Over the summer, as he does from time to time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sat down with the editorial board of The New York Post, and the conversation turned to the MTA. At the time, the Transformation Plan had recently been unveiled, and the governor had turned his attention to the signal system and complaints that the MTA had been addressing regarding slower train speeds. It was one of those moments when transit observers and advocates knew that the governor was stepping into a field Andy Byford had been mining, to great success, and concerns grew over fears that Cuomo and Byford would butt heads over a sensitive and important part of the MTA’s long road to recovery.
Over the weekend, Post reporter Nolan Hicks shared pieces of the transcript from that meeting, and it is a prime example of the relationship that had developed after nearly 20 months before Byford and Cuomo. The governor attempts to minimize Byford’s role in fixing the subways while promoting the Subway Action Plan and then he turns his attention to signal timers. The governor claimed that the union brought concerns with signal timers and the steep penalties for tripping red signals to him, and after months of a very public effort by Byford and his team to fix exactly these faulty signals and recalibrate timers, he was the one to fix the problem. Said Cuomo:
I met with the union, and I said, ‘How do we fix this issue where the trains are slower?’ And what we agreed to with the union is we would bring in an outside consultant, the unions would get on a train, the designers would get on a train, everyone would work together, come up with speed limits, fix the signals to calibrate to those new speed limits and the union would be comfortable with the speed limits, comfortable that the signals were actually calibrated. So if it said 20, it actually happened at 20 and that was the resolution.
If that sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is nearly exactly what Andy Byford’s speed unit and the Save Safe Seconds campaign was already doing, as Aaron Gordon subsequently pointed out, except, as Gordon said, “Cuomo wants to add an expensive consultant for reasons.” In a way, Cuomo already had his consultant in Byford. After all, that’s why the governor imported Andy from Toronto, but Cuomo and Byford could not co-exist. And the governor wanted to do things his way.
I chose to highlight this part of The Post’s transcript because the signals are reportedly one of the key issues that pushed Byford to resign for good this time. Even though the legislatively-mandated signals report, essentially demanded by Cuomo as part of the congestion pricing push, landed with a thud late in the day on New Year’s Eve, Cuomo recently sidelined Byford and his team from the discussions on recalibrating signals, and that was one of many last straws for New York City’s most prominent Plymouth Argyle FC fan. Now, Byford is out, and much to the chagrin of transit advocates around the city, Pete Tomlin, Byford’s signals man, is going with him.
The turf war over signals was but one issue among many that led Byford to leave, and I believe it’s accurate to consider him pushed out. After all, if your boss were to take your job and remove all of your responsibilities from it while indicating how unhappy he was with your public profile, how would you respond? And that’s exactly what happened with the MTA’s transformation effort, as Byford wrote in his resignation letter:
“The Alix Partners MTA Transformation plan called for the centralization of projects and an expanded HQ, leaving Agency Presidents to focus solely on the day-to-day of running service. I have built an excellent team and there are many capable individuals in Transit and others within the MTA family, who could perform this important, but reduced, service delivery role.”
Transformation was a clear-cut demotion, to a position beneath the stature and skills of Andy Byford, and he simply wasn’t going to take it any longer. Many at the MTA has said to me that the transformation plan seemed uniquely designed to minimize Byford and his role even as the New York City Transit President was enjoying success fixing the subways, and The Times also reported that Cuomo wanted Byford out. I have also been told that Byford (along with other internal MTA candidates) was not permitted to apply to the open COO role when Ronnie Hakim departed the MTA, and it was clear the writing was on the wall. The governor could not co-exist with someone of Byford’s popularity and success. As I think on this news, one week later, it all just seems so unnecessary.
I’ve struggled quite a bit with the reaction to Byford’s departure. There’s a lot to say about it, and none of it particularly optimistic. I’d like to think, as Eric Goldwyn argued for City & State, that Byford’s departure will accomplish exactly what we hope it will: that New Yorkers will wake up to the problems with a state-run transit agency and a state chief executive who won’t listen to anyone else and that local politicians will begin to support transit planning decisions rather than oppose them. But I am instead left pondering the question Nicole Gelinas asked: “Why would anyone take over after Andy Byford fled the MTA?” What qualified outsider will willing join a toxic work environment that Byford, a very competent and qualified and well-respected man within the industry, left so quickly? Who will save us from ourselves and the electoral decisions we have made? Railway Age took this one step further and unleashed a loud and angry takedown of the man who ousted Byford and his decisions.
