There was no fanfare, celebratory train ride, or even an announcement. But at the end of June, Governor Andrew Cuomo quietly decided the MTA’s status in a “state of emergency” was over. The executive order, which he’d renewed 49 times over the past four years, allowed the MTA to bypass oversight requirements in the name of expediency for making repairs and upgrades.
When Cuomo signed the executive order in 2017, subway delays and breakdowns were mounting. He created the Subway Action Plan, an open-ended series of tasks, which didn’t require board approval, to tackle what the MTA said were causing 79 percent of major delays. It addressed things like cleaning clogged drains, removing trash that causes fires, fixing broken signals and damaged rails.
“The Subway Action Plan and other actions taken by the MTA since the emergency went into effect have led to significant service improvements and we look forward to seeing further gains as the Authority bounces back from the pandemic and implements an unprecedented new capital program,” Shams Tarek, a spokesperson in the Governor’s office, and a former spokesperson for the MTA, wrote in a statement.
Watchdogs say this could have been done without an executive order, a tool the governor is now using to address gun violence.
“We, from the very beginning of this, felt like it was an overuse of executive power and wasn’t justified at the time it was issued, because there were already ways to do the same things they were trying to accomplish,” Rachael Fauss, senior analyst with the group Reinvent Albany, said.
Fauss cites the Governor’s Genius challenge as just one example of MTA spending that the board didn’t approve. She said the board is supposed to provide a check on the governor’s influence at the MTA, but the use of the executive order is “whittling away what little oversight they do have, and I think allowed the governor to have more free reign and avoid more public scrutiny for his decisions.”
John Samulsen, President of Transit Workers Union Local 100, said the result has also been a flood of non-union labor working at the agency.
“The greatest result to me of the emergency powers,” Samulsen said, “has been the doubling and tripling of the amount of unnecessary consultants and contractors in the MTA system.”
Others say the order served its purpose and was the right thing to do.
“The time was right to institute a plan to move forward to fix our vital infrastructure quickly and the EO served its purpose, as evidenced by the vastly improved transit system we have today,” Lisa Daglian, who represents riders on the MTA board as the Executive Director of thePermanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, wrote in a statement. “But the emergency is over, and it is past time for the EO to expire and the MTA Board to go back to meeting all of its fiduciary responsibilities, including going back to overseeing contracts.”
Daglian is also calling for the MTA to restore its monthly committee meetings, something that was suspended during the pandemic, and has yet to be restored.
“The real emergency has been replaced with real urgency to get riders back on board and restoring trust in the MTA is critical to that task. Improving transparency through clear reporting and re-establishing Committee meetings and in-person Board meetings that showcase the Board’s reinstated responsibilities will go a long way to doing that,” Daglian wrote.
“The Governor’s Executive Order declaring a transit emergency made it easier for the MTA to make needed changes to improve service for all our customers,” Ken Lovett, Senior Advisor to the MTA Chairman Pat Foye. “On-time performance has improved dramatically, including through the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of major incidents has dropped, needed modernization work moved forward and many of the other problems that plagued the agency were able to be addressed. The Executive Order did what it was meant to do—set MTA on the right path for improvement. It was never designed to be permanent.”
(While subway performance has improved, that work was later credited mainly to then-NYC Transit president Andy Byford, who identified basic operational issues, like broken signal timers, which led to sped up trains and improved service, and not Cuomo’s plan.)
Still, as the governor’s efforts to exert control over one aspect of MTA management wanes, another effort is underway to further influence the MTA’s top leadership position.
It remains uncertain whether the State Senate will approve the Governor’s last-minute request to split the top job at the MTA into two positions: a board chair, and a CEO who would report to the governor, not the board.
The current Chairman and board chair Pat Foye is expected to leave at the end of July. Interim President of New York City Transit Sarah Feinberg, who Cuomo had hoped would serve as board chair, is not expected to stay in her current role past July either.
A coalition of 12 groups have called for holding at least one public hearing on the issue. A spokesperson for the State Senate said this is likely, but there’s no date yet.
Members of the Senate have warned the governor they’re not a rubber stamp for his plans, and appear ready to challenge the proposal.
“A major structural change like the one proposed has raised significant concerns from transit experts and should not happen overnight in any event,” Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris wrote in a statement. “The issue requires appropriate legislative scrutiny and oversight before something so widely criticized is even considered.”
In 2017, the MTA effectively split the position of Chairman and CEO, as it was undergoing a reorganization. Joe Lhota, whose position was sent to state lawmakers in the last week of the legislative session that year, was approved and took the unpaid role as board chair, while Ronnie Hakim, the executive director, managed the MTA’s day-to-day operations.
Lhota later resigned over conflicts of interest. A problem, watchdogs say, could be avoided again, with proper legislative and board oversight over who runs the agency.
Former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch who wrote an extensive report in 2008, advising the MTA how to navigate out of its crisis at that time, said the Chairman and CEO should be one job for a fixed amount of time. He called Cuomo’s latest attempt to split the top job again “inappropriate.”
“The MTA has to make a lot of politically unpopular decisions,” Ravitch told WNYC. “And the MTA has to be able to make independent decisions on what’s in the best interest of the transit system, not what’s in the best interest of the governor or the legislature or the politics of New York.”
The governor also faces a confrontation with his partners in labor, the Transit Workers Union Local 100 who also question why the leadership shake-up was released in the last week of the legislative session in Albany.
“If this truly was in the interest of the public good, the governor would not have waited until the last possible second,” Samulsen, the union president and an MTA board member, told WNYC. “There was no discussion whatsoever with the stakeholders, the main two stakeholders being transit riders and transit workers.”
It’s unclear what will happen at the end of July if state lawmakers don’t approve the changes, but according to state rules, an interim Chairman and CEO appointed by the Governor could serve for six months. By that time, legislators in Albany will be back in sessio