On Thursday, Governor Cuomo attempted the boldest gambit in New York politics since Bo Dietl announced his mayoral candidacy: claiming to reporters that he is not responsible for the subway system's vast and rapidly mushrooming failings.
Cuomo called the Metropolitan Transportation Authority a "regional transportation system," and said that he is merely one of several officials who appoints people to the MTA board. "I have representation on the board," he said. "The city of New York has representation on the board, so does Nassau, Suffolk, Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, other counties, okay?"
Cuomo was behind a recently announced $20-million initiative to address increasing subway delays in the short term, according to the MTA's interim director. And yet on Thursday, Cuomo claimed, "First, I didn’t propose short-term fixes. The MTA did."
The contortions are a far cry from recent press releases sent out by the Governor's Office with subject lines like, "GOVERNOR CUOMO ANNOUNCES SYSTEMWIDE INSTALLATION OF SUBWAY MAPS FEATURING NEW SECOND AVENUE SUBWAY," Politico's Dana Rubenstein pointed out.
The governor also controls the MTA's board and leadership, appointing six of its 14 members, the most of anyone, including its chairman and CEO. His involvement is so direct that planners at the MTA refer to him by the nickname "The Engineer on the Second Floor," a reference to the governor's second-floor office at the Capitol. When what was forecast as a record blizzard approached New York City in January 2015, Cuomo announced that the entire subway system was being shut down, a first for a snowstorm, and a move in direct contradiction of the MTA's snowstorm policies and then-MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast's statements hours earlier. Officials responsible for handling the storm response found out about the shutdown from a TV news report on Cuomo's announcement, an MTA source said at the time.
Subway trains ran empty overnight to keep tracks clear, and the following morning, when the storm failed to fully materialize, an MTA spokesman said that Cuomo made the call to ban passengers, in consultation with Prendergast.
Governor Nelson Rockefeller put the subway under state control in 1968, taking it from the city, and consolidating it and the two New York commuter rail systems under the umbrella of the authority collecting tolls on the city's bridges and tunnels. The scheme was supposed to subsidize transit for the long-term. Since then, state and city politicians have used the setup to evade responsibility for the transit system, and problems have mounted.
On Wednesday, Cuomo explained, "The fundamental problem with the city subway system is that it is way over capacity. It is extremely outdated, and now it’s crumbling. It’s the same thing you see with LaGuardia Airport and JFK Airport and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. All of our infrastructure is 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 years old, 100 years old, and it hasn’t been maintained."
He continued, "Well, why didn’t you maintain it?’ Well, because it cost a lot of money, and it’s not glamorous for politicians to spend money on it. The first thing to overlook is maintenance, so ultimately it catches up to you."
These statements, unlike Cuomo's statements the following day, hold up to scrutiny.
A change of plans on the C train last week. (Emma Whitford / Gothamist)
So what is he doing about it?
Cuomo's office touts his appropriation of around $5.4 billion of a promised $8 billion to the MTA's five-year capital plan. The plan budgets $29.5 billion altogether, with only a few billion committed by the city. But the state's money doesn't get spent until all other funding sources are exhausted. The remainder of the capital money is supposed to come largely from federal grants and loans secured by fares. In fact, as part of the 2016 budget, the state legislature raised the MTA's debt ceiling to $55 billion, allowing the one agency to borrow more than the entire state. This, transit experts say, is how the governor plans to fill the budget gaps, and in the event of an economic downturn, reliance on MTA debt could mean that tolls and fares go up to cover the loans.
The MTA has increased fares five times since 2007, at nearly three times the rate of inflation. The authority's debt service and other non-discretionary costs such as pension contributions are increasing and are on track to consume more than half of MTA revenue by 2020, according to a recent report by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
What capital money is available is going towards some worthy projects, such as modernizing the subway system's ancient signal system, which will allow trains to run more frequently; sending Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central via the East Side Access tunnel; and extending the Second Avenue subway line. (At the rate it's going now, the MTA estimates that it won't finish signal work until 2045.)
(Courtesy The Transport Politic)
The money is also going toward less obviously useful infrastructure, such as the AirTrain from LaGuardia Airport to Willets Point, which for most people in the city will likely take longer than existing train to bus options. The budget for that project has quietly ballooned from $400 million to $1 billion, Second Avenue Sagas reports.
Meanwhile, the existing subway system that nearly six million people rely on every day is falling apart. It's not your imagination. Delays are up to over 70,000 a month from about 28,000 a month in 2012, according to MTA data. Switch problems, signal problems, track fires, power failures, and sick passengers all contribute. Calamities like those that visited yesterday evening's and this morning's commutes are becoming exponentially more common. It can't have helped that this year Cuomo ganked $65 million from the MTA operating budget to cover capital costs.
