Andrew Cuomo

Are Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans for the MTA subways a good idea?

Experts weigh in on the surprise L train plan, who controls the MTA and a new congestion pricing push.

Governor Andrew Cuomo tours the L Train’s Canarsie Tunnel

Governor Andrew Cuomo tours the L Train’s Canarsie Tunnel Office of the Governor

One of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s biggest budget proposals is a renewed push to pass congestion pricing – and to have New York City pay half the cost of any additional capital funding necessary to bring the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s subways into a state of good repair.

The governor, who recently announced a surprise plan to avoid the long-expected L train shutdown, is also doubling down on his claim that he doesn’t actually control the MTA – even though experts say he already controls the authority. This week, he began calling for changes to give himself more control over the MTA, saying it is necessary to ensure accountability.

Earlier this week, we asked our readers what they think about all this. Most (84 percent as of Tuesday evening) said the governor’s plan for the L train is not a good idea, while even greater number (94 percent) said that Cuomo does in fact control the MTA. A majority (78 percent) predicted that the governor’s congestion pricing measure will go through this year.

Now, as part of a new weekly feature called “Ask the Experts,” we’re turning to the experts to offer their analysis: Benjamin Kabak, who founded the blog Second Ave. Sagas; Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University, SIPA; and Bruce Gyory, a senior advisor at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and a Democratic political consultant; and Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

L train
Office of the Governor

Is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to avoid the L train shutdown a good idea?

Benjamin Kabak: As more and more information is released or leaked to the public, Cuomo’s plan seems less and less sound as days goes by. It may have started out as a sound move politically to attempt to “save” the city from the travails of the L train shutdown, but it was handled sloppily and without rigorous analysis major engineering and safety projects require. It may yet be the option the MTA chooses, but the announcement and approach to a public rollout do not appear to be politically sound or good policy going forward.

Nicole Gelinas: No. Politically, Cuomo seems to have solved a problem that doesn’t exist. Nobody was clamoring for him to stop the L train shutdown. Policywise, shutting down the tunnel to give contractors a clear 15 months to do their work is clearly superior to giving contractors only constrained access to the tunnel only on nights and weekends. That’s true, no matter what the actual work required. Even if the MTA eventually provides the facts necessary to assess whether the new method – wrapping concrete walls in fiberglass, and racking wires once encased in that concrete along the walls of the tunnel instead – is financially and technically viable, it would be faster and cheaper to do it full-time rather than doing it only on hours that require a lot of overtime pay. Yes, shutting down the tunnel would have meant disruption, but nights and weekend work is disruptive, as well, and now, riders who do have their commutes disrupted likely won’t benefit from the massive expansion of bus, ferry, and bike service that was supposed to replace the L train.

Bruce Gyory: I do not know if it is a good idea. I know it is a popular idea because it avoids havoc for commuters along the L line. It comes down to whether it works both short term and long term. But what it does establish is that Governor Cuomo is not risk averse. The prudent play for him was to hide behind the MTA. But by finding the engineers to offer an alternative and forging support for their solution, the governor owns this project more completely than any governor since DeWitt Clinton built and hence owned the Erie Canal.

Ester Fuchs: There is no question that avoiding the L train shutdown is better for the 250,000 commuters that use the L train each day. While the city spent significant time and resources to find alternative mass transit options, the current system is simply incapable of absorbing everyone served by the L train. The resulting increase in use of for-hire-vehicles would have certainly led to considerable economic loss by businesses in Brooklyn and along 14th Street in Manhattan, not to mention traffic slowdowns and increased commuting time.
Could this process have been better? Most definitely. But the idea that we should not embrace new technology because the city and MTA spent a lot of time putting in place a plan is very disturbing. Rather than complaining about the time spent planning and the governor’s “just in time” heroics, the city should embrace the needed improvements in bus speed and additional bike lanes. Most importantly, our elected officials need to fix the broken mass transit bureaucracy that somehow managed to dismiss technology that is being used in Europe that was hiding in plain sight.

Does Cuomo control the MTA? Should he?  

Bruce Gyory: I am old school. I like the model of how (Gov. Hugh) Carey allowed Dick Ravitch as MTA chair to push and prod the system from the second floor to the Legislature to support the MTA and craft the first capital plan to bring it into a state of good repair. I think that model of a strong and independent board is preferable to having the MTA be a line agency de facto or de jure. But having a governor assume responsibility for the overarching importance of the MTA system, both the New York City subways and the suburban commuter rails, is preferable to governor’s not accepting either responsibility or accountability.

Ester Fuchs: Parochial politics has been destroying our city and state mass transit system for decades. Certainly, we need more transparency and accountability at the MTA. When it is not clear who is in charge of policy, when resources can be diverted from needed capital improvements and a crisis is required to make long needed improvements, the system is clearly broken. For urban mass transit to be both effective and efficient it needs to be managed and funded by a political entity that can make policy and operate beyond New York City’s legal boundaries. Why? Mass transit is a vital part of the region’s economy and we need our mass transit system to reflect this economic reality. Not all New York City mass transit users live and pay taxes in the city. The Census estimates that 1.6 million workers commute to Manhattan every day. For obvious reasons they cannot all be in cars! We need to acknowledge their needs and get them to contribute their fair share of the infrastructure and operating costs. When the State took over NYC Transit after the 1975 fiscal crisis and made it part of the MTA, it was at a time when the city could not afford to fund the system. Integrating the state’s mass transit operations still makes sense, but it is clear that the system needs a dedicated revenue stream and the city needs a greater role in policymaking.

