The current disagreement between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio over who controls and is responsible for recent Metropolitan Transportation Authority problems is nothing new. This ongoing feud over numerous issues between Cuomo and de Blasio is now into the fourth year. It represents the latest chapter in the respective behavior and ongoing fights between Cuomo and de Blasio. Based on past history between previous Governors and Mayors, this is really nothing new. Democrats Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio have a lot in common with the late Republicans Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (1959 – 1974) and NYC Mayor John Lindsay (1966 – 1973) along with Gov. George Pataki (1995 -2006) and NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani (1994 – 2001). The same is true for the late Democrat Gov. Mario Cuomo (1983 – 1992) and NYC Mayor Ed Koch (1978-1988). Nelson Rockefeller, George Pataki, Mario Cuomo and son Andrew Cuomo deal with mayors who want equal billing on the political marque. Lindsay’s urban, Koch’s Big Apple, Giuliani’s safety/quality of life and de Blasio’s progressive agenda is dependent upon both increased state and federal assistance. De Blasio envisions himself as the national spokesperson for progressive mayors from all cities. This conflicts with governors who have to worry about all 62 counties making up New York state. It also creates problems for governors like Cuomo who harbor presidential ambitions in 2020.
It is disappointing that Mayor de Blasio still has a poor understanding about his relationship with the MTA after four years in office for management and funding of its Capital Program. His ongoing theme is that because the MTA is a state agency, he has no control over its capital program, operations and funding makes no sense when you look at the facts.
Mayor de Blasio appoints four of the fifteen member MTA Board. One of his members, NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg previously worked for the US Department of Transportation, has an excellent background in transit. This includes how the MTA, city, state and federal governments partner together in improving transit.
Contrary to Mayor de Blasio’s rhetoric, NYC has significant influence with both Albany and the MTA. Bronx State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie appoints one of the four member MTA Capital Program Review Board. They must approve all MTA Five Year Capital Plans and plan amendments, including adding new projects or funding. There are also 59 fellow Democrats in the State Assembly, out of 150 from NYC, who owe their allegiance to Heastie. Both NYC Republican State Assembly members Ronald Castorina and Nicole Malliotakis from Staten Island are pro transit. Twenty-two of the 24 NYC State Senators are members of the Democratic State Senate caucus. They are led by Westchester State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is friendly toward the Big Apple. Six of the eight-member Independent Democratic State Senate Conference chaired by Jeffrey Klein including Marisal Alcantara, Tony Avella, Jesse Hamilton, Jose Peralta and Diane Savino are from NYC. Both NYC Republican State Senators Martin Golden and Andrew Lanza support transit.
The federal planning process to access Federal Transit Administration funding is managed by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. NYCDOT Commissioner Trottenberg and NYC Department of Planning Director Carl Weisbrod each have a vote along with representatives from the MTA, Nassau County, Suffolk County, Putnam County, Rockland County, Westchester County and New York State Department of Transportation. In FY 2017, NYMTC decides how over $1.3 billion in Federal Transit Administration formula funding is distributed among the voting members. This includes $35 million in Buses and Bus Facilities; $700 million in State of Good Repair and $647 million in Urbanized Area federal funding. It requires a total consensus of all voting members before these funds can be allocated to each transit operator. Prior to reaching agreements, neither the MTA or NYCDOT can complete any grant application process that would result in the Federal Transit Administration entering into a formal grant agreement to obligate funding. All capital projects contained within these grant applications also have to be included within the local NYMTC Transportation Improvement Program and New York State Transportation Improvement Program. Adoption of the NYMTC TIP also requires a unanimous vote among all members.
In 1953, the old NYC Board of Transportation passed on control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets under a master lease and operating agreement to the newly created NYC Transit Authority. Under late Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 60’s, the MTA was created. Today Gov. Cuomo is serving as the superintendent running the MTA hired by NYC who is actual landlord or owner of NYC Transit buses and subways.
All have long forgotten that buried within the 1953 master agreement between the city of New York and NYC Transit is an escape clause. NYC has the legal right at any time to take back control of its assets. This includes the subway and bus system. Actions speak louder than words. If municipal officials feel they could do a better job managing the MTA including running the nation’s largest subway and bus system, man up and regain control. Instead of complaining, Mayor de Blasio should come up with the balance of $2.5 billion the City still owes toward fully funding the $32 billion MTA 2015 – 2019 Five Year Capital Program, add several billion more and match dollar for dollar any additional state assistance. Governor Andrew Cuomo should deliver the outstanding balance $5.8 billion balance toward his original $8.3 billion pledge plus his most recent new commitment of an additional $1 billion. The MTA can’t afford to wait until 2018 or 2019 for both de Blasio and Cuomo to make good on their respective promised financial commitments. Neither can transit riders and taxpayers who are looking for accountability, efficient and timely completion for both capital projects and routine maintenance to assure more reliable and safe on time service.
Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.