"As we start the New Year, here's a suggestion: let's get back to fact driven analysis. Political dialogue in Washington, D.C. has been degraded to policy by tweets. New York should show a better way. Let's have a substantive discussion beginning with the MTA. And let's have a blunt, truthful discussion. The recent situation with the L Train tunnel is a timely entry point.
The latest report by the "Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup" chaired by Kathy Wylde and comprised of all state government branches issued on December 18, 2018 essentially says the same thing that the prior three decades of reports have said. There is no more room on anyone's bookshelves for all the MTA reports - a clear sign it's time for action.
The report makes two main points. First, that the MTA needs a dedicated revenue stream. The report is correct on the need for reliable funding, and it is also true that we need to reduce congestion in the Manhattan central business district. The only viable option, as the report concludes, is congestion pricing. Politicians who pose other options are just playing politics.
If congestion pricing does not pass this legislative session, the system's decay over the past decades will continue. The legislature should act responsibly and pass it.
The Governor proposes congestion pricing and New York City and New York State split any funding shortfall 50/50. As the Daily News pointed out today, the City owns the transit assets and "is responsible for all capital spending." An even split is more than generous. It is also what the State Legislature passed last year to fund the Subway Action Plan.
The second point - and one that every report issued on this matter has also concluded - is that the MTA is dysfunctional and must be reorganized. The MTA was assembled in the 1960s, essentially as a holding corporation for four subdivisions: Metro North, LIRR, NYCTA, and TBTA. Each subdivision is its own fiefdom with separate offices for legal, procurement, human resources, and engineering divisions. There is rampant dysfunction and little accountability. Fundamentally, no one is ultimately "in charge." The appointed "Board" is not a politically accountable entity. Every issue seems to result in an exercise of finger pointing.
Who should be held responsible for not checking every possible alternative on the L train tunnel? Every member of the Board, Andy Byford, the technical professional head of NYCTA, Mayor de Blasio, who approved the plan in the Capital budget and whose DOT Commissioner and MTA Board Member was managing the closure plan, Governor Cuomo who named the chairman and 5 other board members? Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie who approved the Capital Plan? Senator Flanagan who approved the Capital Plan? The answer is everyone. But when the answer is "everyone" the answer becomes "no one." Governor Cuomo's basic rule of management is that one person must be in charge.
The issue of control of the MTA has grown tiresome but, despite all the reporting, the facts are still not understood. Political debating seems to have little tolerance for policy details. So before we embark on a new legislative session, let's once and for all agree to the facts and then let each person have their own "opinion" - to paraphrase the late great Senator Moynihan.
The MTA has a 17-member Board: the Governor selects six members with one as Chairman, the Chairman only has one vote; the Mayor selects four; and the County Executives select seven members who have a total of four votes.
The main governing and policy direction for the MTA is - as usual - set by the approval of the capital budget. Most "informed sources" believe the MTA Board passes the budget. That is not technically true. The Board passes a capital budget which is then subject to an unprecedented unilateral veto by at least four individuals. The Governor can veto, the Speaker Carl Heastie can veto, the Senate Leader can veto, and the Mayor of New York City can veto the subway budget. This scheme exists in no other government entity. Their veto can be based on anything. No rationale is required, it can be purely political. For anyone who thinks "sausage making" in Albany is an ugly process, they should see the MTA budget process if they really want to be shocked.
Compounding this lack of accountability and the hyper-political process is an over reliance on a small number of contractors who have long-term incestuous relationships with the MTA. The Governor termed the closed loop of contractors and vendors to the MTA the "transportation industrial complex." There is little competition or innovation. The bureaucracy motto of "we've always done it this way" is alive and well at the MTA.
Operationally, there is the duplication of efforts within MTA subdivisions and back office functions. There are numerous police departments and fire departments who exercise jurisdiction over "incident management," which allows them to control the stopping and starting of trains over the officials of the MTA. That has a dramatic effect on service. This is also duplicative of the MTA Police, which is a full police force that has overall concurrent jurisdiction. There are 32 unions representing MTA employees who exert significant political power on the elected officials who appoint the 17-member board and the 4 politicians who have the unilateral veto. If an action is opposed by one of the unions, passage becomes very difficult at the Board level and is unlikely to survive the veto process. Adding to this already bizarre organization, all subway employees are hired through the New York City Civil Service System and New York City owns all the subway trains and stations!
How can this be? The MTA was specifically designed to immunize any single political official from responsibility and accountability. The primary motivation was to protect political officials from responsibility of fare hikes and poor operation. The convoluted, hybrid structure has done that -- to the riders' detriment.
As the Governor has said, and repeats this legislative session, if the Legislature gives the Governor authority, he would accept the responsibility. But he would only take responsibility with authority. Basic executive authority would be a majority of the Board appointees, no independent unilateral vetoes of the budget by other elected officials, and hiring/firing and organizational authority. Nothing could be more reasonable, and no credible executive would require less.
No other Governor or Mayor has ever been willing to accept responsibility. History shows most work to deny connection with the MTA altogether. The Governor will step up, even if not politically in his own best interest.
But the Governor is not going to represent to the people of the state that he is responsible for the MTA when he isn't.
The real question is why won't the Legislature give the Governor authority if, as politicians want to claim, he already has it? That is the question that reveals the hypocrisy of this situation.
Over his eight years, Governor Cuomo's record of accomplishment is undeniable and he has never refused to accept responsibility, but rather quite the opposite. His governing style has been to step in to resolve long festering problems. He has no problem signing his name on the dotted line.
He assumed responsibility for the 20-year saga of the Moynihan Train Station. He has taken responsibility for everything in New York that the Port Authority does even though the Board is evenly divided between two states and has been an operational nightmare. Likewise, he takes responsibility for LaGuardia Airport, the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Kosciuszko Bridge, electronic tolling, the 30-year attempt to build the Long Island Rail Road double and third track, rebuilding upstate airports, rebuilding the Queens Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the reconstruction after every natural disaster. He has also assumed responsibility for specific MTA projects where he has been given control, such as the Second Avenue Subway, which was also a decades-old debacle, and one that he worked on daily for two years to correct. On these specific projects, he had the ability to control the process because, frankly, no other elected official wanted to have anything to do with them.
In short, the Legislature should pass congestion pricing and require the City and State to split any funding shortfall and also give the Governor operational responsibility.
In the interim, Governor Cuomo will work very hard to pass congestion pricing and a reorganization plan for the MTA. He will do the best he can with the authority he has and stands ready to step in to assist on any specific MTA project requiring intervention for which he is given authority. But true reform will not happen until a dedicated funding stream is established, and the governance structure and management responsibility are aligned."