News & Politics

Cuomo Plays Politics While His Subway System Strands Millions

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On Wednesday morning, to the shock of no one, there were extensive problems on the A/C/E, B/D/F/M, and J/Z lines, effectively slowing down the commutes of millions of people in yet another day of a long series of catastrophic delays. In fact, on Tuesday morning, the situation got so bad the MTA resorted to something rarely seen from the generally unfeeling agency: contrition.

It seemed like even the agency itself had accepted the fact that business as usual could no longer suffice — drastic, decisive action is needed to fix its subways, a problem exacerbated by the fact that it is currently without a leader or money devoted to emergency repairs. 

The one problem is that no one bothered to tell Governor Andrew Cuomo, who, instead of finding ways to immediately begin to address what is now officially an albatross around his administration’s neck, decided to do the only thing he feels comfortable doing, and that’s playing politics.

In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, headlined “Governor Cuomo Advances Legislation to Give State Control of MTA Board and Address Current Crisis,” Cuomo announced that he was proposing legislation to help add more seats to the MTA board so that the state could numerically have the most appointees, which would theoretically put Cuomo officially in charge of the beleaguered agency.

Explaining the proposal, Cuomo reasoned that “complex projects don’t get effectively managed by unanimous agreement of large political bureaucracies. We don’t have ten years to do this. The state will dedicate itself to the task and assume responsibility, but the state needs the authority.”

The one catch is that Governor Cuomo already controls the MTA. All board appointees must be approved by the governor, and the MTA board has not once not gone along with everything Cuomo has requested of it since he took office in 2011. When asked by this reporter on Twitter to name an exception to Cuomo’s unquestioned rule, the governor’s spokesperson declined to comment.

The legislation proposed by Cuomo comes just days after his downstate nemesis, Mayor Bill de Blasio, floated the idea of mayoral control of the subways, and one of de Blasio’s board nominees roasted Cuomo for a capital plan that prioritizes the governor’s pet projects over repairing the existing system.

So why would Cuomo propose legislation to establish control over an agency he already effectively controls? Because instead of taking bold action to save the subways, he’s looking for a scapegoat. Cuomo began telegraphing this on Monday morning, when he told the press he would “ask” the MTA to look into lowering fares for LIRR riders facing delays over the summer at Penn Station. The press was incredulous that Cuomo would have to “ask” the MTA to do anything, seeing as how he controls it. But what Cuomo was doing was building up the MTA board as a bureaucracy that needed trimming. The timing of the proposed legislation is not coincidental (as much as Cuomo loves every opportunity to slam de Blasio whenever the mayor tries to punch up). Wednesday happens to be the last day of the legislative session, meaning that Cuomo’s proposal is effectively dead until 2018. This buys Cuomo at least six months to point toward proposed legislation that would allegedly solidify his rule over the agency and allow him to finally fix the subways, something he’s shown absolutely no interest in actually doing.

Transit advocates were not remotely fooled by the governor’s proposal.

“Governor Cuomo’s MTA board proposal obscures the very real fact that the governor already controls the MTA,” said John Raskin, the executive director of the Riders Alliance, in a statement. “The governor appoints the MTA chair, the governor appoints the most board members, the governor dictates MTA spending priorities, and the governor dominates the state budget and legislative negotiations that determine how the MTA does its job. In practice, can the governor point to any situation in which other MTA board members have teamed up to block his initiatives?”

Since taking office, Cuomo has presided over the continued divestment in funding for signal replacement and other initiatives that would help restore the existing subway system to a state of good repair.  

“The problem is not MTA board structure; the problem is the absence of leadership and the lack of a credible plan from Governor Cuomo for how he will fix the subway,” Raskin said in the same statement. “Riders don’t have the luxury of quibbling over MTA board governance when we know it’s not the real issue. We need a plan from the governor and a reliable source of funding that can fix our disastrous commutes.”

(The governor’s staunch allies in the Transport Workers Union defended the governor’s proposal.)

Cuomo’s plan isn’t even original. Just over 24 years ago, Andrew Cuomo’s father, Governor Mario Cuomo, proposed the same exact legislation. That bill died in the legislature. Members of the younger Cuomo’s own party in the assembly appear less than enthused about it.

What Cuomo could have done with the limited time left in the legislative session is appoint a chairman of the MTA board, an appointment that requires legislative approval. Or call an emergency session of the legislature to come up with real solutions to fix the problem: new revenue streams, a realignment of spending priorities, reforming the agency’s tedious and costly procurement rules, and restoring the $65 million the governor slashed from the MTA budget earlier this year.

Instead, both Cuomo and state legislators showed no interest in tackling the issues, with the Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie telling reporters, “I hope this is not how we’re going to spend our summer — dealing with problems at the MTA.”

For the past few months, subway riders have been calling on the governor to do something, anything, to help fix the subways. Apparently, Cuomo seems more than content to kill time playing politics as the subways crumble in the center of the nation’s economic core. The governor seems focused on a presidential run in 2020, but with a primary looming in just fifteen months, maybe Cuomo should begin looking forward in the calendar with a bit more dismay. With the fury of commuters building daily underground, he may just be the one running out of time.

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