Home MTA Politics A Robert Moses Wannabe: Inside the Transportation Legacy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

A Robert Moses Wannabe: Inside the Transportation Legacy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

by Benjamin Kabak
Gov. Andrew Cuomo celebrated the opening of the Second Ave. Subway during a flashy New Years Eve party as 2016 turned in 2017.

In a little over 24 hours, Andrew Cuomo’s reign over New York State will officially be over. Call it whatever kind of reign you want – a reign of terror, a reign of narcissism, a reign of exhaustion – but whatever name it gets, it’s over. At 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, August 24, #CuomosMTA becomes #HochulsMTA, and all of the problems Andrew Cuomo, through the sheer force of his aggressive control over the state, swept away will become Kathy Hochul’s. An MTA struggling to emerge out of the pandemic, bleeding talent and with yet another round of interim leaders will be Hochul’s to sort out as Cuomo exits stage left.

As he leaves, I wanted to assess his transportation legacy and the effect he had on the New York City region in particular. Cuomo has spent the last few years talking non-stop about infrastructure in New York. He clearly viewed it as a way to show how Government with a strong executive leader can Get Things Done, and he was nothing if not a strong executive. He fancied himself a modern-day Robert Moses, warts and all, but came across more as the Bad Robert Moses who refused to listen to experts or dissent and did only what he wanted rather than the Good Robert Moses.

In more recent year, as Cuomo took a more vested interest in transportation policy, it was impossible to divorce the personality of Andrew Cuomo from the politics and the policy. What Andrew Cuomo wanted Andrew Cuomo got, and he couldn’t stand any potential challengers to his iron rule. If you worked from Cuomo, you had to make him look good, and if you highlighted flaws in past approaches and tried to fix them, well, that made Andrew Cuomo look bad and you became a political liability. Leaders were dismissed; agencies and environmental impact studies manipulated to deliver on Cuomo’s desired proposals. He was in charge, and his voice was the first and only one that counted. This quasi-dictatorial approach may not be inherently bad unless Cuomo’s ideas were bad. So were they?

In a news piece assessing Cuomo’s infrastructure legacy, Michael Herzenberg of NY1 spoke with Mitchell Moss, and the NYU professor showered praise on the outgoing governor. “There hasn’t been a governor who has done as much to improve, modernize and strengthen the state in probably 50 to 80 years,” Moss said. “He took on jobs that had been ignored.”

Moss meant this as praise, but to me, it’s damning praise at best. Cuomo is able to say he did the most because his predecessors all did so little. While it’s true that, for instance, Laguardia Airport is nicer now than it was ten years ago, a better airport simply helps a small number of people exiting and entering New York City have a more pleasant experience. It does nothing for Cuomo’s constituents waiting 30 minutes for a bus that crawls through city streets or a subway that hasn’t grown much since the 1930s.

And airports were easy. Cuomo exploited his ability to direct airport money back into airports to act like Robert Moses. He didn’t have to wage a political fight for limited transit funding or swat down NIMBY concerns over lengthy construction timelines. He simply reinvested money that could be used only for airports back into those airports. It was a political coup, and when faced with tougher transportation decisions – as with the Willets Point AirTrain – he backed options that will save no one any time rather than improving transit through underserved areas because the political fight would have been tougher. Is that leadership or cowardice?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Pat Foye, then head of the Port Authority, celebrated the Laguardia groundbreaking in 2016.

So sure, Cuomo deserves credit for forging ahead on Laguardia Airport, but when you look at the AirTrain path – and the political pressure, if not corruption applied during the EIS process – it’s hard not to be disappointed. That doesn’t even begin to grapple with the question of whether we should be promoting air travel at the time of climate change or whether keeping Laguardia open in the first place was even a good idea. New York City has a nicer airport, one that isn’t the laughingstock of the country, and that’s probably the best thing one can say about Cuomo’s transportation legacy.

