Home MTA Politics Thoughts on the preordained passage of a chaotic ‘transformation’ plan

Thoughts on the preordained passage of a chaotic ‘transformation’ plan

by Benjamin Kabak

One element of our political times that unfolds constantly involves chaos. By introducing chaos to a situation, it’s far, far easier to get away with sleights-of-hands and other backroom dealings while the public is consumed with talking away and working through the chaos. It’s easy, in other words, to offer up a myriad of distractions while shuffling pieces behind the scenes to accomplish other political ends.

This isn’t an approach that’s particularly novel nor is it unique to any single politician or political party. It’s both a feature and a bug of the way news is produced and consumed amidst a 24-hour constant cycle of everything always being on, and New Yorkers keenly into transit have lived through this phenomenon for years. It started long ago when Andrew Cuomo begin his lengthy diatribes alleging, falsely, that he wasn’t in charge of the MTA. These were so successful that the New York City subway system was allowed to collapse and he still coasted to reelection, garnering significant support in the five boroughs.

During that period, instead of focusing on the lack of investment and the lack of leadership caused by politically-inspired churn atop the MTA, activists and journalists had to parry with Cuomo’s ahistorical account of the MTA. It was an exhausting, time-consuming distraction, and as the recent MTA Transformation Plan, approved last week by the Board despite unanimous public opposition, shows, we’re not out of these woods yet.

It’s been hard to keep track of all the MTA news lately, and only some of that is by design. We’ve had Con Edison blackouts that stranded trains during a recent heat wave, ongoing computer problems that led to a recent Friday evening meltdown for the ages, MTA Inspector General investigations into everything and, of course, the Transformation/Reorganization/Whatever You Want To Call It Plan.

The story behind the Transformation Plan itself is a simple one with some interesting twists and turns. A bunch of months ago, Gov. Cuomo called upon the MTA to transform itself. This, in and of itself, is something of a distraction because since Cuomo controls the MTA, a state agency, he can just reorder the transformation without going through the charade of a costly consultant study and Board vote. But the Board vote offers him a layer of plausible deniability. Even though he controls the management and operations of the MTA, a Board vote gives him cover to point fingers at a largely powerless group of people, all of whom he appointed. He has fully exploited the structure of the MTA to his political benefit time and time again while exerting full and total control over an agency that he rightly fully and totally controls. It’s chaos; it’s distracting; and it’s almost impressively genius. If only we all stood to benefit.

Since I last had a chance to analyze AlixPartners’ $4 million Transformation Plan a few days after it was made public, this sweeping plan to reorganize the MTA and cut a few hundred million dollars per year out of the agency’s expenses faced universal condemnation by the public and then a quick approval by the Board with only Veronica Vanterpool voting against it. I’ve never seen a charade so blatantly executed in public as the vote last week, and it’s hard to wrap my head around what happened. For hours on Wednesday morning, speaker after speaker took the microphone to speak out against the plan. Advocates condemned it as a rush job, not subject to proper public vetting that disempowered key leaders (such as Andy Byford) and failed to reform the core of the MTA. Others, speaking in support of Byford and Alex Elegudin’s renewed focus on accessibility, railed against the plan for once again treating the city’s most vulnerable as second-class transit riders. Others voiced support for Fast Forward and recent improvements (recent isolated performance meltdowns notwithstanding).

Still, the vote went on because it had to. The vote went on because the MTA was left up a creek without a paddle. It was mandated, legally, that the MTA Board approve this Transformation Plan, and they had no real choice. The key was a change in the state’s public authorities laws orchestrated by Cuomo during budget negotiations in June. The law, which you can read here, required the MTA to produce a transformation plan and approve — not vote on, but approve — the plan by July 31. Had the MTA Board voted down the plan, the agency would have been in violation of law, and it’s clear from MTA Board member and State Budget Director Robert Mujica’s comments on Wednesday that had the Board voted down the plan, the state would have withheld money the MTA badly needs. It was a legislative mandate through fiscal pressure, and another way Cuomo used the MTA Board to enact his will.

As part of this charade, a week before the Board vote, Cuomo sent a letter that sources within the MTA said came as a big surprise. You can read the missive right here, and you’ll see why one MTA source referred to it as an “unhinged rant.” It’s a rant about homelessness, time-and-attendance matters, speeds and signals and a reorganization plan with a purpose. It is in fact the chaos we’ve come to expect, a blurring of issues that obscures the reality that Cuomo knew all about the reorganization plan. In fact, I’ve heard from many sources that most folks within the MTA believe the AlixPartners plan was written long before this process was made public and serves to give cover to moves Cuomo wanted to make.

But that’s neither here nor there. The Governor of New York can do what he so pleases with the MTA as it is his to control. Following approval last week, Cuomo issued simply a two-sentence statement. “The MTA’s reorganization plan is a good start, but now it comes down to execution and sound management. The timelines should provide hard dates to assess progress,” he said. So the question now is: Does any of this matter or is it just politics as usual?

