Governor Kathy Hochul was sworn in on the job last Tuesday. By Sunday, she was already facing her first emergency at the MTA—and her first opportunity to show how she’d govern differently than former Governor Cuomo.
Last Sunday, a Con-Edison power surge caused wide-spread power failures to subway signals on eight lines, and also made it impossible for the MTA’s main communications hub, the Rail Control Center, to locate those trains on the boards, leaving riders stranded until they could be evacuated.
In a departure from her predecessor, Governor Cuomo who relished excoriating Con-Ed for power failures, Governor Hochul said the “system failed” riders who were stuck on trains instead promised to get to the bottom of what happened.
“We will learn lessons from this and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said at an early morning press conference in front of MTA headquarters.
The use of the pronoun “we” during a bad news press conference was not lost on some of the MTA’s fiercest critics.
“Governor Hochul showed that she has the backs of riders and is willing to work with the MTA to make sure their needs are met and that significant issues are addressed so they don’t recur,” Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, wrote in a statement. “She took ownership of leadership without anticipatory recriminations, and that’s a good sign and refreshing change.”
Her second transit crisis came a few days later with Hurricane Ida.
After Ida dropped a historic amount of rainfall leading to extensive subway flooding, and most lines being shut down, Hochul pledged to take swift action.
“I show up, I find out from the experts what’s happening on the ground,” she said Thursday. “This may happen again next week.”
While she deals with climate emergencies, Hochul is still in the process of replacing holdovers from the Cuomo administration.
She promised to replace anyone in her administration that was named in the Attorney General’s report on Cuomo’s alleged harassment who had done anything “unethical.” But many people are hoping she’ll go further and not just replace existing Cuomo loyalists at the MTA, but also empower experts at the agency.
“It’s really about giving them the space to do their jobs,” Rachael Fauss, Senior Research Analyst at Reinvent Albany, said. “At the same time there are Cuomo loyalists she may want to look at.”
Fauss said the state budget director, Robert Mujica, is someone Hochul should consider replacing. Cuomo forced a last-minute change to the law to allow Mujica to serve on the board, since he wasn’t qualified as someone who doesn’t live in one of the regions served by the MTA.
Fauss points to at least one instance in which Mujica’s dual role as budget director of the state conflicted with his fiduciary duty to the MTA. Last year, the state withheld $500 million from the MTA out of the state budget until shortfalls related to COVID in the state’s general budget were sorted out. The money was eventually restored to the MTA, thanks to legislators preventing raids.
“Given the inherent conflict of the state budget director needing to balance the state budget, too often it’s been at the expense of the MTA dedicated funds,” Fauss said.
Larry Schwartz is another MTA board member who is a long time advisor and loyalist to Cuomo. Schwartz was recently put in charge managing the state’s response to COVID and later the distribution of the vaccine. An ethics investigation was opened after he called county executives to gauge their support of Cuomo, at the same time vaccine roll outs were taking place.
Fauss recommended Schwartz also be replaced. Scwartz, a frequent critic of Fauss, agrees with her on this point.
“I’ve been trying to get off this MTA board, believe it or not, since pre-COVID,” Schwartz said. “I’m happy to stay on longer if that’s what Governor Hochul wants and I’m happy to step aside, it’s her call.”
Schwartz said the governor had asked him to be involved in everything from pushing to get the 2nd Avenue subway extensions completed on time and working on the Subway Action Plan, to improving on-time performance.
All three of those projects saw a backlash from MTA employees, and watchdogs who saw the governor meddling unnecessarily in MTA issues. Resources were pulled from the 2nd Avenue subway, which many said should’ve been used for routine maintenance, which led to dire delays and breakdowns shortly after the 2nd Avenue subway opened. The Subway Action plan, which led to fixing ongoing issues, like clogged drains, didn’t speed up service as much as former NYC Transit President Andy Byford’s efforts did, later reports found.
Byford was pushed out of the job by Cuomo.
Hochul has not announced any personnel changes at the MTA yet. But Nicole Gelinas, senior researcher at the Manhattan Institute has some suggestions.
“Put three people there who have some deep transportation, transit expertise, and have some measure of being independent from the person who appointed them,” Gelinas said.
Cuomo did leave one parting gift to Hochul. The governor won’t have to make any decisions about congestion pricing, a potentially fraught decision to charge drivers that enter Manhattan below 60th street, until well after the next election. The MTA is conducting a 16-month environmental review, which just got underway.