New York City

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

A month of friction reveals the MTA board’s limited power and Andrew Cuomo’s control.

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

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.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.