It matters. It matters because of the political message the Transformation Plan sends to key cogs such as Andy Byford and Pete Tomlin. It matters because of the ongoing hiring freeze that is rapidly draining the MTA of any talent current serving in-house and ensuring that any young talent looking to enter the transit field is frozen out of the largest transit agency in the country. It matters because it disenfranchised the public, through advocates whose concerns were ignored. It matters too because we’ve heard deafening silence from anyone else in Albany tasked with MTA oversight, a lukewarm milquetoast throw-away statement from the mayor who hasn’t even read the full Transformation Plan and a vehement statement in opposition from Corey Johnson.

Meanwhile, the Plan itself effectively disempowers all agency presidents, transfers key projects to MTA Capital Construction (the biggest source of MTA construction problems over the past decade and a half), borrows from Fast Forward while shunting aside Fast Forward’s main proponent, and erases progress spearheaded by people who aren’t Andrew Cuomo. The report talks too of “failure to attract talent” at a time when Byford has brought in a key accessibility proponent and a world-renowned signals expert. The former was not lost on accessibility advocates who raised such a stink last week that Cuomo enforcer Larry Schwartz had to promise additional accessible stations to save face.

Behind the plan, other efforts are at play to lessen the impact of those making a difference but conflicting with Cuomo. The new COO/Managing Director-type role proposed by the Transformation Plan is open only to outside candidates (so Cuomo can handpick the role and ensure Byford, for instance, can’t apply), and Transdev, a private transit operator, has been poking around the MTA of late. Remember that the initial versions of the plan initially called for subways and buses to be separated. That line was killed shortly before publication when advocates vehemently objected, but speculation is rife that Transdev will ultimately take over the city’s bus system. I’ll have more on that story in the coming weeks.

For now, Byford — and this is really about Byford — will serve on the new signals panel, another Cuomo attempt to step on feet. I’ll have more on that later too. But where this all leads is anyone’s guess. The MTA needs reform and reorganization, but it needs careful reform and reorganization. The people who are competent should be promoted and supported, but instead, we seem to be stuck in a chaotic process of reorganization spurred on to minimize the influence of those most competent who have been praised publicly. It’s petty politics, and it’s a whole bunch of chaos as we’re trying to cut through the noise toward a better commute. There’s no real way out here either, and the MTA’s millions of customers are simply pawns in an unnecessary political game of distraction, obfuscation and chaos.

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Larry Penner July 29, 2019 - 6:49 am

Cuomo and elected officials who depend upon transportation union endorsements, campaign contributions, phone banks and volunteers in the end will not stand up against their benefactors and openly support MTA management in instituting these reforms during contract renewal negotiations. Riders do not have the stomach to put up with potential work slow downs, service disruptions, employee sick outs and possible strikes by unions who are not going to give up what they have. Without these changes, it will continue to be the status quo.

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, NYC Department of Transportation along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ

Larry Penner July 29, 2019 - 7:07 am

NYC Council Speaker and 2021 Mayoral candidate Corey Johnson can have NYC should take its public transit back.” City Hall can actually regain control of the both the NYC Transit subway and bus systems. All have long forgotten that buried within the 1953 master agreement between the City of New York and NYC Transit is an escape clause. NYC has the legal right to take back at any time control of its assets. This includes the subway and most of the bus system. In 1953, the old NYC Board of Transportation passed on control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets under a master lease and operating agreement to the newly created NYC Transit Authority.

