Meet The New Boss: Assembly Corporations Chair Kenneth Zebrowski on His Plans For MTA Oversight
12:01 AM EST on January 13, 2023
For the first time since 2018, the New York State Assembly's Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee will have a new chair: Assembly Member Kenneth Zebrowski. Zebrowski, a Democrat from suburban Rockland County, will have a key part to play in oversight of the MTA as the agency seeks legislative help to fill its gaping fiscal hole with a new and sustainable revenue source. Streetsblog caught up with Zebrowski at the start of Albany's budget season to see how he plans to balance his role overseeing the MTA with his role of needing to represent his specific constituents who rely on Metro-North service west of the Hudson River. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Streetsblog: You're the new head of the Corporations Committee and obviously, the MTA is facing some serious challenges. Generally as you take on the new role what are you hoping to accomplish with it?
Kenneth Zebrowski: I've had a couple of brief meetings with the MTA already. Obviously, the committee has a big jurisdiction beyond the MTA, but it's a priority for the Assembly and for myself that we work with the MTA to shore up its finances. Since the pandemic, there's been a huge drop at the farebox, which has exacerbated the MTA's financial difficulties and led to a major operating deficit. I just started my chairmanship, so we've just started those discussions and had some top line conversations. There's going to have to be actions taken, and I'm going to do everything I can as the chair to try to steer it towards policy proposals that both preserve and hopefully expand services, while attempting to ensure the MTA is as efficient as possible.
We saw that [MTA Chairman and CEO] Janno Lieber was in Albany. So what kind of conversations were you guys having? Is it just kind of getting to know each other?
KZ: I sat down with Janno for a bit before the State of the State. And we'll obviously be sitting down much more in-depth in the future. Certainly, the first part of the conversation was a little bit of get to know you, but quickly we turned towards the current state of the MTA, what their financial challenges are, what they've seen, what some of the top line numbers are, some of the the options or what could happen without any additional assistance. That's certainly something that we want to avoid. And we talked about a pledge to work together and figure this out. [Gov. Hochul] has two major speeches to start the year, the State of the State and the budget. There weren't any specific MTA proposals in the State of the State. And I don't have any hints from the governor's office, but I would think it is likely there'll be something dealing with the MTA in the budget.
Have you spoken to Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani and Sen. Mike Gianaris about their legislative package, Fix the MTA, lays out what they want to do about the MTA? Or spoken to anyone else kicking around ideas on the legislative side?
KW: We have not sat down yet on that package. I saw some press accounts, when it was announced at the end of 2022. I haven't seen the specific bill language yet, but I certainly know Zohran and, Mike. Mike's a former colleague from his Assembly days and we're still friendly. This is my third chairmanship, and I always have an open door with members and try to sit down and work on their priorities when it's in my committee's jurisdiction.
So as we're waiting for the governor's budget, is this the kind of thing where we just have to wait for it? Or do you see this as a time to figure things you'd like to do and depending on what's in her budget, you can say, "This is what we want that wasn't in there?"
KW: When we're talking about major fiscal matters, the first step is the governor delivering her budget to the legislature. And then we go through a process of both working on her proposals amending her proposals, negotiating her proposals, and also submitting some of our own, which results in an Assembly and Senate budget resolution, and we come to a three-way agreement. So just because of the structure of the state constitution, as opposed to Congress, the budget starts with the governor submitting it to us. We can have some informal discussions as to what we'd like to see, and we certainly try to send messages to the governor's office about what we'd like to see her submit, but that formal submission will happen in the next few weeks. And that really kicks it off.
So as someone overseeing the MTA, you have to keep an eye on and deal with the entirety of what the agency does. But you're also a representative from Rockland County and I know that the relationship between the MTA and Rockland County has been historically very rocky. So I'm curious how you see your role in both advocating for your constituents who I think have not always been very happy with the MTA and also working with the agency to keep the lights on.
KW: I don't see those two things is mutually exclusive. I intend to give greater voice to west of Hudson commuters and it's my absolute goal that whenever I leave this position, that there be better transit options for west of Hudson commuters than there are today. But in the same respect, I hope to leave this position with a more financially secure MTA, with better subway service and bus service for the entire MTA region. So I don't see those things as as mutually exclusive. One side doesn't have to take from the other. I am a legislator that represents a certain area, and I bring that to everything I do. But I also recognize that when I'm a committee chair, I'm representing the Assembly as a whole and I take that charge very seriously and I take Speaker Carl Heastie's trust very seriously. I'm a member that represents an MTA district, and folks should have some confidence that I think the MTA is a is a crucial and integral piece of the city and of the region, of the financial and economic health of the entire state, and is also a critical piece of the day to day lives of so many New Yorkers.
One point of contention between Rockland County and the MTA is over congestion pricing, where I know that you've called for an exemption for your constituents, at least until west of Hudson service can provide a one-seat ride to Manhattan. I'm curious if you know what the status of something like that would be, either part of the Gateway project or if there's any other ideas that you wanted to throw at the MTA potentially to get over the congestion pricing agita and get better transit for your constituents?
KW: The Gateway project is the project that's furthest along to providing a one-seat ride, or train service in general that gets across the Hudson and provides west of Hudson commuters, both Rocklanders, and also folks from Orange, better train service. But there's other options. We started the Hudson Link bus service, we also have a ferry that runs out of Haverstraw, they have a ferry up in Orange County as well.
In terms of congestion pricing, a lot of us west of the Hudson feel like it's a double toll. And we also feel that due to the setup of public authorities, with Port Authority versus MTA, some tunnels will be exempted, but not the major bridges that folks on the other side of the river have to take. So we feel like it's a double toll thing. And we feel like that should be taken into account and there should be a discount for the additional money paid when you enter the zone. And also in terms of options, we have a lot of folks that drive into the city, not because they want to because they have to. It runs the gamut of reasons. Folks work off-hour nursing shifts, police officers or firefighters, some folks have childcare issues and worry about not being able to leave the city and get back. So they have to drive a vehicle. Those are some of the things that my commuters and my residents face, and certainly as you've seen from my prior statements, I think that should be taken into account.
Do you think, whether it's the MTA and New Jersey Transit working better together or any other thing, that there is a way to get those better options in order to not give a discount or give an exemption?
KW: I would hope that those options are possible. Certainly Gateway is going to take a while to come to fruition. But we're going to continue pushing and that's a big jigsaw puzzle. You need a lot of different things to happen in order for us to end up with folks getting on the train and say Nanuet, and you know, getting across that river without getting off. But we're gonna keep at it. And at the same time, I think there's other less, less costly options that we can pursue in the meantime.
Dave Colon is a reporter from Long Beach, a barrier island off of the coast of Long Island that you can bike to from the city. It’s a real nice ride. He’s previously been the editor of Brokelyn, a reporter at Gothamist, a freelance reporter and delivered freshly baked bread by bike. Dave is on Twitter as @davecolon. Email Dave Colon at firstname.lastname@example.org
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