Home MTA Politics Inside Gov. Cuomo’s struggles to coexist with Byford as Transit leaders try to save the subways

Inside Gov. Cuomo’s struggles to coexist with Byford as Transit leaders try to save the subways

by Benjamin Kabak

Andy Byford, seen here on an L train, needs the Governor to support, rather than fight, him to be able to see through his plan to fix the subways. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

A few weeks ago, when the Emma Fitzsimmons’ story on Andrew Cuomo’s inability to coexist with Andy Byford first broke in April, the governor took exception to the story. In an appearance on Alan Chartock’s show on WAMC, Cuomo slammed the paper over the story.

“I think they have to sell newspapers. I think that is the way of the world. I think it’s symptomatic of our political system now. You have less public trust in newspapers, in politicians,” he said to Chartock, who just chuckled along with his friend the Governor. Cuomo continued, “There’s a chairman who runs the authority. In this case it’s Pat Foye. And I deal with the chairman. It’s very rare for me to deal with a division head directly.”

To Cuomo, in his public statements at least, Andy Byford, the president of New York City Transit and a globally respected leader in his fielder, was simply a division head, and the Governor of New York couldn’t be bothered with those.

Unsurprisingly, Cuomo’s statement was mere hyperbole. As two MTA sources have since told me, Cuomo regularly talks to actual division heads and even lower-ranking MTA employees. A few days before his appearance on Chartock, Cuomo was on the phone with managers in Transit’s Division of Operations Planning discussing signal timers and speed restrictions, my sources have told me, and in the intervening weeks, Cuomo and his MTA loyalists have continued to involve themselves in Byford’s Save Safe Seconds campaign to speed up the subways and repair faulty signals and recalibrate unnecessarily slow speed limits.

Cuomo, according to a senior MTA official, has tried to implement his own version of moving fast and breaking things, Mark Zuckerberg’s now infamous motto that hasn’t aged too well. The governor, I’ve been told only talks to certain members of the signals team (but not, according to my sources, Byford) and has repeatedly asked why the MTA cannot simply implement a blanket increase in speed and be done with it. The same senior source explained that Transit is implementing the speed increases in a methodical way to ensure passenger safety is paramount, and Cuomo’s approach would be both inefficient and not nearly as safe.

But signals are just one area where the governor has resisted Transit’s — and by extension, Byford’s — authority. As Larry Schwartz and Andy Byford discussed at last week’s MTA Board meeting, the ongoing Grand Central 4/5/6 rehabilitation project is another source of conflict. Byford’s and Schwartz’s exchange was the first the public had heard of any issues with this project, and while it’s a lengthy and messy one, Transit has kept most of the second busiest subway station in NYC open and accessible during a comprehensive rebuild of the station.

Still, as one MTA source relayed to me, a few weeks ago, Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, arrived at Grand Central during the height of rush hour and amidst a delay in service on the Lexington Ave. line. She witnessed capacity crowd conditions and promptly raised concerns about the project. Now, Cuomo and his allies on the MTA Board are making noises about the project. One source told me they objected to the replacement of a staircase rather than a repair, and Cuomo’s allies are making noises about removing the project from Transit’s purview and placing it under the auspices of Capital Construction. There’s no real need to do this, and in fact, the complexity of the project and the need to ensure it doesn’t interfere with Lexington Ave. subway service would generally dictate that Transit oversees it. But that’s the nature of the impasse. Cuomo is in charge, and he wants what he wants whether it makes sense.

The back-and-forth between Cuomo and the professional staff at Transit doesn’t end here. One MTA official told me that nearly $1 billion worth of procurement orders are awaiting Cuomo’s signoff and are simply sitting on his desk waiting for action. Since the design-build threshold sits at $25 million, anything over must be design-build or receive a waiver, and Cuomo hasn’t moved on approving these projects. MTA insiders feel this stall tactic by Cuomo is another way for the governor to avoid doling out promised state capital funds to the MTA, on the one hand, while accusing the agency of spending too slowly on the other. Dave Colon explored this issue in a Gotham Gazette piece last month.

