New Direction for the MTA?

New York state’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is unique among transit providers in the United States. It carries roughly 40% of the nation’s transit riders on the subways and buses in New York City, the Staten Island Railway, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), although the agency only received 16% of the federal transit funding available for COVID-19 relief. It has its own Construction and Development unit, and its MTA Bridges and Tunnels unit is the successor to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which once supplied the money for legendary power broker Robert Moses to build highways and suppress transit for half a century.

New York does everything in a big way, and that includes politics at the MTA. Since it was founded in 1965, the governor has controlled the agency by appointing his loyalists to six of the voting positions on the MTA Board. The mayor of New York City can appoint four, while the other four votes come from the suburban areas served by Metro-North and the LIRR. During his tenure of more than a decade, Andrew Cuomo ran the agency with an iron fist and drew fire from rider-advocates for micro-managing it. When Mayor Bill de Blasio (who will leave office at the end of this year) complained that the city did not have sufficient control over the transit within its borders, Cuomo replied that de Blasio was welcome to run it without any state funding.

Cuomo delivered a mixed bag to riders. Andrew Albert, First Vice-Chair of the Permanent Citizens’ Advisory Committee (PCAC) and the Transit Riders’ Council, told Railway Age, “It’s a testament to the importance of the MTA to the region and to the state’s economy that former Gov. Cuomo was so interested in the MTA. It’s the economic engine of the whole Northeast, which is the economic engine of the whole United States.”

Cuomo was elected to a third term in 2018. At that time, nobody could have foreseen that he would be forced out of office and that his running mate, former Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, would succeed him. Hochul is not only the first woman to hold the office, but also the first governor to hail from Western New York since 1910. She comes from Hamburg, a town near Buffalo whose only transit consists of three buses to downtown Buffalo at morning commuting hours and returning late in the afternoon. The local agency is the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (NFTA), known locally as Metro, a typical transit provider for a mid-size city, with one light rail line and a relatively comprehensive bus network, but not going to Hamburg. She held local office in Erie County (Buffalo) and was elected to Congress for one term. For his second term, in 2014, Cuomo chose her as his running mate. Now, unexpectedly, she is calling the shots in New York, including at the MTA.

Andrew Cuomo’s rise in politics was spectacular, and so was his downfall. His father, Mario, was governor from 1983 through 1994. Mario was widely respected, and some Democrats wanted him to run for President in 1992, but he did not launch a formal campaign. Andrew wanted to go further, and some Democrats considered him a potential candidate, especially considering his performance after the COVID-19 virus struck last year. His decisive tough-love approach contrasted with Donald Trump’s, and he was widely seen as the action-oriented “tough dad” that the country needed. In April, shortly after the virus hit, a Siena College poll reported that he had a 77% approval rating. In 2019, he also made a controversial decision about transit that benefited the riders, but more about that later.

This year, everything fell apart. Cuomo was accused of falsifying the number of nursing home residents who died from the virus, to make his performance look good. There were also allegations of official corruption. As he began to lose credibility, Cuomo also lost his strong-arm grip on legislators and other lower-level office-holders. Then 11 women accused him of sexual misconduct. He mounted a strong defense against those charges until Attorney General Letitia James issued a report that gave credence to the accusations. Cuomo gave up, resigned, and left office on Aug. 24.

Now that Cuomo is out, Hochul is in. Before we speculate on what that could mean for transit managers and riders, it’s necessary to look at how the agency fared under Cuomo’s leadership. In total, it has been a mixed bag fraught with difficult challenges, as the system faced the COVID-19 virus. At this writing, the MTA reported that ridership is down 45.7% from 2019 levels on the subways and less on the commuter railroads that had once lost most of their commuters, but ridership is recovering. As ridership plummeted, so did revenue. The MTA’s deficit is measured in the billions of dollars. Rachel Fauss, a Senior Policy Analyst at Reinvent Albany, said it could balloon to $23 billion through 2024. The MTA survives, as do many other transit agencies, on federal assistance enacted by Congress as part of COVID relief acts.

On the whole, it has been a rough ride, especially on the subways. The coronavirus hit the system hard, claiming the lives of approximately 170 employees at this writing. There were service cuts, too. Most of the trains on Metro-North and the LIRR have been restored, but ridership remains low, as plans to reopen many of the city’s activities and offices have been postponed due to the surge of cases caused by the Delta strain of the virus. Ridership is still far below pre-COVID levels, and the service cuts included eliminating overnight service for the first time since the subway began operating in 1904. The nighttime shutdown lasted slightly more than one year. It did not save money, because the trains continued to run without riders and the agency added some temporary bus routes during overnight hours.

Through all of this and dating from before the virus struck, Cuomo took strong charge of the MTA, according to Andrew Albert. As a rider representative, he is a non-voting member of the MTA Board. That body has an arcane structure, with most conventional political appointees having full voting rights, while four suburban appointees share a single vote, and labor representatives and rider representatives have no vote at all. Randolph Glucksman, the non-voting rider representative from Rockland County, noted that the suburban representatives are known as “quarter-pounders” who come from Putnam and Dutchess counties on the east side of the Hudson, north of Westchester, and Rockland and Orange counties, west of the river. Representatives from Westchester and the two Long Island counties (Nassau and Suffolk) each have a full vote. 

Glucksman also noted that all of the non-voting members have relevant knowledge, and four of the six have experience working in the system. Glucksman himself had worked his way up from being a motorman and conductor in the subway system to the rank of Superintendent. A review of the biographies of the voting members found on the MTA website indicates two have similar relevant experience, and three others might have it. 

