Uncertainty and political paralysis has gripped the MTA since early June, and making heads or tails of the situation hasn’t been easy. The story unfolded when an Andrew Cuomo ploy late in the legislative session to split the MTA CEO and Chair role into two faltered late in in the face of a New York State Senate unwilling to do the governor’s Eleventh Hour bidding. In its aftermath, Janno Lieber is now the interim MTA CEO and Chair as Pat Foye moved to the New York State Economic Development Corporation. Sarah Feinberg, who had been serving as NYC Transit’s interim president since Andy Byford left last February, has left her post too, and a transit agency struggling to make it through the pandemic has to face yet another period of leadership turnover and tumult.
The latest machinations arose in early June when Cuomo announced a new plan for MTA leadership. Foye was to leave at the end of July (as he did) and replacing him would be a two-headed leadership team. Feinberg would move from Interim NYC Transit President to Chair of the MTA while Lieber, then the head of MTA Construction & Development, was pegged to be the CEO of the entire agency. The governor’s press release spoke of it as a done deal, but there was one problem: Cuomo couldn’t split the MTA leadership role into two without Senate approval, and the Senate wasn’t keen to rush through what many viewed as another gubernatorial power grab.
The back-and-forth began immediately with various deals on and off the table and an aborted attempt in the Senate to vote on Cuomo’s plan during the waning hours of the legislative session in June. When the Senate adjourned, Cuomo’s plan hadn’t been approved, and the Senate never reconvened in July to hold a special session to take up the measure. In effect, the Senate vetoed Cuomo’s plan.
It wasn’t immediately clear why Cuomo’s plan faltered or what the future holds for it, and I’ve tried to get to the bottom of this. At first, it seemed as though the bill died when Cuomo tried to remove the CEO from the purview of Senate approval. As first conceived, the Senate would vote on only the (unpaid) Chair role and have no ability to approve the person tasked with running the $17 billion transit agency. When the Senate and labor leaders objected, Cuomo’s team revised the bill to allow the Senate to approve both the CEO and the Chair nominees, but this too went nowhere.
From various conversations with State Senate sources, I have learned that a variety of factors were at play. Some lawmakers simply did not want to do a damaged Governor’s last-minute bidding. They felt that major changes at the MTA required a more public airing than a rushed vote as the legislative session expired and weren’t keen to approve personnel moves put forward by a governor currently under Senate investigation.
Others raised some concerns with Feinberg’s nomination specifically, noting that a spring press release with her name on it included a reference a variety of mayoral candidates who had been supportive of the MTA’s call for more police officers in the subway system. The MTA has acknowledged they intended the reference to be on background, and agency officials have said it was inserted without Feinberg’s knowledge while she was out of town. Still, a few State Senators viewed this as a political step too far for an agency that is supposed to be outside the realm of city electoral politics.
That said, no one I spoke with said this alone was the main reason Cuomo’s bill or Feinberg’s nomination died. Some State Senators were keen to question Feinberg generally about her time at the MTA (though they obviously have not yet gotten the chance to do so). Furthermore, Feinberg has offered multiple times to brief State Senators interested in speaking with her, and she and Lieber have offered to appear at public hearings on Cuomo’s plan. The Senate, on the whole as a legislative oversight body, has not yet taken either of them up on these offers.
It’s also not clear why Foye went along with the governor’s plan (or why he was asked to). Sources I spoke with indicated that Foye had been happy as the head of the MTA and that leaving wasn’t his idea. But as a loyal member of Cuomo’s inner circle, Foye seemed to understand that the personnel shuffle was, in part, about leadership structures and in part keeping a narrowing circle of confidants close at hand. Foye, some believe, went along with the move because not rocking that boat is Pat Foye’s nature.
Others close to the matter believe the brewing mess around Penn Station is the driving force behind both Foye’s departure and the newly-proposed power structure. I haven’t found any who disagree with that assessment either.
Meanwhile, the MTA had hoped the Senate would give the bill a proper hearing in July and the governor reiterated those hopes in the press release he sent out this week about Lieber’s new role. The new bill and Feinberg’s nomination, the Governor noted in the present tense, “awaits approval from the State Senate.”
Even without immediate action on the horizon, Feinberg echoed Cuomo’s optimism. “As we wait for the State Senate to return to session,” she said, “the Governor, Janno and I agree that this is the best path forward to provide stability and continuity of leadership at the MTA. While I am disappointed in the Senate’s delay in taking up deliberations of our nominations, I have no doubt Janno will do a tremendous job in the acting role.”
Yet, Albany is in no rush to respond, and the MTA must move forward. So Feinberg is out, replaced by Craig Cipriano, current head of buses, on an interim basis, and Lieber is in the interim head of the entire shebang. For an agency with a huge budget deficit struggling through the pandemic, leadership turnover and another round of interim leaders, even if familiar faces and old pros, adds another level of uncertainty to an uncertain time. The MTA needs firm direction and leadership. Instead, it is embroiled in yet another political brouhaha.
Despite the castle intrigue element to this story, I have found myself asking whether Cuomo’s plan is really all that bad. Richard Ravitch, in 2009, proposed one CEO and Chair role instead of two as two seemed to lead to a diffuse power structure. But as some within the MTA had told me, these are two roles with a lot of responsibility, and asking one person to lead the MTA Board while also serving as operation head of an agency with over 70,000 employees is a tall task.
“For three years now, I’ve been advocating that that job should be split,” Feinberg said to NY1’s Dan Rivoli. “It should be a CEO and a board chair, and the reason is this: It’s a multibillion-dollar agency. It’s a 72,000-person workforce. On its best day, it is big, it is unwieldy, and it is multiple challenges on every front.”
Plenty of transit agencies have bifurcated power structures, and there is no real right answer here. I ultimately think The LIRR Today’s point in the tweet embedded below is the right one: It doesn’t matter because we all know Andrew Cuomo – or whoever is governor of New York – is the ultimate power atop the MTA.
So what comes next for the MTA and for its interim leadership? At this point, the immediate future is clear: Janno Lieber will be the interim head of the agency, a position he can hold for up to six months, and Sarah Feinberg will not become the first woman to head the MTA Board. New York City Transit will have its second interim president since Byford left 17 months ago, and the agency will continue to muddle through the endless pandemic, hoping ridership and leadership stabilize soon. I’ll give Byford, who spoke to Rivoli last week, the last word for now.
“I’m sure it will work out, but it’s certainly not ideal from where I sit,” Byford said from his perch in London. “The danger it brings is that it encourages, if not deliberately, it kind of encourages short-term thinking because you know that maybe you don’t have the long-term tenure that a substanstive person would have…My advice would be, get through the politics and make a decision because the MTA is such an important part of New York,” he said.