With Andrew Cuomo out of the picture and his infrastructure legacy receding with him, our attention turns to Kathy Hochul. The new governor hails from Buffalo and is the first Upstater to live in the Executive Mansion since the 1920s. This may be a blessing for the NYC region as Hochul doesn’t come with a long history of, say, MTA animosity or the auto-centric policies of some suburban politicians.
After years of heavy-handed, ego-driven interference with MTA operations from Cuomo, New Yorkers are looking for signs from Hochul that change is on the way, and so far, the new governor has been saying all the right things. “The MTA is going to be far more liberated,” Hochul said to NY1’s Errol Louis during Thursday’s Inside City Hall. “I will not be filling positions with political allies because there’s a lot of talent out there and I want a diverse population, representing the riders, which is a diverse population.”
But words are just promises that need to be fulfilled. It’s only the first week of the Hochul Administration during the doldrums of August, and the new governor is still getting her sea legs. Plus, Hochul may be only a steward for the next year. She’ll be in office for only 12 months before facing a wide-open primary next year, and the jockeying for a four-year term may limit her power. So with politics in New York very much up in the air, Hochul’s first actions on transportation are still to come.
In the meantime, I have my own thoughts on what she could do. So without further ado, a ‘to do’ list for the new governor.
- Pledge MTA Leadership Stability
To say turnover was high at the MTA during Gov. Cuomo’s time in office is an understatement. I put together a list of all the people to serve as either MTA head or New York City Transit President during the ten years, seven months and 23 days of Cuomo Administration, and you can see why leadership continuity and righting the MTA’s ship have often felt impossible over the past decade.
|MTA Chair & CEO||New York City Transit President|
|Janno Lieber (Acting)||Craig Cipriano (Interim)|
|Pat Foye||Sarah Feinberg (Interim)|
|Fernando Ferrer (Interim)||Andy Byford|
|Joe Lhota||Phil Eng (Acting)|
|Fernando Ferrer (Interim)||Tim Mulligan (Acting)|
|Tom Prendergast||Darryl Irick (Interim)|
|Fernando Ferrer (Interim)||Ronnie Hakim|
|Joe Lhota||James Ferrara (Interim)|
|Jay Walder (nominated by Paterson)||Carmen Bianco|
|Tom Prendergast (nominated by Paterson)|
The MTA has careened from one leader to the next with few spending enough time to implement reform or long-term strategic planning. For her part, Hochul should commit to stability atop the MTA. She should swiftly move to install Janno Lieber as the permanent head of the MTA, as she has indicated she is likely to do, and she should consider Alon Levy’s advice in hunting for agency heads: Look outside the U.S. for leadership; consult with Andy Byford on potential NYC Transit presidents; and give a good, long look to candidates outside of the Anglosphere.
Again, she’s saying the right things. In an interview with The New York Times, Hochul discussed her relationship with the MTA and struck a different chord than Cuomo’s heavy-handed interference. “Authority doesn’t have to be concentrated in me when I’m hiring outstanding professionals who know their jobs,” she said, in a veiled reference to the failed Byford-Cuomo relationship. “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.”
But even here, Hochul may not be able to bring the stability the MTA needs to chart a multi-year course. She almost immediately has to face an election campaign, and while she will enjoy an incumbency advantage, she’s going to have to beat more well-known candidates to earn her own term. If she loses, the next governor will likely want to appoint his or her own MTA heads, thus continuing this leadership upheaval in the short term. Anyone who fits Levy’s bill or may be inclined to take on the task of leading New York City Transit may not want to do so until the gubernatorial election is settled. Still, if Hochul can commit to stability and a proper relationship with her MTA heads, that’s a step in the right direction.
- Clean House at the MTA Board: Get Rid of the Cuomo Holdovers
While we all acknowledge the governor of New York controls the MTA and can do with the agency as he pleases, the way Andrew Cuomo interacted with his own MTA heads sometimes sounds unbelievable. Cuomo would name his own agency heads and then appoint Board members whose main responsibilities involved inserting themselves into day-to-day MTA operations, essentially as the Governor’s enforcers/spies to undermine the agency heads. The worst of this was the Larry Schwartz/Andy Byford dynamic, and it led to animosity among MTA leaders and fear among the rank-and-file that the governor’s right-hand man would show up with demands out of left field, usually unreasonable.
The next MTA Board meeting isn’t until late September, and not a single one of Cuomo’s appointees should still be on the Board for that meeting. Already, Linda Lacewell, Cuomo’s former head of the Department of Financial Services, stepped down from the Board when she resigned from her position, but Cuomo’s other appointees remain. Jamey Barbars (one of the few Cuomo Board appointees with actual transportation experience), Haeda Milhaltses and Robert Mujica have said nothing, but Schwartz has defiantly said he’ll stay on the Board until Hochul kicks him off.
Claiming he did nothing wrong (despite being named in Tish James’ report numerous times and separately being accused of threatening county leaders to support Cuomo or risk their vaccine supply), Schwartz told The Post he will not leave “on my own.”
