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Marc Molinaro, the Republican executive of Dutchess County, did yesterday what few elected officials in New York dare to do: call out Governor Andrew Cuomo for mishandling the MTA.
“I’m sorry… what!? Subways overflow w/ commuters, riders trapped on cars, lives at risk… & the answer? Don’t blame NYS,” Molinaro tweeted. He was responding to the wildly disingenuous assertion from Cuomo’s office that New York City “owns the subway and is solely responsible for funding its capital plan.”
It was, for Cuomo, just another day of misdirection when it comes to the ongoing subway meltdown. The MTA, a state agency, runs and funds the subway system. (Technically, the city leases the subway to the state, but it is not “solely” responsible for capital costs.) Cuomo appoints the MTA’s chair and a plurality of its board members. No funding decisions are made without his explicit consent.
Molinaro tells the Voice he spoke up because “subway platforms are overwhelmed and overburdened, and clearly the state is being disingenuous and not transparent.”
Though Dutchess County is thirty miles north of the city, Molinaro notes that plenty of its residents commute to the city and use its subways. “It’s the state’s problem,” he says. “I have never heard a governor say they are not in charge of the MTA.”
Naysayers will point out Molinaro is mulling a bid for governor and could be trying to score early political points. Maybe so, but nothing he said is wrong. What’s remarkable is how silent New York City’s Democrats have been about the state government’s culpability, even as straphangers suffer.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has grown more assertive, but he has been trolled by Cuomo enough to keep his rage in check. He has expressed openness about the new MTA chair, Joe Lhota, and said he will proffer his own plan for the subways if Lhota doesn’t produce something adequate.
Other prominent city Democrats, though, have steered clear of even mild criticism of the governor. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office declined to comment on whether Cuomo was to blame for the subway’s failures. Public Advocate Letitia James declined to comment as well. Spokespersons for City Comptroller Scott Stringer and State Senator Jeff Klein — the Bronx leader of the Independent Democratic Conference — didn’t respond to requests for comment, while a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie replied, “It’s more important to fix the subways than to assign blame. Speaker Heastie believes the governor is working very hard to address the issues with the subway system.” In their public statements about transit, they have all declined to criticize the governor directly.
Those close to Cuomo say he appreciates the severity of crippling subway delays. If Lhota asks for more resources, he’ll be willing to give him what he wants, they say.
But the subway system is failing every day in new and spectacular ways. Regular people are beginning to recognize how much the central crisis of Cuomo’s six-and-a-half-year tenure is overshadowing every single one of his accomplishments. As the New York City subway system all but ceases to function, repeatedly costing commuters their time, their jobs, and their sanity, Cuomo’s approval ratings are taking a serious hit. For a long time, many New Yorkers didn’t quite recognize the MTA, the state agency completely under Cuomo’s purview, runs their subway system. Now they seem to be waking up.
Not so for New York City’s Democratic political class, who remain silent at a time that cries out for finger-pointing. Laments about the MTA’s performance exclude mentions of the governor. Audits don’t bother to name him. Elected officials with their own plans for transportation salvation, with few exceptions, fail to note his central role.
The previous MTA chair, Tom Prendergast, was a Cuomo puppet, gleefully attacking the governor’s eternal rival de Blasio for not adequately funding the MTA’s capital plan. As a snowstorm approached the city in 2015, Cuomo unilaterally shut down the subway system. Already, the supposedly independent Lhota is proving he can play Cuomo’s whack-a–de Blasio game as well as any, calling the mayor “incendiary” for daring to suggest that people should be allowed to eat on the subway.
Why does any of this matter? Because absent a strong primary challenge next year to Cuomo’s re-election bid, his insidious obfuscation and misplaced transit priorities probably won’t be held to account. Cuomo can gloat without end about opening the wildly overbudget Second Avenue Subway on time and just a few months later claim he has no say over what the MTA does. As the subway’s nearly century-old signaling network breaks down and the MTA fails to formulate a plan to make the necessary upgrades before the 2050s, Cuomo is still enamored by money-sucking projects like a train from Willets Point to LaGuardia and slapping light shows on bridges.
Recently, Cuomo declared a meaningless “state of emergency” for the MTA and promised it a billion more dollars, which is far less than the system needs, and still hasn’t actually been budgeted for in any case. In six years as governor, Cuomo has never come close to investing the kind of resources needed to head off the transportation catastrophe New Yorkers know too intimately.
If city Democratic leaders shared Molinaro’s gumption and banded together to challenge Cuomo directly instead of hiding their discontent, lest the governor’s office call them up and scream into the phone, the governor would be forced to take mass transportation much more seriously. Cuomo respects power far more than kindness. Yet he has convinced a whole generation of elected officials that the consequences of coming at him are too dire to even contemplate.
What politicians don’t understand is that no voter will punish them for naming Cuomo as the culprit of this subway crisis. Cuomo is not God or Satan — he is a politician like any other, vulnerable to popular pressure, the whims of an electorate, and fickle circumstance. If they don’t want this fight, maybe they should find other lines of work.