It was subsequently amended over time to take over various NYC private franchised bus operators.
In 1971, the passenger operations of the former B&O Rail Road Staten Island Rapid Transit Railway Company were sold to NYC for $3.5 million. Later that year, NYC passed on control to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA created a subsidiary, the Staten Island Rapid Transit Operating Authority. It is managed by the MTA NYC Transit’s Department of Subways. and Staten Island railway.
In 2005, NYC transferred management of the seven private franchised bus operators (Command Bus, Green Lines, Jamaica Bus, Triboro Coach, Queens Surface, NY Bus and Liberty Lines Bronx Express) to the MTA. The MTA subsequently created MTA Bus, which is a separate from NYC Transit Bus.
Regaining total control comes with a number of financial liabilities. City Hall will have to negotiate with both the Governor and State Legislature over how much of the MTA’s $40 billion long term debt and billions more in employee pension, health insurance and other liabilities come with the package. NYC would also inherit a series of union contracts and work rule agreements. You also have to develop a plan for turning over management for billions in hundreds of ongoing capital improvement projects that are already under way. Don’t forget current purchases for several thousand new subway cars and buses. A significant portion of the $12 billion worth of capital funded projects contained in dozens of grants from the Federal Transit Administration would have to be transferred from MTA to NYC. This would involve the de obligation and re obligation of funding contained in active grants from MTA to NYC. There would also have to be an update to the MTA Federal Transit Administration Bi Annual Certification for thousands of federally funded assets currently being maintained by the MTA to NYC. This document submitted every two years certifies that any asset worth over $5,000 is being properly maintained and remains in active transit service. All of these assets have to meet their promised useful life.
NYC Transit bus and subway are the largest transit operators in the nation with a fleet of 6.400 subway and 4,400 buses. MTA Bus with a fleet of 1300 buses is one of the top ten bus operators in the nation. It is the equivalent of attempting to manage a fortune five hundred corporation. Does NYC have the technical capacity to take on such an undertaking to support creation of the new ‘Big Apple Transit’? Today’s NYCDOT technical capacity as it relates to subways and buses is weak. It is primarily in the management of bus lanes, bus shelters, bus stop signs, select bus service, bus priority signalization, bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and street calming projects.
Perhaps NYC should take it one step at a time. Try attempting to manage the Staten Island Rail Road. Regain control of the 1300 MTA Bus fleet. After developing technical capacity to run these two, next try running the #7 subway line. The #7 subway has its own stand alone fleet and yard which makes it the perfect candidate. NYC should first attempt to successfully mange all three over a five year test period. If successful, perhaps then initiate a serious discussion about regaining control of the other 95% of NYC Transit subway and bus assets.

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, NYC Transit, MTA Bus, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road and NYC Department of Transportation).

Rob July 29, 2019 - 8:31 am

‘political game of distraction, obfuscation and chaos.’ – and you can’t even blame any Republicans here!

Walt Gekko July 29, 2019 - 4:18 pm

Cuomo knows he needs this political support thinking ahead to both a 2022 re-election campaign and a 2024 Presidential Campaign if Trump is re-elected in 2020. There are donors that likely demand Cuomo do what he’s doing and Cuomo as Cuomo likely feels he must win re-election in 2022 to get the fourth term his father was denied in 1994 in no small part because of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract for America” that led to many going for Pataki but also then-President Clinton’s refusing to issue an Executive Order to force the Baseball Strike in 1994 to end with every game made up even if it meant issuing a second Executive Order forcing the NFL to accommodate MLB by if need be adding additional off weeks for teams to the schedule and delaying the Super Bowl in January 1995 to allow for added off weeks to complete a delayed finish to the Baseball Season.

There were a lot of older people in NYC proper who openly admitted they voted for Pataki in 1994 to get back at Clinton for not issuing such Executive Orders, as baseball to that generation was far more important and it also was the first time in years barring a collapse the Yankees would have made the playoffs (a lot of people forget at that point, the last time the Yankees had been in the postseason was the strike-shortened 1981 season and before that in a non-strike year the year before in 1980), which to many Yankee fans was important because Don Mattingly (“Donnie Baseball”) had never played in the postseason to that point (and as it worked out, the 1995 ALDS that saved baseball AND football in Seattle were Mattingly’s last games as he was forced to retire due to his back). Some did not live long enough to see the Yanks have their run from 1996-2001 and knew that might happened, which was why many such voted for Pataki to get back at Clinton and very possibly in both the current Governor and elder Cuomo’s minds screw the elder Cuomo out of a fourth term.

VLM July 29, 2019 - 4:23 pm

I don’t know where you come up with these idiotic cockamamie conspiracy theories, but they get more moronic each time you post something.

Cuomo is the king of the New York castle, and he’s exploiting that to the hilt. He’s not ever running for higher office, and your argument about Clinton’s EO regarding the MLB strike is generally misinformed and wrong.

SEAN July 30, 2019 - 10:02 pm

I don’t get how these items are related.

smotri July 29, 2019 - 5:04 pm

Seems as if there is no way out of this unless (1) Cuomo is voted out and (2) someone who actually cares about public transportation is voted in. Seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. I feel sorry for the mass transit dependent public in NYC (and in the suburbs too). Why do they constantly vote for the same incompetent and uncaring leadership?

SEAN July 30, 2019 - 8:49 am

Why do they constantly vote for the same incompetent and uncaring leadership?

Simply put, the alternative is far worse.

Larry Littlefield July 31, 2019 - 11:40 am

When all the future congestion pricing revenues are spent and the infrastructure goes into a freefall, as Cuomo’s generation retires and moves away, just remember they all did it together.

And we let them.

That’s the big misdirection here. Cuomo sees no future as a result of what he and others have done in the past, so he’s just piling on. And no one wants responsibility. They just want one more grab.

AMH July 31, 2019 - 5:36 pm

Wow, railing about the MTA’s inability to attract talent while actively driving away every last employee who has any career options, is the height of insanity.

The Hunkster August 3, 2019 - 6:56 pm

#CuomosMTA was led by Governor Cthulhu as always since day one on his reign of course, causing bureaucratic insanity towards millions of NYers.


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