Outside of the airports, I view Cuomo’s infrastructure and transportation legacy through five other lenses. It’s hard not to start with Andy Byford and the subways, but to understand that dynamic, it’s best to start with the Second Ave. Subway. Launched in earnest during the Pataki Administration and commenced during the early days of the Spitzer Administration, Andrew Cuomo had the good fortune of being in office when construction wrapped. He didn’t have to do the heavy lifting on the planning or on the funding to earn credit for opening the subway. He just had to show up for his own New Years Eve party.

But the Second Ave. Subway was a Cuomo speciality and a Cuomo mess all rolled into one. Until it became clear that the MTA was not going to finish the Upper East Side subway extension without heavy-handed political intervention, Cuomo seemed disinterested in MTA politics. He never rode the subways before the extension had opened and hardly has since then, using it as a bogeyman and a punching bag instead. For its part, in the early part of the Cuomo years, the MTA was struggling to rebuild after the damage from Superstorm Sandy, and Cuomo was very hands off for better or worse. With the MTA blowing deadline after deadline and construction stretching into the infinite future, Cuomo slowly realized he had a transportation policy nightmare on his hands, and he had to step in heavy and hard.

As meticulously detailed in Philip Plotch’s book The Last Subway, Cuomo made the MTA “finish” the Second Ave. Subway by December 31, 2016, no matter the cost, and the costs were high. Using the leadership style we’ve come to know lately – yell loudly and demand the world – Cuomo forced the MTA to divert operations resources to the Second Ave. Subway construction effort, and subway reliability tanked. The governor enjoyed his champagne toast – EXCELSIOR screamed the new subway station – but the schlubs of New York City had to deal with signal malfunctions and subway delays exacerbated by the governor, the very man in charge of making sure the subway was supposed to run.

Andrew Cuomo and Andy Byford toured the 9th Ave. Subway station in Brooklyn in April 2018. It was one of the few times the two would be seen together in public.

The collapse of subway service due to Cuomo’s machinations under Second Avenue led Albany to look to Toronto for a new leader. Enter Andy Byford. This saga we know through and through. Byford was the most respected and most competent leader to guide New York City Transit in a generation. Importantly, he knew how to recognize talent within the bureaucracy and get the most out of people he worked with. He also didn’t need Cuomo’s patronage, and after two years, the relationship between the two men soured. Cuomo couldn’t stomach Byford getting praised in a William Finnegan article in The New Yorker. For his part, Cuomo tried to minimize Byford by stacking senior management above him with yes men, refusing to elevate Byford within the MTA, and pursuing an MTA reorganization plan with the main goal of sidelining the New York City Transit president.

In the end, it became personal. When Byford quit for good in January of 2020, he blamed Cuomo in an interview with Marcia Kramer that had the misfortunate of airing a few days before the pandemic settled in. Cuomo tried to co-opt Byford’s Fast Forward plan, but he wasn’t fooling MTA watchers. Cuomo ultimately could not led the experts he picked solve the problems he caused. It’s a legacy New York City will be trying to escape for years, if not decades.

And what of everything else? What of congestion pricing? Moynihan Station? The Gateway Tunnel? Penn Station South? How do we apportion credit for things that haven’t happened and may not?

Congestion pricing is the perfect Cuomo project. He came to it with his back to the wall and the MTA’s needs evident. He never really understood how congestion itself is a major problem for New York City and viewed it only as a revenue generator for transit. But as he leaves office, we still don’t have congestion pricing, and the MTA – Cuomo’s MTA – says we’ll be waiting two more years before implementation is complete. Ultimately, Cuomo was content to take credit for passing congestion pricing while the Trump DOT stonewalled it. Now, he never has to deal with the tougher politics of implementation. It’s the perfect Cuomo “accomplishment.”

