During Nelson Rockefeller’s 15 years as New York’s chief executive (1959-1973), he created more perpetual state authorities — “shadow governments” — than any governor who proceeded or succeeded him.
One such agency is the Metropolitan Transit Authority that Rockefeller persuaded the state Legislature to charter in 1965 and to expand in 1967.
The MTA was empowered to consolidate the region’s structurally and financially ailing urban and suburban commuter transportation lines with the profitable facilities of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
Under this umbrella arrangement, surplus toll dollars from the Midtown and Battery tunnels and the Whitestone, Throgs Neck, Triborough and Verrazano bridges are doled out to subsidize money-losing rail and bus operations and to help finance capital project debt issued to repair crumbling NYC subway and suburban rail infrastructure.
The ramification of the Rockefeller plan was that the state’s chief executive — not local mayors, county executives or legislators — would control the MTA and its mass transportation systems.
As the nonprofit Reinvent Albany’s recently published “Open MTA” report pointed out, the governor “controls the activities, planning, budgeting and priorities of the MTA and its operating agencies. The governor exercises control through his appointment of the MTA CEO/chairman, whom he hires and fires and who leads both the staff and board of the MTA.”
This gubernatorial power has often been mishandled. For instance, during their respective tenures, Gov. Mario Cuomo and Gov. Andrew Cuomo intervened in LIRR labor negotiations in election years and gave away the store to the unions to avoid or end a strike.
In July 1994, when Mario was running for a fourth term against George Pataki, he folded the second day after a LIRR walkout. He was portrayed in the media as the big loser in the showdown.
Similarly, in the summer of 2014, when the LIRR unions threatened to shut down the system if they did not get raises totaling 17 percent over six years, Andrew stepped in at the last minute and mirabile dictu, an agreement was reached.
The end result? A whopping 17 percent raises over 6 1/2 years. What a deal for farepayers!
Thanks to such antics, commuters must endure poor service and an infrastructure that is falling apart. Also, politically motivated gubernatorial decisions help explain “why it costs roughly four times more to build a mile of subway in NYC than anywhere else in the world,” according to Reinvent Albany, which pushes for open government and transparency.
Sadly, Cuomo, a micro-manager, constantly blocks the path to progress. His intervention in the Canarsie L train line in December 2018 is a classic example of his meddling. To protect his political butt, Cuomo circumvented a board decision that had undergone years of review.
The MTA board was pressured to toss out four years of expensive long-term planning to rehabilitate the L train tunnel in favor of the governor’s short-term solution that has risks which may trump the immediate awards.
The 171-page Reinvent Albany report is fascinating, yet depressing reading. “Open MTA” reveals an agency that has been plagued by construction delays and cost overruns, has disjointed and dysfunctional external oversight and has a lax ethics code.
Here is a summary of the report’s findings:
“The MTA has suffered from a failure of political leadership and governance at
almost every level,” the report says as it lays out four points:
The MTA is terrible at telling the public what it is actually doing well, what it
has done poorly and what it intends to do to improve;
The state Legislature and numerous government oversight bodies have failed
MTA riders and abdicated their responsibilities;
Radical restructuring and “blowing up” of the MTA’s regional governance
compact is not politically realistic given the governor’s power over MTA and
Albany politics, and would be totally ahistoric.
The report does describe 50 realistic things that can be done to increase the MTA’s credibility, accountability and transparency. Many of them make sense, particularly the one that calls for the state comptroller to be empowered with enhanced oversight of MTA contracts.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for major reforms to be implemented. Governors, in general, and control freak Andrew Cuomo, in particular, do not like to give up power even when it’s for a greater good.