The group Reinvent Albany, which pushes for greater government transparency, doesn’t mince words when it comes to nailing down once and for all who is responsible for the MTA’s poor performance in that area.

“In our analysis, Governor Cuomo is the biggest single problem with the governance of the MTA,” the organization wrote in a 170-page report released Wednesday on ways to improve trust in the transit authority. “When people say decisions at the MTA are ‘politicized,’ they really mean that the Governor has interfered with the MTA’s professional staff or a public consensus process within the Board.”

Cuomo, the report states, maintains ultimate power over the MTA. “The Governor proposes the state budget, which the State Legislature cannot change wholesale, but can approve or disapprove in part,” it continues. “The State Legislature can pass new laws changing how the MTA is governed, but the Governor can veto them.”

The governor’s office disagrees with that assessment.

"The MTA’s management problems have existed since the agency was created because no one has been in charge and they have been accountable to no one,” Cuomo spokesperson Patrick Muncie said in a statement. “The Governor laid out a very aggressive agenda to reform the MTA, which the legislature passed, and it will lead to a reorganization and change the way they do business. The Governor has stepped into major projects that no one else wanted to touch and—whether it was completing the Second Avenue Subway or averting a massive shutdown of the L train—countless New Yorkers have benefited from his leadership. This report is yesterday’s news.”

The report pins additional blame for the lack of MTA transparency on 11 entities that have jurisdiction over the MTA, including the State Assembly, which hasn’t held a hearing on the subways since 2015. The report also calls out the Capital Program Review Board, which is tasked with oversight of capital projects, and which meets only in private by phone; the report claims that the board is in violation of the state Open Meetings Law for not holding public meetings. (The MTA did not respond to questions about the CPRB.)

The exhaustive report goes on to make 50 recommendations for improving the MTA. including reforming the FOIA or open records process, something newly installed Chairman Pat Foye has pledged to do.

“We have begun exploring—including through a discussion with Reinvent Albany two weeks ago—what FOIL and FOIA best practices are at government entities around the country,” Foye wrote in a statement. “At the same time, we are making important strides in transitioning our financial information into an open format and will have started sharing that data this summer.”

The report calls the MTA’s efforts, such as publicly releasing data through sites like the Capital Program and budgets in PDF forms, “fake transparency” because the data is not searchable and must be manually scraped and entered into a spreadsheet.

The report also suggests the MTA Board be revamped. By taking contract approval off the board’s plate and letting the state Comptroller handle those, it says, it would allow the board to focus on big-picture issues.

“The MTA Board process is basically a waste of the Board’s and public’s time,” the report states. “The MTA professional staff controls the agenda information and steers the Board discussion. Huge fiscal and project management issues are ignored while volunteer, and often poorly informed Board members, deep dive into esoteric service problems. Despite having a fiduciary duty to the MTA, the Board behaves like a public ombudsman rather than the governing body of a $17 billion entity.”

Max Young, a spokesperson for the MTA, defended the board, writing, “The board and senior management are fiduciaries of this agency, take that role seriously, and do it well.”

Stephen Nessen
Stephen Nessen is the transportation reporter for WNYC. You can follow him on Twitter @s_nessen.

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