There is a bit of a long-running joke among the New York reporters on the MTA’s press distribution list. Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s odd assertion last year that the MTA is not a state agency, whenever the authority has good news to announce, the press release comes with Cuomo’s stamp of approval. “Governor Cuomo announces new countdown clocks” or “Governor Cuomo announces bus upgrades” or “Governor Cuomo announces LIRR third track.” He never sends out the releases with fare hike information, service changes or other bad news. When it’s convenient, the MTA is his.
On Tuesday, one of my all-time favorite “Governor Cuomo announces…” press releases hit my inbox. Gov. Cuomo, who just two days ago announced a Jan. 1 opening for the Second Ave. Subway, has now announced that the MTA is excitedly replacing every subway map in the system with over 13,600 new maps “featuring the new Second Avenue Subway line.”
Cuomo’s release even included a perfectly Cuomo quote about the new maps. “On every subway car, in every station, and throughout New York, installing these maps means that the Second Avenue Subway is finally here and will be open on time,” Governor Cuomo said. The W train’s return a few weeks ago certainly didn’t merit a press release from the Governor touting new maps.
While I am amused by Cuomo’s press release tactics and it can come off as self-serving at times, there’s a larger lesson than the politics of gaining positive press. When Gov. Cuomo is involved in matters of transit and the MTA, in particular, good things happen and bad things are avoided. In other words, having a strong chief executive willing to take some ownership of transit investments is something New Yorkers fighting for better transit should encourage.
A recent piece in The Times is particularly telling. Last week, Emma Fitzsimmons wrote about Cuomo’s hands-on approach to wrapping up the Second Ave. Subway. Although Cuomo’s fingerprints have become more apparent in recent weeks as the Phase 1 work has neared its finish line, Cuomo’s intense involvement in this project stretches back to 2015 when the MTA and its contractors wanted to delay the opening by a significant amount of time. Fitzsimmons writes:
The notorious Second Avenue subway, nearly a century in the making, is inches from the finish line, and Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has made it his mission to complete the project by New Year’s Eve. On regular visits to the line’s three new stations, he obsesses over design details and equipment glitches at a surprising level of involvement for a governor, which some critics say seems primarily aimed at promoting his image…
For months, Mr. Cuomo has held weekly meetings at his office with the project’s leadership team to address — and sometimes vent about — the latest issues and concerns. He became more involved about a year and a half ago, he said, when officials at the authority told him they wanted to push back the long-established December 2016 deadline by a year or two. “The meetings are not a love fest,” said Charlie Hall, a construction manager from the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff who is overseeing the project. “The meetings started because there were issues, and things weren’t getting done. People are challenged in those meetings.”
On an unannounced stop at the 86th Street station a few months ago, Mr. Cuomo was angered to see no one was working on a problematic escalator, Melissa DeRosa, his chief of staff, said. He walked around shouting, “Who is working on the escalator?” until the person appeared, she added.
As Fitzsimmons notes, Cuomo’s critics wonder if this interest is a headline-grab as he positions himself for a 2020 run on the national stage, and on other projects, such as the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, Cuomo has pushed through a key project without identifying funding sources or fully justifying the need for the project. As many have told me, he has a tendency to latch onto projects without consulting with experts as to these project’s utility. (The LaGuardia AirTrain in the wrong direction is the prime example of the pitfalls of Cuomo’s approach.)
Yet, it is undeniable that having a governor who cares can get projects through tough spots. As Fitzsimmons notes, and as I highlighted in the excerpt above, Cuomo’s involvement has been instrumental in getting this project wrapped by the end of 2016. He can push competing forces — a contractor with no incentive to finish, an MTA Capital Construction staff afraid of turning operations over to Transit — to work together for a tight deadline.
So if Cuomo can turn results, the question then becomes how to focus him. How can activists get the Governor’s attention at the start when project scope and priorities are formed? How can transit experts get Cuomo’s ear so he latches onto the right projects at the right time? These aren’t just idle questions; they are important concerns that will affect the future of New York City for years and decades to come. With him projects can survive and perhaps thrive; without him, things seem to linger. Yet, his original ideas often seem frustratingly short-sighted and small in scope and impact. It is the great Cuomo conundrum and one that must be reconciled for future success.