When the Going Gets Tough at the MTA, Andrew Cuomo Disappears

For two decades, New York's transit system was on the rebound. Then came Pataki and Cuomo.

He's the boss. Photo: Flickr/NYS Governor's Office
He's the boss. Photo: Flickr/NYS Governor's Office

It’s not hard to recall the times when Andrew Cuomo wanted to be seen as the boss of the MTA.

There was the day Cuomo announced that he’d sealed the deal on a new contract with the TWU. Or when he empaneled an “MTA Reinvention Commission” to shape the agency’s five-year capital program. Or when he ordered the MTA to quit dragging its heels on cashless tolling, and the agency promptly delivered.

The governor would like you to forget all that.

With subway crowding mounting, reliability plummeting, and massive cascading delays rippling through the system on a regular basis, Cuomo is shrinking from responsibility. Yesterday he told reporters that he merely has “representation on the board” of the MTA. Nevermind that Cuomo is the only person who can issue directives to any arm of the MTA, up to and including the agency’s chief executive, and expect obedience.

It’s a remarkable about-face from just a few months ago, when Cuomo was dropping in on Second Avenue Subway construction sites and directly overseeing the scramble to put the three-station extension into service by his end-of-year deadline.

Yesterday, Cuomo was not the do-er, expediter, and all-around man of accomplishment he usually tries to project to the world. He instead cast himself as the inheritor of his predecessors’ negligence. “All of our infrastructure is 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 years old, 100 years old, and it hasn’t been maintained,” he told reporters. Blame George Pataki or Cuomo Sr., not helpless Andrew.

That would have been a fair argument in 2011 or 2012. But more than six years into his tenure as governor, Cuomo is out of excuses.

The history of the New York City transit system is cyclical — long periods of political apathy and stagnation that lead to crises, followed by flashes of urgent problem-solving that carry the system forward until apathy sets in again.

You can trace the most recent cycle of rejuvenation to Governor Hugh Carey and former MTA Chair Richard Ravitch, who, in the early 1980s, cobbled together new revenue streams and initiated the MTA’s first five-year capital program. Those capital investments turned around a creaking system, prone to frequent breakdowns, that riders had abandoned.

As reliability improved, riders came back, and the momentum from that era carried into the 1990s, when the transition from tokens to the MetroCard — with its unlimited passes and free transfers — propelled ridership upwards.

But then apathy returned. Governors Pataki and Cuomo coasted, scaling back direct state support for the MTA, letting debt pile up, and building the world’s most expensive subway expansion projects while the core system capacity stagnated. As long as ridership stayed below a certain point, they could get away with it. But the failure to plan for growth is now dismally apparent in the current crisis of subway crowding and delays.

At around the same time the MetroCard supplanted tokens — the last great systemwide improvement — the MTA started looking into replacing its ancient subway signal system with modern technology that would improve reliability and allow trains to run closer together. The first contract with Siemens for upgraded signals was issued 18 years ago.

Andrew Cuomo has been governor for more than a third of the time that has elapsed since then. There is still just one subway line with modern signals, and the MTA says they aren’t on track to be deployed systemwide until 2045.

Cuomo had years to get out in front of the MTA’s core capacity problems. And he failed.

Today NY1 reported the results of a poll that found only 31 percent of New Yorkers hold Cuomo most responsible for the sorry state of the subways — while 33 percent blame Mayor de Blasio. That’s terrible news for a transit system in desperate need of political accountability. New Yorkers can’t let Cuomo get away with his disappearing act.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Then came Pataki and Cuomo.”

    And Giuliani and Bloomberg, and Silver and Bruno and Skelos, and DeBlasio. And the TWU, the contractors and their unions, the pensioners, those with tax breaks, those with toll freezes and renewals, and those with fare breaks. And a whole generation of beneficiaries. They are in Florida now.

  • SuperChief49

    And these are the same politicos who have praised MTA over Amtrak and clamored for Amtrak to take the next train out of town?

    Huh? Everybody knows the super-sized politized MTA could not even put soap in the men’s urinals at Penn Station! This issue re NYC subways ironically comes on the back of Cuomo’s willful neglect of Pennsylvania Station and the Hudson River tunnels.

    So, exactly what is he the governor of–just Hell Gate Bridge? In the meantime, Cuomo has disserved Amtrak’s CEO Mr. Moorman, who if Cuomo was properly served beyond The Carnegie and Arthur’s, would have learned–and appreciated-that Mr. Moorman is the governor’s best (and only) hope to fix what he inherited.

  • Gov Gal

    What about the lighting project on the bridges? Anyone ask NYPA what the cost is? Does MTA have to pay NYPA back? If so, isn’t that paying twice? Interest on the original MTA bonds and then again via NYPA financing? Does MTA really need fancy lights with all the transit issues? Someone needs to reach out and investigate.

  • Anon resident

    What elected official takes public transportation all the time? Or, ever. In the suburbs of Westchester every 2 years you have State elected officials showing up at the Metro North train station handing out campaign literature. Then you never see them again until the next election cycle, and you never see them on public transportation.

  • bolwerk

    Do you really want them on public transportation? I don’t.

    I think there is probably some merit to that point, but all the same I’d bet politicians in every major first world country with good transit infrastructure are much more likely than the general population to drive. Somehow Germany, France, Japan, and others still manage to provision decent public transportation.

  • Joe R.

    In the other countries they most likely drive (or are driven) for security reasons. I’ll bet when they get out of office many go back to using public transit (and hence have personal reasons for wanting a functioning system). In the US the politicians never seem to want to mix with the masses at all. Bloomberg was the only one in recent memory who used mass transit regularly. My theory on why most refuse to use transit is if others saw them riding they would have no excuse to not know how bad it is. And therefore no excuse to not do something about it, even if offends their car-using friends. Cuomo et al can claim ignorance given that they only use mass transit for photo ops.

  • bolwerk

    Certainly there is precious little threat of terrorism against politicians in tier 2/3 cities like Philadelphia and San Jose. At least the mayor of NYC or London or maybe even Berlin or LA has an international profile, so I can understand some security then. You’re kind of pushing that argument when you apply it to big cities like Munich, Birmingham, Cologne/Dusseldorf (I put them together because they hate each other), or Marseille. I was tempted to throw Rome and Milan on the list, but to their credit Italians seem to have more stomach for killing their own pols than other western countries.

    Either way, Cuomo’s mostly not in a position to use mass transit unless he’s in town, but NYC politicians are. I don’t care if they use it or not, but I want them to provision it for the general public.

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