A firefighter responds to a track fire at the 23rd Street F station yesterday evening. (Polly Mosendz)
"This week we made it to Friday before the subways melted down," said Riders Alliance director John Raskin in a statement. "And the only thing riders have heard from Governor Cuomo, who runs the subway system, is a series of excuses blaming all the governors who came before him. The worst delay riders face today is the delay in Governor Cuomo taking responsibility for fixing public transit, which is falling apart on his watch."
Mayor de Blasio called Cuomo's abdication "a fantasy."
"There's a division of labor. It's out in the open. Let's not kid around anymore," he told WNYC's Brian Lehrer. "If you like something happening in our subways or don't like it, talk to the governor. He's in charge. He should just own up to it and take this responsibility seriously.
Despite 33 percent of New Yorkers saying that he should be blamed for the subway's ills, de Blasio does not control the subway.
He said further, "They've got resources. The question is, if the system is constantly experiencing delays and New Yorkers are suffering as a result of it, where is the plan to end those delays and focus those resources where they're needed the most?"
Governor's Office spokesman Jon Weinstein is none too happy about this kind of talk. Responding to a recent Village Voice story on Twitter, he touted, among other achievements, "New Kosciuszko Bridge (w/ lights that will drive tourism) will reduce congestion with added lanes in 2020 when second span opens," and "Second Ave. Subway was done on time."
The three Second Avenue subway stations that opened at the beginning of this year represent the first of four phases of construction of the new line. This phase came in six years late and $700 million over budget.
Reached regarding the governor's latest comments, Weinstein said.
"Happy to help give you some facts rather than have you rely on opinion pieces in other outlets," he said, claiming that Prendergast made the decision to shut down the subway because of the forecast for a blizzard in 2015, and noting Cuomo's "unprecedented and record levels of investment in the MTA after generations of neglect." The Politico piece I cited in an email was not an editorial, I said, providing further reporting showing that Cuomo made the blizzard call.
"Seriously. You’re just flat out wrong and making things up to fit your narrative," Weinstein wrote in a response. He linked to a New York Times story in which Prendergast said that Cuomo did not interfere with operational decisions such as restarting service after a snowstorm, and encouraged that I reach out to Prendergast.
Prendergast, now an executive at the engineering and architecture firm STV, didn't respond to an email or calls to numbers listed for someone by his name and middle initial. He did not immediately return a message left with STV's press office either.
Weinstein also doubled down on Cuomo's distancing of himself from the MTA, saying that Cuomo controls six seats on the MTA board, "not a majority."
This is perhaps best responded to with the governor's own words to NY1 while touring the soon-to-open 86th Street station back in December:
Nobody wants to be in charge of the subway system. Why. There's not a lot of good news in the subway system. So the MTA runs it. Who's in charge of the MTA? The mayor, the governor, the county? Who knows. That suited everybody's purpose.
But that lack of accountability for that long, the bureaucracy just develops its own culture where, [if] it makes a deadline it makes a deadline. Nobody's responsible and nobody's accountable. And that becomes corrosive in itself...You know who runs the MTA?
The governor has the majority of members. The mayor has members, the county executive has members, but the governor has a majority of members. And if a governor wanted to step up and be responsible, he or she could be. And what I said, is I'm going to step up and take responsibility.
Update 5 p.m.:
After this story was published, the Governor's Office sent this additional statement:
Math and the facts are not the Mayor's forte, as we know. The Governor has six appointees on the MTA board out of 14 -- last we checked that is not a majority. Also, if the Mayor hadn't repeatedly refused to fully fund the MTA's capital repair plan and short change the subway system, commuters would be in a much better place. Real New Yorkers know we put our money where our mouth is - the state has invested $8.3 billion to fix the MTA while the city only put in $2.5 billion. If the mayor wants to help, let him fully fund his obligation. The mayor has four appointees to the state’s six, and proportionate funding would mean that if the state funds $8.3 billion, the city should fund $5.5 billion. That would make a big difference to the MTA's performance.
As noted above, Cuomo has not identified sources for the full $8.3 billion of the state's commitment, and the money that is allocated won't be spent until all other sources are exhausted. In 2015, Cuomo's demands for the city to contribute an unprecedented $3.2 billion to the 2015-2019 capital plan delayed its passage for most of the year. De Blasio ultimately committed to $700 million less. The contribution was still the most the city had ever anted up for capital funding.
It's not clear if the governor expects the county executives who appoint members to contribute according to their representation on the board. We'll update if we get further clarity on that.