Home L Train Shutdown Firmly in control of the MTA despite his own claims, Cuomo forces emergency L train board meeting

Firmly in control of the MTA despite his own claims, Cuomo forces emergency L train board meeting

by Benjamin Kabak

Andrew Cuomo, seen here in charge of the MTA, has required an emergency Board Meeting to review his L train plans.

Never one to accept not getting his way, Gov. Andrew Cuomo this weekend arm-twisted the MTA into holding an “emergency” Board meeting on his L train plan. Despite the fact that there is no real emergency and despite the fact that the MTA told its Board members of the meeting just 30 minutes before sending out a press release, Cuomo just had to exert the control he holds over the MTA to get what he wants. Now, in the face of a press growing more skeptical of his plan by the day and while trying once again to cast doubt on his firm control over the MTA, the transit agency’s governing body will meet on Tuesday to be briefed by the engineering firm WSP on the proposal. The MTA Board will not vote yet on the plan and may opt to hire an outside consultant to fully vet the plan, but Cuomo gets his way on the MTA yet again with an “emergency” meeting so Board members can sit there and listen.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo forced the MTA to cancel the L train shutdown via a PowerPoint promising a better plan, he seemed to want to be seen as the savior of Brooklyn, the one to ride to the rescue of a beleaguered city facing a true transit crisis. At first, with the tabloids showering him with kudos, his team even took a victory lap before the good press evaporated.

It may still wind up that Cuomo’s plan carries the day, but over the past week, the narrative has shifted considerably. I wrote last week about the crisis of credibility engulfing everyone involved in the mess that has become the post-Sandy L train work, and since then, questions have been asked and doubts raised. Former MTA officials have been vocal in their critiques, and one-time NYC Transit head Carmen Bianco penned an Op-Ed for The Times urging Cuomo to slow down to ensure long-term safety isn’t sacrificed. “As the former president of New York City Transit,” he wrote, “and someone who witnessed firsthand the level of destruction and its impact on subway infrastructure as a result of Superstorm Sandy, I am concerned that the decision to change course on the Canarsie Tunnel project is premature and uninformed. This new plan has not been fully evaluated in terms of costs, available M.T.A. resources and, most important, safety.”

Bianco comes from the Transportation Industrial Complex Cuomo has railed on of late, but as Cuomo’s new L train proposal is being prepared by the same company that prepared the shutdown plans, I’m not sure how we can take seriously Cuomo’s attempts at defining and attacking this complex. But back to Bianco: He has no stake in the matter other than reputational. He retired from Transit three and a half years ago and currently works as a solo safety consultant. Does that leave him more credible or less? I’ll leave that up to you, but he’s not the only one urging careful consideration of the plan. NYC Transit President Andy Byford, toeing that line between heeding Cuomo, his boss, and advocating for the MTA, stated various to Community Boards and Brian Lehrer that he will not go forward with Cuomo’s plan until it has been vetted by an outside consultant. Questions remain regarding the impact of silica dust on the new plan and whether the feds will approve the new plan.

But the board meeting must go on, and Cuomo must show his actions carry the day by having the MTA Board, which has never yet turned down the governor who controls the MTA, meet, and so they shall meet. Not content with forcing a meeting Board members and MTA officials thought unnecessary and premature, Cuomo has reengaged on his years’-long disinformation campaign regarding MTA control. Simply put, he keeps lying about MTA control. As you, dear reader, know, the governor — in this case, Andrew M. Cuomo — is in charge of the MTA. He directly appoints six of 14 Board members but is also responsible for approving the recommendations of those county and city officials who name the other eight. In fact, he held up Ydanis Rodriguez’s attempted appointment a few years ago over concerns of conflicts of interest (prior, of course, to appointing Joe Lhota and his multiple jobs to the top spot at the agency). The governor also names every top official at the agency and often steps in on lower level hires. He is very much legally and apparently in control of the MTA.

Still, while pushing the L train issue, he’s also dug in again on the idea that he wants more control, and it is this type of reform that worried me last week. This started up against last week on the Brian Lehrer Show when Cuomo called in and said….this:

On the top of the list on the city agenda is going to be the MTA. This is madness. The MTA was created in the ’60s. It was designed to make sure no public official had control or accountability because it sets fares and no politician wanted to be near setting fares. So it was this convoluted – you have a board, I have six votes but it’s a 17 member board but the Speaker has a unilateral veto but the Senate leader has a unilateral veto but the Mayor has a unilateral veto. It is just a dysfunctional organization, and that has to change.

It took me a while to decipher this word salad, but Cuomo is effectively conflating two distinct bodies here. There is the 17-member MTA Board that oversees the agency and a separate four-member Capital Program Review Board that nominally signs off on the MTA’s multi-billion-dollar capital plan every five years and does little beyond that. The CPRB has no bearing on the day-to-day operations of the MTA which the governor controls, but he’s trying to confuse the issue.

Meanwhile, shortly after forcing the emergency MTA Board meeting this weekend, Cuomo, via his budget director, issued a lengthy press release presaging the MTA reform the governor is expected to push in Tuesday’s State of the State address. Much of Mujica’s statement falls back on the same obfuscation tactics Cuomo has been using, but it’s true intent is in a few paragraphs:

The Governor proposes congestion pricing and New York City and New York State split any funding shortfall 50/50. As the Daily News pointed out today, the City owns the transit assets and “is responsible for all capital spending.” An even split is more than generous. It is also what the State Legislature passed last year to fund the Subway Action Plan…

As the Governor has said, and repeats this legislative session, if the Legislature gives the Governor authority, he would accept the responsibility. But he would only take responsibility with authority. Basic executive authority would be a majority of the Board appointees, no independent unilateral vetoes of the budget by other elected officials, and hiring/firing and organizational authority. Nothing could be more reasonable, and no credible executive would require less.

