Cuomo Doesn’t Need a New Law to Fix the Subways — He’s Already in Charge of the MTA

Arguing over the composition of the MTA board is a sideshow. The governor is the big boss at the MTA, plain and simple.

He's the boss. Photo: Flickr/NYS Governor's Office
He's the boss. Photo: Flickr/NYS Governor's Office

With subway service failing spectacularly on an almost daily basis, the MTA is in desperate need of firm, straightforward leadership. Instead, Governor Cuomo is giving riders an outlandish song-and-dance about why all the transit system’s problems up until this point are not his fault.

Yesterday, with the always-chaotic finale of the Albany legislative session approaching, Cuomo made a dramatic proposal. He wants to enact a law that will change the composition of the MTA board, turning his plurality of appointees into an outright majority.

The move is pure theatrics. If you make an org chart of the MTA, Cuomo already sits alone at the very top. He is the boss of the MTA CEO and the person who is ultimately accountable for the agency’s performance.

The MTA board, meanwhile, is not the obstacle to good transit management that Cuomo’s press release makes it out to be. It’s not a dysfunctional conclave of power brokers, paralyzed by internal dissent. It’s a body that basically signs off on the budgets and financial plans that MTA staff (people who ultimately report to Cuomo) give them. Members can make their presence felt by posing sharp questions at hearings and sounding off to the press, but at the end of the day, the MTA board is more of a rubber stamp than an independent source of power.

The governor is the one who can direct MTA staff and shape agency budgets to prioritize the basic maintenance and core capacity upgrades that are so desperately needed. Cuomo, not the MTA board, can end the bunker mentality that prevails among agency brass, and, as TransitCenter’s Jon Orcutt told the Village Voice, “go through what’s been going wrong and hold these guys brutally accountable.” He can already do this.

Would it be a bad thing to give the governor more seats on the MTA board? Probably not — at least there would be one less pretext to debate who’s in charge of the MTA, when we all know it’s the governor.

But Cuomo’s last-minute interjection in Albany is itself a needless extension of that wholly unnecessary debate. Riders Alliance director John Raskin put it well in a statement yesterday: “Riders don’t have the luxury of quibbling over MTA board governance when we know it’s not the real issue.”

If the bill fails — and at this late stage, that seems to be the safe bet — that can’t become an excuse for Cuomo to dodge his responsibility as the big boss at the MTA.