It’s His Commission: Blame Cuomo for MTA’s Underwhelming “Reinvention”

The MTA Reinvention Commission report, the product of months of work from a panel of experts, was unceremoniously dumped to the press by the governor’s office at 5:30 p.m. yesterday, shortly before Thanksgiving. While the document [PDF] includes a number of worthwhile suggestions, it fails to seriously grapple with the biggest challenges facing New York’s transit system. The MTA’s astronomical construction costs and the substantial systemwide benefits of funding transit with road pricing get only cursory mentions. This is disappointing, but not surprising, since the report is a reflection of the man who created and controlled the commission: Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Photo: MTA/Flickr
Photo: MTA/Flickr

Cuomo’s disinterest in transit goes back to the start of his administration. After a campaign where he cast doubts on the Payroll Mobility Tax that stabilized the MTA’s finances in 2009, Cuomo followed through in first year in office by cutting the PMT.

Cuomo has dipped into the MTA budget multiple times by diverting dedicated transit funding to the state’s general fund. When the legislature passed bills to require more disclosure of raids, Cuomo blew open a loophole and vetoed an effort to close it, all while denying that his financial maneuvers amounted to transit raids at all.

In an election-year stunt this February, Cuomo gave Staten Island voters drivers a 50 cent toll cut in February — a political ploy that came at transit riders’ expense.

When Cuomo worked out a labor agreement to avoid a Long Island Rail Road strike earlier this year, he hosted a press conference where smiles were in abundance but details about how much the deal would cost were not. Months later, it was revealed that new labor deals would cost the MTA at least $1.28 billion through 2017, paid for by cuts to retiree fund contributions and the authority’s own capital budget. Absent from the new labor agreements: Work rule reforms to ensure that, in addition to compensating employees well, operating funds are spent efficiently.

All the while, costs and delays continue to spiral upwards on the authority’s big-ticket projects, leading MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast to admit that large-scale capital construction might not be one of the authority’s “core competencies.”

Why does it takes so much time and so much money for the MTA to do things compared to its peer systems? The report acknowledged these problems but failed to offer much in the way of critical analysis or specific solutions, similar to how it failed to zero in on road pricing as an ideal revenue stream that can both lower the agency’s debt load and dramatically improve systemwide bus performance. (For some more food for thought about what’s missing from the report, read Alon Levy’s post at Pedestrian Observations.)

Don’t blame the commission for these shortcomings though. Blame Andrew Cuomo. He created the commission, so it’s no coincidence that it produced a document that skirts the most politically sensitive issues. The report is another sign that Cuomo’s interest in transit doesn’t extend deeper than press releases and photo-ops. The governor has no intention of confronting contractors, unions, or motorists to make a transit system that works better for all New Yorkers.

Streetsblog will not be publishing on Thursday or Friday. Happy Thanksgiving, and we’ll see you on Monday. 

  • Mat50

    Was glad for the coverage on 60 Minutes last week of the crumbling transportation system/Ray LaHood interview. A little media pressure should be continued.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Cuomo rounded up the usual suspects. This may not be what he expected, but it is what he should have expected.

    I’m shocked, shocked that there has been future selling going on. In this, everyone is on the same side, it appears. And given the “massive” turnout by younger votes in the last election, don’t expect that to change.

  • LuisD

    I’m from neighboring Quebec where we face similar issues. Our provincial transportation ministry spends 82% of its budget on roads and highways with 18% left over for transit and active transportation. This, in a province where 4 in 5 residents lives in an urban area.. it’s disgraceful. Thankfully, a number of activist groups have emerged over the years and their continued pressure seems to be working. Investments in transit have been picking up steam and if the 82-18 ratio seems bad today, it was 87-13 just 3 years ago. It’s an improvement.

    I urge my neighboring New Yorkers to bombard their friends, neighbors, elected officials and media sources with this issue. We need more groups like Streetsblog to raise awareness and mount pressure. Until politicians feel the heat for their bad decisions, they won’t be inclined to change.

  • Nailin4Palin

    The report basically was one big nod to what they’ve managed to accomplish over the last decade or so in London, but made no mention of how we would get the funding to carry out any of those improvements here.

  • Canarsie Yankee

    The turnout this November was absolutely embarrassing. To say nothing else of the policies set.

  • Bolwerk

    German, French, and Japanese might be much to expect, but you’d think at least the one member of that board who could without a doubt read Spanish would know that some have accomplished a lot more than London!

  • Larry Littlefield

    People seem to think the Mayor, Governor and President are dictators. So you get a Congress and State Legislature dominated by special interests and those with existing deals.

    Only term limits has made the City Council somewhat better.

  • Canarsie Yankee

    Sometimes I’m not sure. Not when officeholders flip seats each time term limits are reached.

    As an aside, it looks like the Room Eight site is still kicking, since I remembered that being a topic from time to time there. Great fan of your writing.

  • Kevin Love

    I want Dutch!

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t see what good term limits have done. They take away the people’s right to elect a politician who they might want. Competent and incompetent alike.

    The city’s budget is just highly regulated.

  • dporpentine

    In New York City, in the general election, what difference would higher turnout have made? None.

    I’m all for blaming the State for feeding its face now and disregarding the future, but in a one-party city, turnout isn’t the problem. The problem is the party.

  • Alon Levy

    Eh. The Netherlands has high construction costs (link): $400 million per kilometer, nearly one quarter the cost of Second Avenue Subway Phase 1. A bunch of cities are in the one tenth region or even below it.

  • Rikki Bragg

    Interesting analysis . Speaking of which , if anyone is interested a a form , my company filled out and faxed a blank version here http://goo.gl/jcyX8d

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