It’s one thing for Cuomo to be responsible for the MTA and in charge of the agency (which he is). It’s another for him to be openly or quietly antagonistic toward the men and women he’s tasked with fixing the subway because he either doesn’t like the attention they’ve gotten or worse. This saga came to a head again on Tuesday when WNYC and Gothamist ran a piece questioning the Byford-Cuomo relationship. Despite constant on-the-record denials by Byford to numerous reporters (including me) in recent weeks and one in the piece, WNYC claimed rumors about Byford’s departure were resurfacing. They’re not, but later in the day, Brian Lehrer asked the governor about his relationship with Cuomo, and Reinvent Albany transcribed the exchange.

Cuomo, you’ll note, referred again to the agency presidents as “division heads” and filibustered by talking about the LIRR overtime issues, a problem in which Andy Byford and New York City Transit have no role. After claiming that the MTA “needs to make major reforms” and that the MTA Board will decide Byford’s fate (it won’t; Cuomo will), the governor offered a lukewarm endorsement for Byford and the other agency presidents. The talk on fare hikes to fund Fast Forward, a plan Cuomo should endorse and embrace but won’t, and the claim that he’s on the side of the riders doesn’t ring true at all. Supporting the riders would mean throwing the full weight of his office behind a fully funded Fast Forward plan.

Later in the day, when I asked the governor’s office about his involvement in management and operations decision and his relationship with Byford, his office offered a statement: “The Governor supports Andy Byford; he said it himself on the radio this morning. We’ll leave the conspiracies and gossip to others.”

So as the relationship between the governor and the agency he controls seems to teeter along in some state of unrest — where the governor doesn’t appear to trust the experts he brought in and should trust to get the job done — where does that leave things? Based on the current status quo, Andy Byford isn’t leaving tomorrow or next week. That could change if Cuomo forces him out, and the looming MTA reorganization should be telling one way or another. Will Cuomo try to remove Save Safe Seconds or even the Fast Forward plan from Transit? Could that be a tipping point? We’ll find out soon.

Ultimately, as I wrote in April, I viewed Fitzsimmons’ original story that brought these simmering tensions into the open as a message from Byford’s proponents. Transit allies were trying to get the point across to the governor, in a suitably subtle way, that Cuomo needs Byford to fix the MTA more than Byford needs Cuomo. The governor, if he lets his NYC Transit president do his job, can take credit for being the chief executive of New York State who oversaw the revival of the MTA. Never mind that Cuomo’s neglect got the city into this position; Cuomo’s acceptance of an expert’s plan can get the city out of that position will earn him plaudits. It’s been a rocky few weeks since then, and Cuomo may not be able to step back and let the repair work proceed apace. But if Cuomo pushes out Byford, would anyone qualified and competent even want to take the job next? And where would that leave all of us?

For the sake of the city, this tension should subside, and the MTA funding should flow so repair and modernization work can continue. There’s no real need, other than ego, for any other outcome.

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Walt Gekko June 5, 2019 - 1:01 am

There’s a belief among many that Cuomo is acting like he is because he wants to make sure he gets a fourth term as Governor, something his father was denied in 1994, which to me may be why he’s been as he is. That doesn’t take into account, however that:

When the elder Cuomo ran for Governor in 1994, he ran into two problems:

1. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract for America.” That led many to vote Republican that would have hurt Cuomo’s chances at winning a fourth term to begin with.

2. The 1994 baseball strike. While seemingly that should not have played a factor, there were many older people, especially in NYC proper who at the time openly admitted they voted for George Pataki and other GOP members to get back at then-President Clinton for not issuing an Executive Order that not only would have forced a resumption of the baseball season, but to such also wanting such to make the NFL if need be re-do their schedule to accommodate the baseball season being played to a natural conclusion even if it were late. That likely cost the elder Cuomo votes.

That to me has been the main driving force of how Cuomo is and likely is why he has to be the one to announce everything and so forth, showing authority to donors and the like who want that. That likely plays in all the MTA issues as well.

Larry Littlefield June 5, 2019 - 4:01 pm

There was also the worse recession and fiscal crisis in the Northeast since the 1970s, and worse than any since. Worse for this part of the country than 9/11. Worse than the Great Recession, which hit other areas of the country far harder.

