Just a Reminder: Cuomo Can Take Charge of the MTA Whenever He Wants

At approximately 5 p.m. Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he had ordered the complete closure of New York City’s bus and subway systems in the face of an oncoming snowstorm. If nothing else, it was a stark reminder that the transit system is not a political orphan. The MTA is, in fact, Cuomo’s agency.

Photo: NY Governor's Office/Flickr
When it’s convenient for him, Cuomo takes charge of the MTA. When it’s inconvenient, it’s someone else’s problem. Photo: NY Governor’s Office/Flickr

After the blizzard gave only a glancing blow to the city, Cuomo gathered at a morning press conference with his transportation deputies, including MTA Chair and CEO Tom Prendergast. A reporter asked about the cost of shutting down the transit system. “These were factored in the budget, and this was not exceptional to that process,” Cuomo said. “I’m sure Tom will say he needs a budget increase because of this, but Tom was going to say he needed a budget increase anyway.” Chuckling, the governor patted Prendergast on the arm while they both smiled at the cameras.

Yes, the governor can turn off the transit system with a word, but a budget increase? That’s for Tom to worry about. And nevermind the hundreds of millions of dollars the governor has raided from the MTA’s operating budget since taking office.

Cuomo also likes to create distance between himself and the MTA when the subject turns to the agency’s five-year capital program, which he recently called “bloated.” It was not the critique of an executive determined to find efficiencies and do more with less at one of the most important agencies under his control. Rather, it was a way to separate himself from the MTA and frame the agency as an insatiable bureaucracy.

The MTA currently has a $15 billion funding gap in the $32 billion capital program. Cuomo talks about this problem as if it’s an abstraction, completely separate from his powers to set the agenda, control costs, and raise revenues. “The first budget from every agency also always calls for $15 billion. That’s part of the dance that we go through. That’s why I say it’s the initial, proposed budget,” he said in October. “We’ll then look at that budget and go through, and we’ll come up with a realistic number.”

Building a great transit system that lasts for generations should be a governor’s legacy, not a pesky agency request. But Cuomo has a different legacy transportation project, something he loves to call his own: the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement.

“It was a very difficult project, but we got it done,” Cuomo said earlier this month, adding that he is pleased with the bridge’s $4 billion budget and on-time construction schedule so far. “We’re going to stay that way if I have to go out there with a screwdriver and a hammer myself,” he said. The next day, Cuomo announced that more than a quarter of the state’s $5 billion budget windfall would go to the Thruway Authority, which is building the bridge. (MTA transit projects got substantially less: $250 million for a new Metro-North line through the Bronx.)

The budget process is starting to heat up in Albany. Today, the legislature held a joint hearing on transportation funding, and the race for Assembly speaker is underway after Sheldon Silver decided to step down in the wake of corruption charges. Will a new speaker open the door for better transit policy in Albany? 

It’s a moot question for now, because nothing significant can happen without action from the governor first. A signal from Cuomo that he’s serious about closing the gap in the capital program — by, say, proposing toll reform rather than piling more debt on the backs of straphangers — would drastically alter the landscape.

The snowstorm proved that Cuomo can turn the MTA on and off like a light switch. He can use the same power to make a better transportation system for the region.

  • Mark Walker

    I wonder how many voters even know MTA is a state agency. I suspect Cuomo is counting on a lot of them not knowing.

  • Bolwerk

    In theory, could the authority have defied Cuomo? Clearly the MTA wields a fair degree of independence, so if there is some reason why the governor can just unilaterally shut the service down, I’d expect there is some basis in law somewhere.

    Chairmen seem to come and go at governors’ behest, but that seems to be custom more than law.

  • Larry Littlefield

    A lot more than did 20 years ago. The idiots used to associate the subway with the Mayor.

  • Larry Littlefield

    When was the last time there was no MTA Capital Plan in force? Did it ever just expire before? The worse I can recall is a mere two year extension, followed by three more years.

    But once they do something bad up in Albany they keep doing it. That’s how the MTA got in this mess to begin with. Funding was cut, and it was made up for by borrowing, in a deep recession, and that just continued in good times and bad.

    I believe the MTA Capital plan is approved, officially rather than just unofficially, by the three men in the room.

  • ohnonononono

    Most voters think it’s controlled by the city, yes. Even Bloomberg took advantage of this with those campaign ads promising an F express in Brooklyn. Hah.

    But Cuomo steps in for big, important decisions during emergencies, like daddy!

  • Ace

    Quite the scathing report on WNYC about Silver and Cuomo and slush funds this morning How is Hochul on Mass Transit? Ped/Bike safety?

  • Ruby Soho

    The last 2 times I reminded people that the MTA was a state agency, both told me no, it was a private corporation, and just because it had a monopoly on transit didn’t mean the state had any responsibility to subsidize its operations. Fools!

  • Joe R.

    Yep. I’ve had some people tell me it was a subsidiary of Microsoft, as in MTA=Microsoft Transportation Authority. I wish I was joking but I’m not. And then I had a few on the right tell it’s run by the HRA (they consider a subway an entitlement program for some reason).

  • Bolwerk

    The precise term is public benefit corporation. If anything, it resembles something between a municipal corporation and a holding corporation. The caveat is it’s publicly owned, and it controls but does not necessarily own publicly owned assets. It also controls several subsidiaries (among them NYCTA).

    All the same, it’s at least indirectly governed by the state. So saying it’s a state agency isn’t wrong, but it may not be what most people think of when they think of a state agency.

  • JK

    There was a gap between the last plan and current, recently expired one. Nothing happened. Contracts funded beyond the end of the capital plan, and work will continue for awhile. (A year? Two?) Yes, the Public Authorities Control Board (Reps of Three Men) have to approve Capital Plan.

  • Anon resident

    Cuomo knew everyone was watching him and his failed Moreland Commissioner. So, he tried to change all attentions to the weather.

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