No other Governor or Mayor has ever been willing to accept responsibility. History shows most work to deny connection with the MTA altogether. The Governor will step up, even if not politically in his own best interest…In short, the Legislature should pass congestion pricing and require the City and State to split any funding shortfall and also give the Governor operational responsibility.

It’s dangerous and foolhardy to tie congestion pricing in with MTA reform because if the latter fails and drags down the former, the entire region will be facing a crisis of mobility. It’s disingenuous to call for full control over every facet of the MTA when one already has that control while also claiming the city should pay for half of any funding shortfall. The governor wants even more power so he doesn’t have to face checks on his ability to set the agenda (which he barely does anyone) while twisting even more dollars out of the city which will have no say or ability in ensuring these dollars are spent on city, rather than suburban, projects. It’s a scam, not a reform effort.

I’ll come back to Mujica’s statement later and especially his claim that the MTA doesn’t pass its own budget. This is again an attempt to create confusion around the two MTA budgets — capital vs. operating — and how they work to complement each other. Until Andrew Cuomo attempted to shirk on his duties to the MTA, no credible executive of the state ever to argue his way out of MTA control and none have distorted history and legislative meaning as much as Cuomo as his team. He is in charge; the MTA is his; and everything about the L train shutdown just serves to underscore this reality. One person is in charge of this mess the MTA is in; one person has presided over the decline of the transit system. That person is Andrew Cuomo through and through.

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Sam January 15, 2019 - 8:20 am

He’s honestly acting like Trump!

SEAN January 15, 2019 - 8:55 pm

And I thought it was me as I read this, thank you for saving my sanity.

Walt Gekko January 15, 2019 - 9:54 am

This to me is Cuomo thinking he has an actual shot at becoming President in 2020 and doing all of this ahead of announcing a bid for President. If that is the case, although this would have little or no effect early on with states like Iowa, etc., if Cuomo got through there to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and to a lesser extent Pennsylvania, THAT is where Cuomo likely is concerned a shutdown would negatively affect him. Quite a few in other forums also think his donors demanded he do this.

Does it mean Cuomo actually does have a chance? Likely no, but what we may think likely doesn’t matter in this case.

eo January 15, 2019 - 9:57 am

The New York Times details in an article today that the “Cuomo plan” was considered way back by the MTA when the initial planning was done and was discarded due to the risks. Specifically, drilling for cable anchors in the old concrete lining of the tunnels was deemed too risky to cause leaks and additional concrete deterioration. The selected removal of the benches was a concern due to inability to contain silica dust in an environment of constantly setting up and taking down protective measures (any left over dust will be spread over the full tunnels by the trains operating during the non-shitdown times).

The conclusion is that the MTA is not as stupid and incompetent as Ben and others would like us to believe. The MTA has made a lot of mistakes, but not considering the options outlined now is not one of them. Also note that Byford is by no means on board with this. He wants an outside consultant to sign off on it. This is a typical move of someone who senses an impeding disaster and wants to ensure that there is no chance he gets blamed for it.

Cuomo and company will definitely find a consultant to sign off on their plan. In this day and age it is pretty easy to find a consultant that would sign off on anything. Will the consultant be on the hook for the billions of dollars to replace the L tunnel 10 years from now if the drilling for the anchors damages the tunnel beyond repair? I don’t think so. It will be the taxpayers who will cover the bill.

As I might have said before, the “Cuomo plan” of anchoring to the walls is standard practice in new tunnels, but that is new specialized concrete with additives and such making it much less likely to crack. The liner of the L tunnel was poured almost a century ago when concrete was still a novel material and it is nowhere close in quality to the modern stuff. This sounds more and more like making an uninformed bet on the state of a century old concrete liner. It might or might not work out, but I am glad I am not the one on the hook if the odds come the wrong way.

Benjamin Kabak January 15, 2019 - 10:24 am

The conclusion is that the MTA is not as stupid and incompetent as Ben and others would like us to believe.

Yes. I think there are plenty of other reasons to question the MTA’s credibility and the agency’s overall ability to budget and manage construction projects. But Emma’s reporting in The Times significantly changes the analysis on the L train. I’ve been addressing that on Twitter via this thread and a separate side thread with Stephen Smith. I’ll address it in a post, likely with an update from today’s board meeting.

Larry Littlefield January 15, 2019 - 1:48 pm

The MTA Board has apparently refused to keep borrowing more and more money, pledging the future of the metro area transit system and economy as collateral.

Therefore, their usefulness to state politicians is at an end. They’ve done as much damage as they can do.

SEAN January 15, 2019 - 9:00 pm

So in your eyes what comes next assuming the MTA board is useless.

Lady Feliz January 15, 2019 - 9:59 pm

Am I the only one who thinks hanging service cables from the damn ceiling of a tunnel is NOT the best way to go here, long-term? Isn’t there a reason they were embedded in concrete in the first place? Is this Cuomo’s genius idea, to hang critical cable infrastructure from the top of a tunnel just inches away from trains going 40mph?

eo January 16, 2019 - 8:10 am

The cables will be on the side walls not on the ceiling. This is standard practice in new construction. What I am not buying is that this is OK to do in a tunnel as old as this one. I also do not buy the idea that the cables can be hung by themselves rather than in metal pipes. This is an environment where they are subject to damage, so exposed non-metallic sheathing is a bad idea. While people claim that plastics that do not burn or smoke can be used for the insulation, what about the time when a backhoe or other track maintenance equipment hits and damages the insulation of the cable?

Pedro Valdez-Rivera January 20, 2019 - 4:51 am

And that’s how the dysfunctional MTA was, is and always controlled by the governor since its inception in 1968, from Rockefeller to the superbly hypocritical Cuomo.

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