Gov. Kathy Hochul was sworn in last Tuesday. On Sunday, she was already facing her first emergency in the MTA – and her first opportunity to show how she would govern differently than former Governor Cuomo.
On Sunday, a Con-Edison surge caused widespread power outages in eight-line metro signals and also made it impossible for the MTA’s main communications hub, the Rail Control Center, to locate these trains on the boards and leave riders stranded until evacuated.
In a departure from his predecessor, Governor Cuomo, who enjoyed excoriating Con-Ed for power outages, Governor Hochul said “system-flawed” riders stuck on trains instead promised to get to the bottom of what was happening.
“We will learn from this and ensure that it does not happen again,” she told a news conference early in the morning in front of MTA headquarters.
The use of the pronoun “we” during a press conference with bad news was not lost on some of the MTA’s harshest critics.
“Governor Hochul has shown that she has her back on riders and is willing to work with the MTA to ensure that their needs are met and that important issues are resolved so that they do not recur,” said Lisa Daglian, CEO of Permanent Citizens’ Advisory Committee to the MTA, wrote in a statement. “She took ownership of leadership without prior indictment, and that’s a good sign and a refreshing change.”
Her second transit crisis came a few days later with Hurricane Ida.
After Ida dropped a historic amount of rainfall that led to extensive flooding in the subway, and most lines were shut down, Hochul promised to take swift action.
“I show up, I find out from the experts what’s going on at the site,” she said Thursday. “This could happen again next week.”
While dealing with climate cases, Hochul is still in the process of replacing detentions from the Cuomo administration.
She promised to replace everyone in her administration named in the Attorney General’s report on Cuomo’s alleged harassment that had done something “unethical.” But many hope she will go further and not only replace existing Cuomo loyalists at the MTA, but also give experts in the agency power.
“It’s really about giving them space to do their jobs,” said Rachael Fauss, Senior Research Analyst at Reinvent Albany. “At the same time, there are Cuomo loyalists she might want to look at.”
Fauss said state budget director Robert Mujica is one Hochul should consider replacing. Cuomo forced a last-minute amendment to the law to allow Mujica to sit on the board, as he was not qualified as a person not living in one of the regions served by the MTA.
Fauss points to at least one case where Mujica’s dual role as budget director for the state was in conflict with his fiduciary duty to the MTA. Last year, the state withheld $ 500 million from the MTA out of the state budget until deficiencies related to COVID in the state general budget were fixed. The money was eventually restored to the MTA, thanks to lawmakers who prevented raids.
“Given the inherent conflict between the state budget director who has to balance the state budget, it has too often been at the expense of MTA -dicated funds,” Fauss said.
Larry Schwartz is another MTA board member who has long been an adviser and loyalist to Cuomo. Schwartz was recently given responsibility for controlling the state’s response to COVID and later the distribution of the vaccine. An ethical inquiry was opened after he called county leaders to measure their support for Cuomo while vaccines were being rolled out.
Fauss also recommended Schwartz be replaced. Scwartz, a frequent critic of Fauss, agrees with her on this point.
“I’ve been trying to get out of this MTA board, believe it or not, since before COVID,” Schwartz said. “I’m happy to stay longer if that’s what Governor Hochul wants, and I’m happy to step aside, that’s her call.”
Schwartz said the governor had asked him to be involved in everything from pushing to get 2nd Avenue extensions completed on time and working on the Subway action plan to improve performance on time.
All three of these projects experienced a backlash from MTA staff and watchdogs, who saw the governor interfere unnecessarily in MTA issues. Resources were pulled from the 2nd Avenue subway, which many said should have been used for routine maintenance, leading to severe delays and crashes shortly after the 2nd Avenue subway opened. The subway action plan, which led to resolving ongoing issues such as clogged drains, did not speed up the service just as much as former NYC Transit president Andy Byford’s efforts did, later reports were found.
Byford was pushed out of the job by Cuomo.
Hochul has not yet announced any staff changes in the MTA. But Nicole Gelinas, a senior researcher at the Manhattan Institute, has some suggestions.
“Put three people there who have some deep transportation, expertise in transit and have some degree of independence from the person who appointed them,” Gelinas said.
Cuomo handed over a farewell gift to Hochul. The governor does not have to make any decisions on congestion rates, a potentially cumbersome decision to charge drivers entering Manhattan under 60th Street until well after the next election. The MTA is conducting a 16-month environmental review, which has just begun.
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