“I’ve been looking for over two years to get off, so I’m not looking to stay on,” he said. “But I will do the right thing. If they feel I can be a help short term, or long term, we can talk about it. I’ll do whatever the new administration wants. They’re aware.”
Schwartz has constantly used his Board position to bolster Cuomo and undermine those willing to show an ounce of independence so the claim he’s been looking to leave for two years doesn’t pass the smell test. Either way, he may soon get his wish.
“I’m committed to ensuring that the people named in the attorney general’s report will no longer serve in my administration,” Hochul said when asked last week about MTA Board holdovers. “I’ve asked for a 45-day period. Some individuals will be gone sooner than that. Many have already been removed or left on their own because they knew they were not going to be in my administration…I’ll be naming a whole slate of new people to fill those soon-to-be vacant positions and make sure entities like the MTA are free from interference, from political influences and also to make sure we have the best talent. So I would just say, stay tuned.”
Stay tuned we will, but if Schwartz and Co. are at next month’s MTA Board meeting, something will have gone horribly wrong.
- Speed up congestion pricing
The MTA recently announced a rather lengthy review process for congestion pricing that could delay implementation of the fee for nearly two years. The agency first must conduct public hearings, scheduled to begin in September, prepare the Environmental Analysis and then bid out the infrastructure required to toll Manhattan’s Central Business District. Meanwhile, congestion has made New York City worst-in-the-nation traffic grind to a halt, affecting air quality, productivity and safety. The Mayor’s advise was to “improvise,” and congestion pricing is a key hope to untangling the roads while funding the MTA’s capital plan.
Another two-year delay after the initial two-year delay represents a failure to respond to the crises of climate change, gridlock and MTA funding. Here, Hochul’s hands may be tied, and congestion pricing could become a hot button issue among suburban primary voters next year. But the new governor has vowed to do what she can to speed up the process, and she can use her bully pulpit to push the MTA and feds on reducing the timeline for review. It’s absurd on its face for an environmental review process for something clearly designed to help the environment to take two years. The mayor has made noises about the lengthy timeline, and advocates are pushing hard for a shorter timeline. But Hochul has not yet taken any steps to exercise the power she has.
“The mayor and I spoke about congestion pricing…We had a very good conversation and there are certain legal requirements in place that have to be followed,” Hochul said earlier this month while still Lieutenant Governor.” I have supported congestion pricing. But in terms of the timing, I have to follow what’s in place right now, but it’s very much on my mind. I’m also meeting with the MTA to find out our financial situation to see how long we can go without the money we anticipate from congestion pricing.”
- Ditch the LGA AirTrain
My views on the backwards Laguardia AirTrain are well documented: It’s a project with no transit utility pushed through because Gov. Cuomo came up with the idea, and the EIS appears to have been heavily weighted, perhaps illegally so, to ensure the Willets Point connection was the only viable option. At the least, Hochul should halt the AirTrain project and order a review to assess the level of Cuomo’s political interference into the environmental review process. At best, Hochul should push for a true transit connection that extends the subway from Astoria to give a subway desert a station while providing a useful connection to the airport.
So far, Hochul has been mum on this project. She supported it as Lieutenant Governor but has yet to address it since taking her new job. Many advocates have urged her to reassess the project while the RPA continues to ignore the transit analysis in favor of Looking Strong On Infrastructure. I do not have high hopes here that we’ll end up with a better connection to Laguardia Airport, but Hochul could rescue this project from becoming a $2 billion boondoggle.
- Untangle the Gateway/Penn Station South mess Cuomo created.
Throughout the Trump years, Cuomo spent a lot of time and energy arguing for the feds to pony up their share of the dollars for the Gateway Tunnel. The agreement forged in the waning months of the Obama Administration would have had New Jersey and New York each paying a third with the feds picking up the final part of the tab. But Trump stonewalled the deal and never intended to pass an infrastructure bill. So Cuomo could hammer him on Gateway while scoring political points in true blue New York.
Once Biden took over and Gateway with its steep price tag suddenly become that much closer to a reality, Cuomo mysteriously pulled an about-face. He started making noises about halting Gateway or not contributing New York’s share to the project, much to the confusion of, well, everyone. As I wrote last week, this type of political shenanigans was typical Cuomo, and Hochul can walk it back pretty easily. Recommit New York to Gateway, and figure out if Cuomo’s Vornado hand-out at Penn Station South has any merit. These projects should get the level of attention they deserve under a Hochul administration paying lip service to giving the experts a say but could fall to political gridlock as well. This is the toughest of the tasks Hochul has to face and may fall victim to the looming primary season.
So that’s that. The top five for the incoming governor will fill up her plate for the remainder of her term. It’s a chance for a new start for New York’s beleaguered transportation and transit policy makers, and as the post-Cuomo Era dawns, for the love of all that’s holy, please add some seats to Moynihan Station.