Larry Penner June 5, 2019 - 8:13 am

The obvious adversarial relationship between Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Transit President Andy Byford comes on the eve of the second anniversary when Cuomo declared a “state of emergency for MTA and NYC Transit in June 2017. There is a relationship between these two issues. Cuomo continues to be mistaken in his belief that he can have the Metropolitan Transportation Authority dispense with normal procedures for ordering new subway cars, replace broken signals, installing new tracks and the like. A significant percentage of NYC Transit subway car procurements along with many other capital projects and programs, are funded for the most part by United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration grants. These federal funds going to NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road and MTA Bus. They will total almost $7 billion between now and when the $32 billion 2015 – 2019 MTA Capital Program Plan is completed. These are subject to USDOT FTA federal procurement rules and regulations including Buy America requirements.

Contrary to Cuomo’s perceptions, there are very few rail car manufacturers in the USA to supply transit agencies around the nation. As a result, there is limited competition between a handful of potential suppliers. The MTA, NYCT, LIRR & Metro North are competing against other transit agencies, who operate subway and or heavy commuter rail around the nation for time and space on the handful of manufacturer’s production line. As a result, over past MTA Five Year Capital Programs, NYC Transit has averaged five years. This process begins from the development of bid specifications, advertising and award. This is followed by vendor mobilization, pre-production, assembly, testing, delivery and acceptance from the first to the last subway or commuter rail car.

Purchasing several hundred or more subway cars is not like us going to a local car dealer. Automobile manufacturers have a series of basic models with a variety of optional add ons produced each year in the hundreds of thousands. Subway and commuter car manufactures do not have a ready supply of off the shelf stock on hand, ready to drive off the lot. Each transit agency has different bid specifications to meet their respective physical systems, maintenance and operational needs. The winning bidder needs time to develop a prototype car followed by delivery of one ten car train set. The NYC Transit needs time to run these vehicles in revenue service for thirty or more days. This is to insure they can survive the challenges of operating in the nations largest subway system. They have met bid specifications. NYC Transit operations and maintenance groups need time to make sure they have the resources to manage both this new and existing fleet. Only then, after completion of NYC Transit internal review and sign off by various departments can the manufacturer begin full production. If you are lucky and there are no hiccups during production, this might average ten cars or one train set per week. Each car has to be inspected and accepted at the point of production and again after delivery which takes time. Cuomo should visit any subway car plant and see for himself before complaining. He should meet with NYC Transit President Andy Byford and the handful of hard working MTA HQ and NYTC procurement, operational and maintenance staff assigned to manage subway car procurements. This would help him develop a better understanding of the process from start to finish. It could result in having Cuomo avoid making inaccurate statements of why new subway cars can’t be purchased, built and delivered in months rather than several years.

Governor Cuomo continues attempting to portray himself as the second coming of the late President Franklin Roosevelt and master builder Robert Moses.

Cuomo is not an engineer, transportation expert or daily commuter. He does excel at photo-ops when walking the tracks many times without wearing a safety vest or hardhat as required by Federal Railroad Administration, If he is bored being Governor and believes he can do a better job managing NYC Transit or MTA, there is an easy solution. His last act as Governor before resigning could be appointing himself NYC Transit President or MTA Chairman.

In the interim, Cuomo still needs to come up with $5.8 billion balance of the $8.3 balance he still owes to fund the $32 billion 2015 – 2019 MTA Five Year Capital Plan.

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer 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, LIRR & Metro North, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit, NYC Department of Transportation and 30 other transit operators in NY & NJ).


BruceNY June 6, 2019 - 2:48 pm

I like Byford, and was very happy with his initiative to speed up trains, pick up more litter, etc. I would hate for him to leave in frustration only to be replaced by an incompetent yes-man appointed by the Governor.

Phantom June 7, 2019 - 4:28 pm

I also like Byford very much.

He’s an exceptional talent.

The Hunkster June 8, 2019 - 11:20 am

If Andy Byford could turned around the respective public transportation systems in London, Sydney and Toronto, I still have a lot of faith on him in turning around the NYC Subway and Bus systems for the better.

Chet June 10, 2019 - 12:36 pm

Just another voice here in support of Byford. I had the opportunity to talk to him during the Staten Island Express Bus redesign. He left nothing but a positive impression with me.

In addition, while I am not a daily subway rider, when I do use the system, it is often express trains- the N, D, A, 4, and 5- and I have noticed a distinct increase in their speeds.

AMH June 11, 2019 - 2:17 pm

Seriously, what does Cuomo want? Someone who won’t do a good job? He seems to have stopped denying that he controls the MTA, so if the agency does poorly, it reflects poorly on him. I really cannot understand what’s going on in his head.


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