Home Podcast Second Ave. Sagas Podcast, Ep. 4: MTA reform with Rachael Fauss of Reinvent Albany

Second Ave. Sagas Podcast, Ep. 4: MTA reform with Rachael Fauss of Reinvent Albany

by Benjamin Kabak

Reinvent Albany’s call to reform MTA governance is the topic of this week’s podcast.

Can the MTA be reformed from within without, as many New Yorkers wish to see, blowing everything up? That’s the question a new sweeping report from the good governance group Reinvent Albany seeks to answer.

A month after budget season wrapped, the watchdog agency published “Open MTA: 50 Actions New York Can Take to Renew Public Trust in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.” It’s a report that squarely lays the responsibility — and the blame — for the current state of the MTA on the shoulders of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and walks through the myriad ways the MTA has failed. From a Board with no real authority to opaque budgeting to a failure of legislative oversight to ethics concerns and conflicts of interest, the 150-page document lays out the case for MTA reforms through the lens of Cuomo’s control. Andrew Cuomo controls the MTA, and Andrew Cuomo will determine whether or not the MTA succeeds. Here, Reinvent Albany says, is the way to fix things.

In a way, the report is a contrast to Corey Johnson’s municipal takeover plan, and the document is blunt in noting that blowing everything up — wresting control of an important state power — from Andrew Cuomo is unlikely to succeed. So let’s fix things from within.

Since the report came out, I’ve pondered how best to cover it. After all, it’s not easy to distill a massive call for reform into a few hundred words. So for the fourth episode of the Second Ave. Sagas podcast, I sat down with Rachael Fauss, Reinvent Albany’s senior research analyst and lead author on the report, for a conversation on overhauling and fixing the MTA. We spent a lot of time discussing whether or not the MTA, under Andrew Cuomo is something that can be fixed. We delved into the way the MTA Board is more symbolic and used as a whipping post rather than a true policy instrument. We explored the need for the agency to implement better open data policies. And we examined how Joe Lhota’s multiple jobs and apparent conflicts of interest undercut public trust in the agency. It’s an in-depth talk about structural challenges and the ways to fix the MTA while recognizing that Cuomo will not willingly cede control.

You can check out the Reinvent Albany’s full report right here, and you can catch my conversation with Fauss via the player below and at all the popular podcast spots — iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Pocket Casts and your favorite app. If you like what you hear and have been enjoying the podcasts, please consider leaving a review on your iTunes.

As always, thank you for listening and thanks as well to Joe Jakubowski for sound engineering. I’ve been enjoying producing these podcasts but they take a lot of time and effort. I can keep doing them only through the generous contributions of my listeners so please consider joining the Second Ave. Sagas Patreon. Since this site runs entirely on Patreon contributions, I can keep it going only with your help.

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Larry Penner May 16, 2019 - 6:46 am

Promised savings by consolidation of Civil Rights, Engineering, Legal, Procurement and other LIRR/Metro North departments have been periodically discussed and promised for decades by different generations of MTA management and elected officials. This will never happen due to work rules, seniority and contracts between different labor unions representing employees at LIRR and Metro North. The same applies to anticipated savings by contracting out more work to the private sector.
Similar promises were made when MTA Bus was created in 2005. The operational savings for taxpayers never appeared. Instead the $100 million per year NYC subsidy formerly provided to the private bus operators have grown to over $200 million for MTA Bus. The private bus company owners continue earning several million per year from MTA Bus for leasing their facilities. Potential operational savings by consolidation of duplicative routes between NYC Transit Bus and MTA Bus never took place. The same was true for reducing deadheading costs by reassigning bus routes between MTA Bus and NYC Transit Bus to closer garages for reduction of operating costs. Work rules, seniority and contracts between different labor unions representing employees at NYC Transit Bus and MTA Bus have prevented any changes to the status quo. .
Project cost containment along with fast tracking procurements and contract change orders for the MTA has been periodically discussed and promised for decades by different generations of MTA management and elected officials. It is easier said than done due to significant obstacles.
MTA union work rules sometimes prevent contracting out work to the private sector. Third party private contractors require MTA NYC Transit, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads agency Force Account (their own employees) to provide both supervision and protection. when they work on or adjacent to active right of way track. There sometimes are excessive numbers of MTA supervisory or employees assigned, adding to costs.
Will Cuomo and the State Legislature end up using anticipated Congestion Pricing revenue as a back door method to reduce previously planned anticipated future contributions to the upcoming MTA 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan?
Federal support for transportation has remained consistent and growing. It has actually increased under virtually every Five Year Transportation Authorization Act over past decades. When a crises occurred, be it 9/11 in 2001 or Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Uncle Sam stepped up to the plate. Additional billions in federal assistance above and beyond yearly formula allocations were provided. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided billions more for public transportation projects which benefited the city and state along with the MTA,

During this same time period, both the City and State consistently decreased hard cash contributions to the MTA by billions under each previous MTA Five Year Capital Plan. On a bipartisan basis, this included past Governors Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Elliot Spitzer and David Patterson. Governor Andrew Cuomo made a token effort of increasing the states contribution to the MTA Capital Program. Billions more are still needed from the state to make up for past cuts over previous decades. Everyone insisted that the MTA continue financing more and more of the Capital Program by borrowing. As a result, 17% of the annual MTA budget goes for covering the costs of debt service payments. Going back six capital programs or thirty years, by the end of this decade it should not surprise anyone if this continues to grow closer to 20%. This means less money is available for operations to provide more frequent service to riders. It also means there is less money just to maintain the state of good repair and safety. At the end of the day, the cupboard may be bare for any system expansion.
Promised “forensic audit” of the MTA is a waste of time and money. How many internal MTA, MTA Office of Inspector General, State Comptroller, City Comptroller, NYC Office of Management and Budget, Federal Transit Administration OIG and other audits have come and gone. What about numerous newspaper investigative reports on waste, fraud or abuse? Another audit will not result in any significant changes.
No one will know the cost of congestion pricing until it is implemented starting in 2021. Coincidence that members of the State Assembly and Senate will first be reelected in 2020 before the price becomes public? What happened to promised open transparent government?
Is this what MTA customers have to look forward to?. Taxpayers and riders deserve better.
(Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the US Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit, NYC Department of Transportation and over thirty other transit operators in New York and New Jersey) .

Grumpy Rider May 16, 2019 - 10:00 am

Larry nailed it – reforming oversight and all that is well and good, but it’s the nitty gritty business and labor practices on all sides that are ruining public transit in NYC. And right now, one man controls all the strings – Andrew Cuomo. How do you get him to act?

Pedro Valdez-Rivera May 18, 2019 - 8:28 am

It cannot be done overnight. Just chip away parts of the MTA bureaucracy one by one as effectively as possible without politics involved of course.

ChrisC May 18, 2019 - 12:16 pm

There needs to be a wholesale change in the governance arrangements.

In many parts of the world it would be totally unacceptable to have the same person in both an operational and an overseeing role.

The chairman of the board should not have any day to day management responsibilities.

The job of the board is to oversee the management of the organisation and set the overall strategy and direction and agree the budget how can you hold the management to account when you are one of the management?

Yes the politicians should appoint the board so the Governor and the Mayor and the counties but the board would appoint the management. The Governor should have no role in appointing anyone other than their allocation of board members.

smotri May 21, 2019 - 6:05 pm

I’m surprised (1) how opaque the MTA is, (2) how it is truly controlled by Albany, regardless of the board, and (3) how behind the times it is in almost every way. That it functions at all is amazing.


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