Home MTA Politics #HochulsMTA: A Transportation To-Do List for the New Governor

#HochulsMTA: A Transportation To-Do List for the New Governor

by Benjamin Kabak
Kathy Hochul took the subway from midtown to Harlem earlier this month because it was the quickest way to go, her comms team said. (Photo via Bryan Lesswing)

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.

  1. 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 & CEONew York City Transit President
Janno Lieber (Acting)Craig Cipriano (Interim)
Pat FoyeSarah Feinberg (Interim)
Fernando Ferrer (Interim)Andy Byford
Joe LhotaPhil Eng (Acting)
Fernando Ferrer (Interim)Tim Mulligan (Acting)
Tom PrendergastDarryl Irick (Interim)
Fernando Ferrer (Interim)Ronnie Hakim
Joe LhotaJames 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.

  1. Clean House at the MTA Board: Get Rid of the Cuomo Holdovers
The MTA Board will be much better off when Larry Schwartz and other Cuomo holdovers are removed.

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.

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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ChrisC August 30, 2021 - 6:41 am

Excellent piece summarising the most urgent issues.

Sounds like you’re angling for a place on the board!

If she asked would you?

Larry Penner August 30, 2021 - 9:15 am

Great article! Allow me to add the following..

Albany committed to provide the MTA with $3.5 billion which would help fully fund the $51 billion 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. Albany has provided very little of these funds to date. Will Hockul accelerate Albany’s contribution sooner rather than later?

Release of the MTA 2020 – 2040 Twenty Year Capital Needs Plan is still outstanding. Cuomo previously promised that this would be released by December 2019. It is now twenty months overdue. Will Hockul instruct her MTA Board members and Chairman Janno Lieber to make this document public ASAP?

There is still no agreement between NJ and NY on how to divide up $14.5 billion of CARE COVID 19 emergency transit relief funding. Connecticut is the third player in this negotiation. They side with NJ in this dispute. MTA wants to use a different formula from the one normally used in distribution of Federal Transit Administration Section 5307 funding. This would result in NJ Transit losing $637 million which the MTA would receive instead. The three state DOT Commissioners have been negotiating this split since January with no resolution to date. Will Hochul instruct her negotiators to resolve this issue ASAP?

Commuters, taxpayers, transportation advocates, transit reporters and local elected officials will be watching in coming months how Hochul will deal with and resolve all of these ongoing issues.

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


Charlie B August 30, 2021 - 12:33 pm

… yes, we all have our opinions. Simplicity is the key, details are awkward. And then, there are men and women who built this country and the city. Leave it to the big boys and girls.

VLM August 30, 2021 - 1:01 pm

Your point is what exactly?

Smotri August 30, 2021 - 2:48 pm

My own number 1 priority: Get the signals to work!

Chet September 1, 2021 - 9:31 am

Excellent summary of what needs to be done immediately.

I’d add a rather selfish priority of my own, living on that ultimate transit desert called Staten Island.

We need a definite plan of action for expansion of the mass transit system. Now, I’m going to be somewhat reasonable here. Would I love to see a subway system connecting this island to the other boroughs? Of course, but that isn’t happening. I’d like to see some real work on just one massive project: Triboro RX. Even if that proposal didn’t include a tunnel to Staten Island, it would still have a massive impact here. A story from last night illustrates it perfectly.

I went to the Mets/Marlins game at Citifield yesterday. The stadium is just 24 miles from my home. At the city highway speed limit of 50 miles per hour, the drive should have taken about 29 minutes. Of course, that’s truly a perfect world. I was hoping for an hour long drive. Well, due to volume, the reduction of lanes on the cantilever portion of the BQE, and accident at McGuinness/Hombolt, the ride took TWO HOURS.

So why didn’t I take public transport? Well, first the express bus would’ve gotten stuck in the same Gowanus traffic I did caused by the BQE changes and only one tunnel lane inbound during the evening rush hour. From the express bus, I would’ve then taken the 4/5 line to Grand Central and the 7 out to Citifield. It would’ve probably taken about 60 to 90 minutes- an improvement from my drive. But the real problem is the ride home. Sure, the 7 express that leaves the stadium after a game would get me to Fifth Avenue pretty fast (15-20 minutes), but then there is the express bus home. Will It come within a few minutes? Will it come in 30 minutes (that’s their headway off peak)? Or will it come at all…they are short drivers. They just don’t run the bus. The trip home is close to two hours. (I’ve done it before).

So where does Triboro RX come in?

If that line existed, I would drive to the closest Triboro stop in Brooklyn- about 15 minutes from my house- hop on the RX and take it to Jackson Heights and transfer to the 7 train just seven stops away from Citifield. I would guess my total travel time would be around 60 to 75 minutes, but it would be so much easier than sitting in traffic for two hours; or waiting 20 minutes to get out of the parking lot (like last night…the actual drive home was just 40 minutes, including a ten minute delay for that BQE lane closure).

Now of course, I don’t want to see the Triboro proposal built just so I could get to a few more Met games in an easier fashion, I want to see it built because it would radically change the nature of the entire subway system in the outer boroughs. It would provide a connection to almost every other subway line in the system, linking them together unlike never before.

Billy G September 5, 2021 - 3:40 pm

Congestion pricing must be abandoned. It’s a regressive tax on the poor entrepreneur that has been hurt too much already in this present medical tyranny. Gov. Paterson was the best governor, I wish he’d come back. This Nancy Pelosi step-cousin needs to resign now.

Ed September 6, 2021 - 10:21 am

I will say no BillyG

ChrisC September 7, 2021 - 1:19 pm

This isn’t the site for making petty political insults.

Why should she resign? What has she done that is so egregious that resignation is required?

If you want rid of her then vote her out next year based on her polcies and nothing else.

zurn company September 17, 2021 - 2:48 am

Nice one

jerry April 26, 2023 - 6:21 am

Anyone who meets Levy’s qualifications or who could be motivated to manage New York City Transit may decide to wait until the outcome of the governor’s race.

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emma April 27, 2023 - 3:04 am

It’s not necessary for other private and multinational companies to contribute! For certification, the Ministry of Education stipulates a long list of documents, all of which must be submitted in original form.

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retro bowl November 28, 2023 - 4:29 am

These actions are seen as pivotal for reviving and enhancing New York’s transportation infrastructure in the post-Cuomo era.

fnaf May 28, 2024 - 3:54 am

Kabak’s piece provides a thoughtful perspective on the opportunities and challenges facing Hochul as she navigates transportation policy in New York.


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