/Fixing the MTA Bureaucracy Has to Start at the Top: With Andrew Cuomo, Who Controls the MTA

Fixing the MTA Bureaucracy Has to Start at the Top: With Andrew Cuomo, Who Controls the MTA

Byford is gone — for real this time.
Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s common for a top official in the government (or in any organization) to get forced out after a fight over who should take the blame for something that has gone wrong. More unusually, Andy Byford’s departure as the head of New York City Transit seems to have been driven in part by a dispute over who should get credit for something that has gone right: The subways are not as unreliable and delay-prone as they were two years ago, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has ultimate control over the city’s subway system, seems to have been annoyed about how much credit went to Byford, also known as “train daddy” to his fans.

“Colleagues say both men have supersize egos and wanted credit for the subway’s success,” the New York Times wrote, in a line trimmed from later versions of a story about Byford’s departure.

I don’t mean to make the dispute sound entirely petty. Byford’s resignation letter makes clear his displeasure with a Metropolitan Transportation Authority reorganization that would have reduced his responsibilities by centralizing more functions across MTA agencies, effectively demoting him. Of course, steps Cuomo took to reduce Byford’s power may have been driven by their disputes, including a conflict of visions about how to fix the Hurricane Sandy–damaged L-train tunnel under the East River that led to responsibility for that project being moved from NYC Transit to MTA Capital Construction, a separate arm of the MTA.

Byford has a not-unreasonable case for taking a victory lap. He has developed and implemented much of a plan to fix faulty speed controls, which has led to a material improvement in subway reliability and on-time performance. And he promulgated a longer-range plan to improve subway service that now has significant funding approved by the state legislature. His work isn’t all done, but he can plausibly say he’s laid the groundwork for continued improvement even without his continued presence.

While I think Byford has done a good job and I’m sorry to see him go, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the deification of Byford that we have seen in the press and among non-Cuomo politicians. Council Speaker Corey Johnson says he is “DEVASTATED” about Byford’s departure. That a single transit agency head is so important that railfans are calling him “daddy,” even half in jest, reflects not Byford’s singular importance but the overall dysfunction of the MTA bureaucracy, which leads us to search for a savior who can overcome impossible odds rather than a competent manager who can just run the subway.

A recurring theme with the departures of well-liked transportation executives in New York — you may recall we went through this with Jay Walder a few years ago — is that Cuomo seems to have been a difficult boss to work for. But the perfect boss is not always hands-off. A hands-on governor who engaged directly with the MTA by standing up for riders when negotiating with unions, contractors, and neighborhood interests would be the right kind of meddlesome boss. This is who Cuomo should strive to be when he oversees the next head of NYC Transit.

Cuomo’s instinct that has driven many of his interventions at the MTA — that the authority is stuck in its ways, and therefore makes choices that are too expensive and take too long — is broadly correct. And in the high-profile case of the L-train tubes, I believe he swooped in and imposed the correct solution on the authority, even if he did so two years late and in a manner that was embarrassing to people who had been involved in extensive planning for a yearlong subway shutdown.

But in other cases, such as his fixation on the idea that the subways should use wireless signaling to save time and money, Cuomo’s desire for faster-and-easier seems out of step with actual technological capabilities. And sometimes, Cuomo’s MTA interventions tend toward hobbyism, stepping in where he can cut a ribbon, propose a shiny capital project, or save Brooklyn commuters from a year of disruption; and stepping back where serving MTA riders well would involve tough choices that upset some other constituency.

A lot of what the MTA (and also the Port Authority) needs most from the governor would be very hard and unpleasant work: Negotiating better union contracts that don’t burden the authority with impractical work rules and unsustainable costs; streamlining planning processes and standing up to neighborhood objectors who delay and add costs to capital projects. In these areas, Cuomo’s actions have often been the opposite of what commuters need.

He has been reluctant to take on the entrenched interests that lead to overbuilt, poorly designed, too-expensive capital projects. At Penn Station, he is pushing to proceed with a station expansion that will require condemnation of an entire city block of midtown Manhattan to add platforms and tracks, instead of modernizing operating schedules so New York can operate with a smaller number of downtown station platform tracks as seen in cities like Paris. In Queens, his quest to build a rail link to LaGuardia Airport is hemmed in by a bizarre requirement that construction cause no disruptions to neighborhoods or existing roadways, and as a result he is pushing to build a train would run backward, away from Manhattan, connecting to an infrequent branch line of the Long Island Rail Road, and costing nearly $2 billion. Everyone from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the New York Post editorial board thinks this is a dumb idea.

Cuomo’s record on capital projects is not uniformly bad. To his credit, he has pushed through a needed third-track expansion of the Long Island Rail Road main line that has long been delayed in large part due to vociferous community objections in the parts of Nassau County where the line runs. As a Manhattan resident, I’d love to see that spirit brought to projects within New York City.

As for MTA union contracts, here’s what the Times reported about Cuomo’s approach to those in 2017:

Several M.T.A. officials involved in negotiating recent contracts said that there was one reason they accepted the union’s terms: Mr. Cuomo. The governor, who is closely aligned with the union and has received $165,000 in campaign contributions from the labor group, once dispatched a top aide to deliver a message, they said. Pay the union and worry about finding the money later, the aide said, according to two former M.T.A. officials who were in the room.

“Mr. Cuomo’s office said in a statement that the M.T.A. handled its own labor negotiations and that campaign contributions had not influenced any of his actions,” the Times also reported. As with all things MTA, when things go right it was Cuomo’s doing, and when they go wrong it was somebody else’s.

I don’t mean this as a knock against Byford, but one reason he had such quick success fixing the subway’s reliability woes was that he was fixing one of the easiest problems to fix at the MTA. “The trains are slower because they slowed the trains down” was the headline of Aaron Gordon’s 2018 Village Voice feature finally explaining the mysterious decay of subway speeds and reliability: It wasn’t because of a multibillion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, like in the 1970s. It was because of dumb operational decisions that imposed too many, too-low speed restrictions in the subway system, and because of a failure to calibrate speed-controlling equipment correctly, which led drivers to undershoot the already-too-low speed limits, lest they trip a faulty speed sensor and get unfairly written up for speeding. This wasn’t a problem that could be fixed overnight, but it could be fixed pretty quickly and cheaply, by subway standards.

The MTA’s next problems are going to be more complicated and more expensive to fix. Fixing them won’t just require the next Byford. It will require a governor whose meddling in the MTA is more constructive, more consistent, and more focused on problems that involve some pain or trade-offs. Cuomo has considerable political talents and, as he showed with health care in the early years of his governorship, a willingness to knock heads, save money, and fix old systems when he finds it necessary. It’s time he brings that side of him to his transportation responsibilities.