Cuomo’s L train plan shows how he controls the MTA

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo tours the L Train’s Canarsie Tunnel with engineering experts including leadership from Cornell University’s College of Engineering and Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo tours the L Train’s Canarsie Tunnel with engineering experts including leadership from Cornell University’s College of Engineering and Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Office of the Governor
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo tours the L Train’s Canarsie Tunnel with engineering experts including leadership from Cornell University’s College of Engineering and Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Cuomo’s L train plan shows how he controls the MTA

A month of friction reveals the board’s limited power.
January 28, 2019

There has long been confusion as to who really runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but if the past few weeks of disarray are any indication, the person with all the power is Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

When Cuomo announced in early January that he had an alternate plan to repair the L train tunnel under the East River that would avoid a 15-month shutdown of the subway line between Brooklyn and Manhattan, it took the public – as well as MTA board members – by surprise. Cuomo and a team of engineering experts from New York universities recommended the new plan that, employing new technology and techniques, will limit tunnel work to nights and weekends and only close one of the tunnel’s two tubes at a time.

While some have criticized the new plan because of safety concerns, current MTA board members have come around to support it, as has New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. But to get the plan off the ground, experts say it was the governor’s relationship with MTA management, including acting Chairman Fernando Ferrer, that made the difference.

Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director at the straphanger advocacy group Riders Alliance, said that the governor’s power to appoint the board chair – the person who sits at the top of the MTA’s organizational chart – gives him direct influence over the authority. “Something like this will certainly get signoff at that level,” Pearlstein said. “Freddy Ferrer, he is somebody who certainly works for the governor and implements his vision at the MTA.”

The board chair also acts as the authority’s chief executive. In that role, Ferrer is responsible for the executive and administrative functions and powers of the MTA, according to its governance guidelines. Benjamin Kabak, founder of the transit blog Second Avenue Sagas, said that the chain of command at the MTA is not totally clear but he agreed it’s likely that the governor would have discussed the new plan with Ferrer or other MTA officials. “For something like this, I think he would go to the management side, because they’re the ones who would decide to implement it,” Kabak said.

During the governor’s appearance on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” Lehrer questioned whether Cuomo really controlled the MTA – an idea that the governor has repeatedly denied. “I don’t, I control quote-unquote to the extent anyone controls a person who is appointed, six out of 17,” he told Lehrer, referring to the six board members that he appoints. Cuomo also denied having influence over the man he appointed as acting chairman. “I think if you were talking to Fernando Ferrer he would say ‘I’m not a puppet,’” Cuomo said.

“The acting chairman and other MTA officials support and are moving forward with this plan for a simple reason – it is the best one for New Yorkers who use the L train,” MTA spokesman Shams Tarek wrote in an email.

In the rollout of this new plan, some have criticized the MTA’s decision to move ahead without giving the board a chance to vote on it, but the events of the past month have shed light on the limits of the MTA board’s powers.

While the board had the right to approve or vote down the original contract to rebuild the L train tunnel nearly two years ago, the MTA doesn’t require board approval for the new change in plans as long as the cost of the contract is not increased.

An emergency board meeting was held on Jan. 15 for members of the community and the board to pose questions and concerns to experts at WSP, the contractor that will oversee the project. Among the concerns raised was whether the amount of silica dust kicked up by construction would be hazardous to riders, as well as whether this new plan would have the same longevity as the original plan. The meeting allowed the MTA board to air their grievances, but the board didn’t get a chance to vote on the new plan. That’s not an oversight or a case of the board being cut out of the process – it’s how the process is supposed to work.

Still, it didn’t lessen the shock some board members felt in learning that the MTA would be moving forward with the governor’s proposed plan. “To be told that it did not need to come back to the board was certainly surprising,” said Veronica Vanterpool, one of de Blasio’s appointees to the MTA board. “I understand the reasons they’ve given for why. I don’t agree with them, but they’re not breaking any rules by not providing it to the board.”

Kabak said: “It’s a clear indication of how the governor exerts his control over the MTA when he feels that it suits him.”