Over the past week, as the dust from Byford’s resignation has settled, I’ve noticed the reticence with which politicians have approached this move and the rhetoric behind their statements. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is very likely to run for mayor on a platform that calls for city control over its transit system, started a #BringBackByford campaign but transitioned that to a pledge to re-hire Byford if he can wrest control of the buses and subways from Albany. Countless other local pols chimed in with similar sentiments, and the mayor outright embarrassed himself all week calling on Byford to reconsider. “Why don’t we try and convince him to stay?” the mayor asked Brian Lehrer’s audience last Friday. This was a deeply surreal back-and-forth, ignorant of the larger political dynamics at play, and one that warrants a closer look:
Mayor: So, I think the State of New York should get to it to try and convince Andy Byford to stay. Look, Andy Byford has done an amazing job and he put forward a plan that really was transformative. I think his presence was a big part of why we were able, last April, to pass the first plan in memory to actually fully fund the MTA and fix it. And I think, you know, we need him, going forward, and why not try and keep him?
Lehrer: Have you launched some kind of effort to try and keep him? Have you appealed to him?
Mayor: No it’s just the first – I am talking about it now for the first time because it dawned on me this morning that when I thought about history a bit, there have been people who were getting ready to leave and changed their mind or were persuaded to come back. And I think this is a case where he’s a singular talent and he’s obviously getting a great outpouring of support from New Yorkers. Why don’t we try and convince him to stay?
Lehrer: This seemed to happen once already. He was going to resign in October and Governor Cuomo convinced him to stay, right?
Mayor: Well that seems to be the case. I wasn’t in those backroom discussions, but look, I think New Yorkers want him to say, I want him to say for sure. I think the City Council wants him to stay. My appeal to the State of New York is, get in a room with him, try and get him to stay, see what it’ll take to get them to stay. Maybe there are some changes that would be possible that would convince him he could continue on in a productive, positive manner. I don’t think guys like Andy Byford grow on trees. I think he’s a pretty special talent and he’s proven he can handle New York City. Let’s try and keep him.
Lehrer: When you say the State of New York should get in a room with them, you mean Governor Cuomo?
Mayor: Yeah, and whoever else from his team that has been working with Byford. I don’t know who are the people most active in dealing with the MTA, but unquestionably if he needs persuasion that a lot can be achieved – I mean, look again, anybody looking at the outpouring of support in the last 24 hours, he doesn’t have to wonder whether he has popular support or the support of the elected officials of New York City. We all want him to stay. So I think it comes down to the State trying to figure out what’s it going to take to get him to change his mind. I don’t think it’s an impossible equation. I’ve seen harder things done.
Besides laying bare the reality that the mayor has no idea what’s happening within the MTA, the transit system used by millions of his constituents on a daily basis, and that Brian Lehrer seems to have a far rosier view of the Byford-Cuomo dynamic that reality dictates, the mayor’s words and everyone else’s seem to willfully ignore the reality here. Andy Byford is leaving because Andrew Cuomo wanted him out of the way. Only Jumaane Williams and Council Member Antonio Reynoso directly named the governor, and everyone other politician tried to tip-toe around the powerful head of New York or pretend the problem was something else, as de Blasio did. Does this bode well for the future?
All hope shouldn’t be lost though. As a variety of transit activists told Curbed New York’s Amy Plitt, Byford laid a very strong foundation for future success, and while many within the MTA are rightly feeling discouraged right now, the agency should be able to continue to build on Byford’s successes if the right people are given the right support and the right opportunities. There is no way to sugarcoat Andy Byford’s departure. It was far too premature and represents a big blow to New York City. But the governor is allowed to make these decisions. It’s #CuomosMTA, after all, and if everyone is going to push him to take charge, that means accepted the good with the bad for as long as we can. Right now, New York City is worse off for it, but if this becomes a catalyst for increased attention on the politics of transit, perhaps Cuomo will have won a pyrrhic victory.
Ultimately, your commute won’t get worse tomorrow or next week or next month, but will it get as better as Byford had promised? That tantalizing reality now remains out of reach, and it didn’t have to be like this.