The Rumor Mill: Separating Fact from Fiction in Andrew Cuomo’s Bid to Sideline Andy Byford

The public really loved Andy Byford, seen here in happier times. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
The public really loved Andy Byford, seen here in happier times. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

The hottest news in New York isn’t speculation about where in Brooklyn KD and Kyrie will live or if they’re going to do a wacky roommates kinda thing. Citizens across the city are pulling their hair out wondering just what the future holds for New York City Transit President Andy Byford, his Fast Forward plan and transit as a whole as the MTA board is about to be briefed on a reorganization plan that could change the face of the entire transit agency.

Let’s start with how we got here:

The confusion over the fate of the MTA began with Gov. Cuomo’s budget, which included a provision for MTA reorganization guided by “an independent forensic audit.” That led to the hiring of consulting firm AlixPartners to study the MTA and recommend a restructuring plan by June 30. The idea of MTA reform is hardly controversial for anyone inside or outside Albany, so state legislators didn’t raise a huge fuss.

This audit has largely taken place in secret though, leaving the rest of us with very few tea leaves. Last week, it was big news when NY1 reported that MTA Chairman — and presumed Cuomo loyalist — Pat Foye had received the report. In fact, he called it a “great” beach read (the report remains secret, so for now, the only remedy is to find Foye on the beach and ply him with a nutcrackers — though who knows if he sunbathes on public sand where such moonshine is sold?).

Next, we got a dispatch from the Daily News that “fear and loathing” has gripped the MTA as more people apparently saw the report. Sources at the agency told reporter Clayton Guse that the coming reorganization plan would include a recommendation to separate the MTA’s subway and bus divisions — currently overseen by Byford within a unified NYC Transit — from each other in its own new unit. Byford would, presumably stay with the NYC Transit subway unit (or quit!) while a bus unit leader of equal rank would be hired.

The News also reported that a restructured MTA would take away from Byford his oversight of subway construction projects and give it to the MTA Capital Construction division, which currently oversees mega-projects like the LIRR’s East Side Access expansion and the Second Avenue Subway — stuff that’s bigger than Byford’s new signal systems, for example.

Here’s another twist: The still-secret consultant report is supposed to be voted on by the MTA board in July — though it won’t be reviewable by the public until it’s posted on the MTA website in, you guessed it, August. (Thanks for nothing, watchdogs!)

So what does it add up to? Nothing much, even if you combine all the previous rumors with recent reports, including Politico’s report late on Wednesday that suggested the consultant is basically conducting a sham review). Meanwhile, Byford’s Fast Forward — the ambitious plan to fix signals on huge swathes of the subway, upgrade stations, add elevators and improve operations in general — hangs in the balance.

Cuomo has been dissing Byford for months, several times referring to him as a mere “department head.” That led the New York Times and Gothamist to both report on create rumors that Byford would quit by the end of June. Well, it’s July 3 and the subway chief remains on payroll, so reports of his demise were clearly exaggerated.

But what will Byford’s continuing survival look like? In the wake of the rumors that Byford would leave, MTA sources told Second Avenue Sagas of numerous instances where either Cuomo and Cuomo-allies interfered in day-to-day MTA operations, such as trying to force a more aggressive approach to Byford’s Save Safe Seconds subway speed initiative, the particulars of rehabbing Grand Central’s 4/5/6 station or releasing much-needed capital funding. Sources said Byford was getting boxed out or undercut by the governor or his confidantes.

So if you believe the News, NY1 and Second Avenue Sagas, a power struggle is taking place between Cuomo and Byford as we get closer to the debut of our new-and-improved MTA. Except that it’s not a power struggle at all. Cuomo is the one with the power. And Byford is the won with the struggle.

Or not. The fact is, this MTA overhaul has become like a pro wrestling plotline — one in which no one knows when, or if, Cuomo will flip from being a fan favorite to a heel. “Fans” may be upset that the secret report makes it more difficult to assess what’s going on — but like pro wrestling, that’s by design! This massive reorganization report is being kept from the eyes of the press and the public precisely so no one knows what’s in it. On Tuesday afternoon, the governor went as far as telling reporters the plan didn’t even exist, further confusing things.

Which brings us to this week when a coalition of very frustrated transit activists — the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, Regional Plan Association, Reinvent Albany, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign, StreetsPAC, TransitCenter, Transportation Alternatives and Tri-State Transportation Campaign — is demanding a much more public process in building MTA II:

There is still no timetable to post the plan online or hold any public hearings before the report’s recommendations are approved. The reorganization plan is supposedly in the MTA’s possession, but transit riders have no way to tell what’s in it.

Transit riders deserve better than a rush job conducted behind closed doors. They will have no confidence in a plan they cannot see, and which has not been vetted publicly prior to adoption.

Our organizations are waiting for Governor Cuomo and MTA Chair Pat Foye to respond to letters we sent last month calling for an open, consultative reorganization process. In the interests of transit riders and the ultimate success of the reorganization effort, the report should be posted publicly today, and a subsequent AlixPartners review of “waste, fraud, and abuse” should also be posted as soon as it’s delivered to the MTA. The MTA Board should hold public hearings in a format similar to its fare hike hearings, providing opportunity for experts in transit and organizational management to assess the plan, and allowing ample time for flaws to be addressed before recommendations are officially adopted by the Board.

Open and transparent government, what a concept. Will New Yorkers see that first — or the Knicks snagging a prime free agent?