A Cuomo spokesman said that mismanagement at the MTA led to the governor’s decision to take the reins on the L train shutdown. “The MTA has had a management problem since it was created because no one is in charge and the MTA is accountable to no one,” Cuomo spokesman Patrick Muncie wrote in an email. “The governor believes it is dysfunctional and must be reorganized, and his formula is simple: if he is given the authority he will take it. The governor has stepped into major projects that no one else wanted to touch.”

Mitchell Pally, an MTA board member representing Suffolk County, complained that the board wasn’t given advance notice of the new plan but said that shouldn’t stand in the way of the new plan being put into effect. “One would have hoped, clearly, that all of this would have occurred at some date prior to when it happened, but now that it has happened, I think the goal at the moment is to fix the tunnel in the most efficient and safe manner possible, so that we can make sure that it operates appropriately for the hundreds of thousands of people who use it every day as quickly as possible,” Pally said.

Ferrer has promised that there will be an independent consultant hired to review the plan and report directly to the board. “The MTA is moving full steam ahead with the new alternative design for the L train project that prevents a total shutdown of the line for 275,000 customers a day,” Tarek, the MTA spokesman, wrote in an email. “We previously announced that as the project progresses, an independent consultant would report directly to the board on issues related to the overall construction, operation and safety, and the selection of that consultant is underway.”

It’s not yet clear who that consultant will be, but Ferrer promised that the board would be apprised of all developments. “They are going to be participating not only in the selection of that but with all of us hearing from that individual, evaluating information, and making choices,” he said at the January board meeting.

Vanterpool said she is pleased with this move, especially the fact that in creating a short list of possible consultants, the MTA has tried to include those who have not had previous contracts with the agency to encourage some measure of independence – the fear being that any engineering company contracted with the MTA would go along with management’s plan to preserve their relationship. “I was glad to know that they have included at least two, so far, that meet that criteria,” Vanterpool said, acknowledging that the list of companies without any connection to the MTA is a short one. “That, for me, satisfies another big concern that I had.”

But at a Jan. 24 board meeting to vote on a fare increase, there was still some pushback on the new L train plan, despite the issue not being on the agenda. “Board approval is the proper way to proceed,” board member Andrew Saul said. “I don’t see how we can make a change without the board.”

Both Kabak and Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, raised the possibility that board members who are against the new L train plan are thinking about the possible consequences of mounting a challenge to the governor’s plan, and whether it would invite repercussions. Gelinas said that given the changes that the new L train tunnel repair plan entails, it should qualify as a major service change and fall under the board’s purview. “Practically speaking, the board can’t exercise its right in this case, unless it really wanted to challenge the management and indirectly challenge the governor, since the management is appointed by the governor,” Gelinas said. “Their ability to exercise their right is hampered by other considerations. If you’re a board member and you’re representing a county, is that county worried that the governor would take away funding for that county?”

Board members Vanterpool and Pally refuted this idea, pointing to the heated exchanges that the board has had at recent meetings. “People on the board are pretty independent and are not lacking in the expression necessary to make their points,” said Pally, the board member from Suffolk County. “I would be surprised if people felt that repercussions would ensue if they raised certain issues.”

Lawmakers are calling for change at the MTA too, and it’s not just Cuomo expressing his desire to “blow up” the MTA. Assemblyman Brian Barnwell is introducing a bill to shake up the MTA board by giving the governor and the mayor two appointees each, and putting particular elected officials on the board, including the comptrollers from New York state, New York City, Nassau County and Suffolk County, as well as several upstate county executives having one collective vote. “Under my bill, if the MTA isn’t doing a good job, the people would be able to hold these elected officials accountable via elections in their own individual races,” Barnwell wrote in an email.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who chairs the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which oversees the MTA, told City & State that the structure of the authority is a mess, and will require a long look. Whether reform at the MTA would or should include changes to the board’s makeup or function, she said, remains to be seen.

While the Jan. 24 board meeting was intended to focus on proposed fare hikes, Ferrer had to address the Canarsie Tunnel-sized elephant in the room. Ferrer didn’t relent to calls for a longer review process or a board vote before moving ahead with the new L train tunnel repair plan. “I’m not going to delay this project one day if I don’t have to,” he said, still promising board members that “nothing will be done in the dark of night.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.