Before he left office, Cuomo attempted to restructure MTA leadership, although that did not include allowing labor or rider representatives to vote. Instead, he wanted to consolidate the positions of Board Chair and CEO of the agency, apparently to strengthen his control. The state Senate blocked the change, so it was not implemented. 

After this failed attempt, Cuomo appointed Janno Lieber, former head of the MTA’s construction and development arm, as acting Chair and CEO, effective July 31. Lieber has generally received high marks, and Albert expressed the hope that Hochul will keep him in the position. He added that Lieber showed respect for the rider representatives, even though they do not have voting rights, and said that he is a “good face” from the MTA to the public. Lieber has had a long career in real estate and construction management.

Kathy Hochul

Hochul has the power to replace all of Cuomo’s appointees. That includes Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s former secretary, who was named in the Attorney General’s report on the accusations against Cuomo. Hochul was quoted as saying that she would not appoint anybody mentioned in that report. Linda Lacewell, Cuomo’s chief of staff and a lawyer who mounted his defense against the allegations of sexual misconduct, is gone. The other known Cuomo loyalist is State Budget Director Robert F. Mujica, who was not implicated. Ironically, it was Cuomo who backed a change that appointees would be considered “holdovers” as soon as the person who appointed them leaves office. Cuomo’s own appointees will now be caught up in that change.

As she took office, Hochul came on strong, saying she would trust the “transit professionals” to make the right decisions concerning the MTA and its policies. This is the sort of rhetoric that managers, riders and their advocates would normally cheer, but the actual consequences of that attitude might be far more complex. One particular incident that benefited subway riders is a case in point.

In 2019, Railway Age reported extensively on a plan to shut the NYCT L-train down for 15 months to repair the Canarsie Tunnels between Brooklyn and Manhattan’s 14th Street that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy nine years ago. Cuomo insisted that there had to be a better way to repair the tunnels, and he summoned the deans and senior faculty from the engineering schools at Columbia and Cornell universities to assess the situation. They recommended hanging new electrical and signal cables on the tunnel walls and covering the bench walls with fiber reinforced polymer (FRP; a protective material), rather than demolishing them. Many “old school” engineers and managers objected, including well-respected transit chief Andy Byford. Nonetheless, Cuomo got his way, and the Columbia/Cornell plan was implemented. As a result, the 15-month disruption was averted. Service was reduced on weekends and part of the evening on weekdays, and bus service on 14th Street was augmented. The line ran normally at other times, and the city let out a figurative and collective sigh of relief. However, some advocates, including Albert, have questioned how long the repairs will last.

Pat Foye was a transit professional with a long career at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the MTA and elsewhere. As MTA Chair and CEO at the time, he criticized the big engineering firms and managers who opposed the Columbia/Cornell plan. He called them the “TIC,” for Transportation Industrial Complex. While Cuomo has often been criticized for being egotistical and bombastic, he used his power to prevent a long-lasting deprivation of essential transit on a line that had recently become popular in revitalized Brooklyn neighborhoods.

The question is whether or not Hochul will buck the “transit professionals” who suggest “old school” ways of doing things, rather than taking Cuomo’s approach of supporting a less-popular but more innovative and cost-effective solution to the same problem.

Hochul came on strong the week before Labor Day, after record-setting rainfall from Hurricane Ida had flooded much of the subway system on Aug. 29. She directed the MTA “to do everything possible to mitigate the impact of tonight’s service disruptions,” a reasonable move for any elected official. Over time, though, it is unclear if she knows New York City and its suburbs on Long Island and in Metro-North’s service area well enough to take an active and competent role in the MTA’s affairs, as Cuomo did. 

It is also unclear whether New Yorkers generally would appreciate the level of intervention that Cuomo practiced. Of course, incumbent management and the Board members she appoints will advise her, and so would her nominee for Lieutenant Governor, Brian Benjamin, who comes from Harlem. It does not appear that she would defy the “transit professionals” the way Cuomo did when he brought the Cornell and Columbia engineers to Brooklyn for a second opinion about the L-train tunnels.

There is also the issue of Congestion Pricing: imposing tolls on motorists who use their vehicles in Midtown Manhattan and further south. The purposes are to reduce traffic congestion and support the transit system with extra capital funds. The approach has worked well in such European cities as London and Stockholm, and Manhattanites generally like it. Most motorists don’t, especially those who live in the “outer boroughs” of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Neither do many in New Jersey, who already pay a toll to enter the city. 

The plan has not been enacted yet, but the MTA will need the money it is slated to bring. If Cuomo, who came from Queens, could not get the plan implemented, can Hochul, who spent most of her life in the other end of the state?

So, the questions arise: On issues in addition to Congestion Pricing, will she learn enough about transit in New York City and its railroad-oriented suburbs to help steer the MTA in directions that will enable the system to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 virus and bring improvements for its riders? Will she be able to raise the money it will take to keep the transit going, especially after temporary COVID-related federal assistance runs out? Will she initiate any reforms at the MTA Board and management, particularly allowing representatives from labor and for the riders to vote on issues before the Board, as traditional political appointees are allowed to do? Given the animosity between Cuomo and De Blasio, will she be able to work effectively with Eric Adams, widely anticipated to be New York City’s next mayor, to take the city/state rivalry out of transit governance?

Cuomo’s downfall occurred amazingly rapidly. Now that he is gone, the rider advocates we interviewed are hoping for better and more peaceful times at the MTA. Albert told Railway Age,“I think she’ll listen to all voices. I think her emphasis will be about climate change and making the system impervious to storms like Ida.” Glucksman was succinct. He said, “I hope she can help our transit. I wish her the best of luck.”

Considering the MTA’s recent history, Kathy Hochul will probably need it.

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