Just a Reminder: Cuomo Can Take Charge of the MTA Whenever He Wants

At approximately 5 p.m. Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he had ordered the complete closure of New York City’s bus and subway systems in the face of an oncoming snowstorm. If nothing else, it was a stark reminder that the transit system is not a political orphan. The MTA is, in fact, Cuomo’s agency.

Photo: NY Governor's Office/Flickr
When it’s convenient for him, Cuomo takes charge of the MTA. When it’s inconvenient, it’s someone else’s problem. Photo: NY Governor’s Office/Flickr

After the blizzard gave only a glancing blow to the city, Cuomo gathered at a morning press conference with his transportation deputies, including MTA Chair and CEO Tom Prendergast. A reporter asked about the cost of shutting down the transit system. “These were factored in the budget, and this was not exceptional to that process,” Cuomo said. “I’m sure Tom will say he needs a budget increase because of this, but Tom was going to say he needed a budget increase anyway.” Chuckling, the governor patted Prendergast on the arm while they both smiled at the cameras.

Yes, the governor can turn off the transit system with a word, but a budget increase? That’s for Tom to worry about. And nevermind the hundreds of millions of dollars the governor has raided from the MTA’s operating budget since taking office.

Cuomo also likes to create distance between himself and the MTA when the subject turns to the agency’s five-year capital program, which he recently called “bloated.” It was not the critique of an executive determined to find efficiencies and do more with less at one of the most important agencies under his control. Rather, it was a way to separate himself from the MTA and frame the agency as an insatiable bureaucracy.

The MTA currently has a $15 billion funding gap in the $32 billion capital program. Cuomo talks about this problem as if it’s an abstraction, completely separate from his powers to set the agenda, control costs, and raise revenues. “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,” he said in October. “We’ll then look at that budget and go through, and we’ll come up with a realistic number.”

Building a great transit system that lasts for generations should be a governor’s legacy, not a pesky agency request. But Cuomo has a different legacy transportation project, something he loves to call his own: the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement.

“It was a very difficult project, but we got it done,” Cuomo said earlier this month, adding that he is pleased with the bridge’s $4 billion budget and on-time construction schedule so far. “We’re going to stay that way if I have to go out there with a screwdriver and a hammer myself,” he said. The next day, Cuomo announced that more than a quarter of the state’s $5 billion budget windfall would go to the Thruway Authority, which is building the bridge. (MTA transit projects got substantially less: $250 million for a new Metro-North line through the Bronx.)

The budget process is starting to heat up in Albany. Today, the legislature held a joint hearing on transportation funding, and the race for Assembly speaker is underway after Sheldon Silver decided to step down in the wake of corruption charges. Will a new speaker open the door for better transit policy in Albany? 

It’s a moot question for now, because nothing significant can happen without action from the governor first. A signal from Cuomo that he’s serious about closing the gap in the capital program — by, say, proposing toll reform rather than piling more debt on the backs of straphangers — would drastically alter the landscape.

The snowstorm proved that Cuomo can turn the MTA on and off like a light switch. He can use the same power to make a better transportation system for the region.