Benjamin Kabak: The MTA is legally and factually under the control of Andrew Cuomo, and he is not shy about exerting this power. He controls board appointments and names all upper manage executives (as well as other advisers he wishes to place in various positions throughout the agency). He isn’t afraid to exercise that control when, for example, he wants the agency to host an emergency board meeting or veer off well-established plans at the last minute, and his attempts at convincing the public he isn’t in charge are disingenuous at best.
In my view, the city would be best served overseeing its transit network and not offloading management responsibilities to the state. Buses and subways (but not Metro-North or the LIRR) should be under city control.

Nicole Gelinas: He does not control the MTA, nor should he. In any democracy, no one has absolute control over any government-funded organization. Of course, he appoints the MTA chairperson and its top management. He also chooses a plurality of the board’s members, and approves the remainder of the choices, who, in turn, are suggested by other elected officials, including the mayor. Yet the state senate must approve the MTA chairperson as well as all board members, so a measure of checks and balances already exists, as it should.

Plus, the MTA doesn’t financially sustain itself, but depends on billions of dollars in annual tax subsidies for its operations and capital investment. Taxes and capital subsidies are always going to be a messy product of democracy. New York City and suburban counties are not going to provide their taxpayers’ money without having a say, nor should they. Under a strict definition, the governor doesn’t unilaterally “control” any state entity. They all depend on tax dollars, and thus depend on the state and other annual budgets, voted on by lawmakers.

The whole point of a public authority was that it was supposed to be self-sustaining and independent. But that was always a fiction, anyway. Even the old Moses-era Triborough Bridges and Tunnels Authority would not have been self-sustaining with the eminent-domain and other intangible rights that the state and city freely awarded to it, which were priceless. The Port Authority still supports itself financially, but nobody would say it is politically independent.
Should the governor control the MTA? No, inasmuch as no single elected individual should have absolute control over anything.

Should the governor appoint a majority of board members, rather than a plurality? No, I don’t see why. The tax base that supports the MTA is a downstate tax base, not a whole-state tax base. So downstate voices independent of the governor are important. The state already has immense power over anything the city and suburbs do, in that municipalities are creations of the state and operate under state laws, mandates, and taxation power. Some checks and balances on that power are a good idea.

If any single elected official should have outsized power over subways and buses, it should be the mayor, not the governor, as Corey Johnson has proposed. But even that solution would be hugely complex. Giving the mayor authority over the MTA, by definition, would involve giving the city more authority over its own tax base, in order to fund it. And would risk orphaning the commuter rails, which don’t have the same consistent tax base. Different layers of politicians govern all of us, and different layers of politicians should govern the MTA.

In general, for any checks and balances to work, we need appointees who are professionally and/or financially secure enough to be willing to say tough things to the elected officials who appointed them. That is not easy, but it’s not easy no matter what kind of governance structure we have in place for the MTA.

Will congestion pricing get done this year?

Nicole Gelinas: Yep! And without other big reforms – changes to the way we manage the streets, and labor reforms at the MTA – it will solve neither congestion nor pricing.

Bruce Gyory: Last year I was an optimist on congestion pricing coming to pass. And last year I was wrong. So I am going to double down and say this is the year it will be enacted. To get the MTA into a state of good repair requires capital funding and congestion pricing is a much better alternative (in terms of traffic as well as the environment) as well as a more dependable funding steam than just jacking up the cost of the fare for everyday commuters. Congestion pricing is less regressive than socking it to what we used to call the straphangers.

Benjamin Kabak: I think circumstances have aligned for congestion pricing to become a reality. With Democrats firmly in control in Albany, the MTA crisis dominating headlines and Gov. Cuomo pushing the issue, this will be the year New York City finally welcomes a congestion pricing plan. Both to reclaim streets from the damaging impact of crushing congestion and for purposes of transit funding, it’s about time.

Ester Fuchs: The governor is ready to pass congestion pricing and I am confident it will now pass the legislature. Congestion pricing is critical to improving mass transit in New York City and reducing the impact of emissions on our air quality. Our resource-starved mass transit system is in crisis and congestion pricing needs to be part of the solution. Congestion pricing charges have already been implemented in London, Stockholm and Singapore. They have reduced the number of cars entering their cities’ congestion zones, while increasing use of mass transit. It is important that when the state passes congestion pricing it include increased funding for mass transit in outer borough neighborhoods that will be most impacted and fix the traffic problems created by the toll-free New York City bridges. Research clearly shows that we will change our behavior in response to an increase in cost. It is also incumbent on the state government to make sure that the burden of these costs is shared equitably.