Time for Cuomo to Take Responsibility for His Transit Authority

Time to man up, Cuomo! Photo by Zack Seward.Time to man up, Cuomo! Photo by Zack Seward.

Listening to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speak yesterday about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s five-year capital plan, you would be forgiven for thinking he has nothing to do with the goings-on at America’s largest transit agency.

Capital New York reported on his comments yesterday on the authority’s hugely important capital plan, his most substantive yet on an issue that’s crying out for his leadership:

“The first budget from every agency also always calls for $15 billion. That’s part of the dance that we go through. That’s why I say it’s the initial, proposed budget,” Cuomo, a Democrat, told reporters after a business development event. “We’ll then look at that budget and go through, and we’ll come up with a realistic number. But we have a very real $4 billion surplus, and we have a 2 percent spending cap that I still follow. So that’s the discipline that’s in the process.” […]

“There’s no need for it,” Cuomo told NY1 reporter Zack Fink [about new East River bridge tolls]. “Look, we had a $10 billion deficit and we didn’t do tolls. It’s just that Zack accepted in whole cloth the M.T.A. plan. He just didn’t push back, he didn’t do his job and ask questions, say, ‘What in here do you really need, and isn’t this just the bloated initial first request that you send to the second floor?’”

While the MTA’s proposed capital spending is no doubt bloated, Cuomo’s framing – “What in here do you really need?” – suggests that the MTA should cut projects, rather than cutting costs.

This is indicative of a depressing lack of creativity and leadership from the man who controls one of the planet’s most impressive pieces of infrastructure. While YIMBY takes issue with the costs of the MTA’s proposals, the projects themselves are eminently sensible and desperately needed.

The second phase of the Second Avenue subway, north through East Harlem to 125th Street, should have been built generations ago. Penn Station Access, which will give the Bronx a few more Metro-North stations and direct access to Manhattan’s West Side, is a wise use of existing infrastructure. Upgrading the signaling on the Sixth Avenue (B/D/F/M) and Queens Boulevard (E/F/M/R) subway lines, so that they can carry more trains per hour at more reliable frequencies, is necessary to sustain further growth in Queens and across the city. Replacing worn out infrastructure, buying new trains, making post-Sandy repairs and shoring up the system for the next storm may be boring, but the MTA isn’t doing these things for their own personal amusement.

The problem is not the inclusion of these projects in the plan, but their costs. The MTA’s subway tunneling costs in particular have spiraled out of control – they’re at least three times what New York’s peer cities pay for comparable projects. The problem has become so dire that the agency is taking the unprecedented step of not even bothering to put a price tag on the East Harlem leg of the Second Avenue subway before asking for a huge chunk of its funding.

The cost of Penn Station Access is measured in the billions when it should be in the hundreds of millions. And who even knows what sort of overspending is going on with Sandy repair projects, like the $600 million initial price tag to fix a subway station that only cost $530 million to build a few years earlier.

“We cannot build a 21st-century city and compete globally,” said Scott Stringer, the rare politician who recognizes the MTA’s dire cost problem, “if we continue to spend five, even seven times as much on construction projects as compared to our competitors.”

And without leadership from Governor Cuomo and the legislature in Albany, none of this is going to change, even if MTA management actually wants it to.

And there are signs that MTA leadership does want change. They do genuinely seem to realize, for example, that their staffing levels for capital projects are out of this world. When pressed about his department’s stunningly high per-mile subway construction costs, MTA Capital Construction chief Michael Horodniceanu has on more than one occasion pointed to high staffing levels mandated by outmoded labor agreements. He cited the example of tunnel boring machine work, where New York City work rules require 25 workers for a job that could be done with nine in Spain, a country with much lower costs. (Asked independently, Mysore Nagaraja, who previously held Horodniceanu’s job, gave us similar numbers in a telephone interview a few years ago.)

But in order to take on the unions and work rules that drive overstaffing and high costs, the MTA will need support from Albany to do battle with labor – a fight that Cuomo appears to have no stomach for, given how quickly he rolled over during recent labor talks with the LIRR unions.

There’s also the issue of New York’s messy underground. State agencies and utilities regulated by the state seem to engage in little coordination regarding what goes on below the city’s streets, with the MTA’s inspector general blaming at least six months of delay and $130 million in Second Avenue costs on utility relocation. The sort of cooperation necessary to avoid these headaches must be imposed by Albany – the MTA cannot do it alone.

And then there’s MTA management’s own culpability. The authority has been lax in overseeing the contractors that actually build its projects, whether because of a lack of in-house expertise or a simple lack of pressure from its bosses. But this is another area where change can only come from the top, with prodding from the governor and the lawmakers who must approve the agency’s funding.

Andrew Cuomo is right that the MTA’s capital plan is bloated. (To say nothing of the agency’s operations, where at least one of the MTA’s stabs at reform was stymied by a state labor law that nobody seems in any hurry to change.)

But the self-professed “car guy” Andrew Cuomo has shown absolutely no interest in getting to the heart of the matter, which is the agency’s across-the-board cost problem. Cuomo’s easy way out – prodding the MTA to cut projects without any fundamental reforms – may be the best political move for a man whose interest in the governorship appears limited to how it can be parlayed into the presidency. But ultimately it will rob the region of the infrastructure it needs to survive and thrive. We deserve better.

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