Moynihan Station, Gateway and Penn South all fall into this same political morass. We have a nicer station for Amtrak now, but that’s all we have. Cuomo spent ten years not addressing the trans-Hudson capacity problems, and despite agreeing to fund Gateway during the end of the Obama administration and subsequently complaining about Trump’s stonewalling of the project, Cuomo recently started throwing a whole bunch of cold water onto the Gateway Tunnel itself, to much confusion among the city’s transportation experts. I don’t even really know how to make sense of this. Cuomo spoke a lot about Gateway, did nothing to advance, and then, when given an opening to start the project, seemed to want to stop it. He didn’t think of first; it wasn’t going to open any time sooner; and ultimately, it didn’t suit his needs. This is the personality from which it is impossible to divorce policy or accomplishments.

In 2017, Cuomo launched “New York Harbor of Lights” but the $106 million LED bulbs have sat in storage for years.

I know I’m forgetting projects that fell by the wayside. I haven’t talked about the $106 million LED lights for NYC bridges that remain in a storage locker; the Kosciusko Bridge rebuild that ignored concepts of induced demand (let alone climate change); the $30 million Cuomo demanded be spent on blue and yellow tiles for the Battery Tunnel. It all just bleeds together in the end, a tortured legacy of doing things that don’t matter without improving anyone’s commute.

Is your commute better today than it was in 2009? Is anyone’s other than those who drive across the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the one monument to Cuomo in New York that still bears the family name for now? On one level, replacing the old bridge had to happen before it collapsed, but on the other, it’s a sprawl-inducing, car monstrosity without promised transit provisioning that was plagued by its own construction scandals. It looked good, and Cuomo had a chance to drive his mom across the new span as it opened. A flashy new span for cars without substance was ultimately what it was all about. If that’s the best we can say about the governor credited as doing the most in five or eight decades, what kind of legacy is that anyway? And which Robert Moses was he exactly – the one everyone praised or the one everyone ultimately just wanted to see leave?

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11 comments

Larry Penner August 23, 2021 - 8:14 am

Your accompanying photo said it all. Cuomo attempted to portray himself as the second coming of President Franklin Roosevelt and Master Builder Robert Moses. Cuomo is not an engineer, business person, transportation expert or daily commuter. He has never built a business from scratch or created significant number of new good paying jobs on his own. Cuomo does excel at photo ops holding a shovel at ground braking ceremonies. He does the same when walking along MTA subway or commuter train tracks without wearing either a safety vest or hardhat as required by Federal Rail Road Administration. Just like his failure to attend any sexual harassment training sessions, I doubt he has is ever taken and passed the standard FRA safety training course like MTA employees or has used a Metro Card like commuters.

(Larry Penner — transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.).

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David August 23, 2021 - 8:55 am

Here’s another one to ponder: the NYC-Buffalo High Speed Rail Empire Corridor improvements, the Environmental Impact Study for which has languished for 11 years now since the initial scoping sessions were held and is now not expected to be completed until April 2022. Part of the delay is chargeable to the U.S. FRA, but by no means a majority. For years. Nothing. Happened.

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Charles Komanoff August 23, 2021 - 9:08 am

Great column. Tough but absolutely fair, and correct in both big picture (Bad Moses) and the many details. But Ben, I’ll churlishly say publicly what I’ve said to you privately once or twice: please have your posts copy-edited. Flubs like “rather” when you presumably meant “never” (“He rather rode the subways before the extension had opened and hardly has since then”), or “perusing” when you meant “pursuing” (“perusing an MTA reorganization plan …”) are distracting and confusing — for this reader, anyway. And so easily avoidable. Please consider! Thanks.

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Larry Penner August 23, 2021 - 10:34 am

Hochul will have to pay back the $1.6 billion dollar federal loan and $1 billion State Thruway Authority Bond which financed the $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge. Tolls starting in 2021 have increased. They will go higher over coming years.

The MTA paid for Positive Train Control on the LIRR and MNRR by a $967.1 million Railroad Rehabilitation Improvement Financing loan from the FRA. It is a 22 year loan at 2.4 percent interest. The loan will have to be paid back over future MTA Five Year Capital Plans.

