating that network).

Whereas “develop a reinvention plan to make our subways and our entire transit system ready for the challenges of the next century” is a bunch of marketing BS.

When the panel has the mission of replacing logic and clear thinking with BS, we can’t expect anything good to come out of it.


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