The MTA had to borrow $1.95 billion for the $2.6 billion LIRR Main Line Third Track.

The Empire State Development Corporation has to pay back a federal $550 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan, for the $1.6 billion new Penn Station Moynihan Train Hall

Cuomo would pay for his 25% share of the $12 billion (two new tunnels and rehab the old tunnels) or full scope $33 billion Gateway Tunnel project via Federal loans.

When it comes to paying for all his transportation promises, Cuomo reminds me of J. Wellington Wimpy who famously said “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Tuesday may never come for taxpayers and commuters who continue to deal with higher fares, taxes, more debt and borrowing in coming years to cover the costs for all of his transportation improvements. Cuomo has never believed in pay as you go, balanced or transparent budgets.

Larry Penner

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Justin Samuels August 24, 2021 - 9:31 am

Cuomo is the bad Moses everyone wanted to see go. Now he’s gone and I’m sure moral at the MTA will immediately improve. Now Hochul can do is in rebuilding. With Cuomo out of the way there are a number of projects the MTA can push forward to take advantage of federal dollars and the jobs they will bring.

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Peter L August 24, 2021 - 1:22 pm

Haven’t even read the piece yet, but have read Power Broker, and the first thing that popped into my mind was “Maybe, but Moses was actually a smart guy”.

You might not like what he did (he was a terrible racist) but would NYC actually work if he hadn’t built some of the things he built? Not trying to cheer-lead for the guy (I *read* Power Broker, remember!) but …

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ChrisC August 25, 2021 - 5:28 am

Hope you’ll be writing a piece on the New Governor

This is from the New York Times interview she did this week –

Your predecessor was known to have a heavy hand with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. How much authority are you looking to assert over the M.T.A.?

I’ve already had conversations with leadership; I’ve been briefed on our significant projects, and I want to get them done.

Authority doesn’t have to be concentrated in me when I’m hiring outstanding professionals who know their jobs. I will be there if there’s something that’s not following what I want. But I also know that day to day, they’re the ones that have to be accountable. Accountable to the riders, accountable to me. But I also know that granting more freedom allows them to rise.

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Chet August 25, 2021 - 10:26 am

A couple of quick questions:
1) About the Kosciusko Bridge: While I understand the idea of induced demand, there was no doubt that the old bridge needed to be replaced. How would your solution differed from what was eventually built?

2) The Battery Tunnel was pretty much completely rebuilt after Sandy. You imply that if they had just used all white tiles, the cost would have been $30 million less? Is that correct? If just a color change for a relatively small amount of the total tiles needed cost $30 million, you should be making a comparison to William Tweed, not Robert Moses.

3) What are the chances that now Governor Hochul can get Andy Byford back to finish what he barely started with the MTA?

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Peter L August 25, 2021 - 12:52 pm

#1 and #2, no idea (had to google the bridge). #3 I can answer, evan as a never-time resident of NYC: Zero.

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ChrisC August 25, 2021 - 4:37 pm

Re the Tunnel yes it cost an extra $40m million to add coloured tiles.

https://www.6sqft.com/cuomo-called-out-for-extravagance-in-adding-30m-worth-of-blue-and-gold-tiles-to-east-river-tunnels/

No doubt the cost is also reealed in the MTA committee papers / meeting minutes

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Smotri August 26, 2021 - 4:15 pm

I never voted for him (see: HUD scandals when he was HUD Secretary under Clinton), and I don’t think he was much more than a not very intelligent hack. He closed down his own Moreland commission when it came too close to him and his cronies, and as for transit, NYC in particular, but also state-wide mass transit has stagnated in mediocrity throughout his tenure. Just listen to news radio stations each morning for a while and you’ll hear an endless litany of delays on the subways because of signal problems, and this with lower ridership because of the pandemic!
Good riddance!

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