Andrew Cuomo's New York Budget Plan Includes Call to Change MTA Governance

(Bloomberg) -- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called upon the state legislature to revamp the leadership of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, saying its governing structure has made the subway-and-bus operator dysfunctional.

The governor, backed for the first time by a Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature, also promised to push for congestion-pricing tolls on motorists entering midtown Manhattan, a state law protecting women’s right to an abortion, legalized adult marijuana use, a “Green New Deal” to fight climate change and an end to cash bail to protect indigent criminal defendants.

The MTA governance problem, Cuomo said, stemmed from the disparate interests of its 17 board members, who represent the state, New York City and suburban counties. This structure leaves no one in control, the governor said.

“When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge,” Cuomo said during a speech Tuesday in which he combined the traditional state of the state address with a budget message.

Cuomo’s criticism of the MTA’s structure comes after more than a year of crisis in the city’s subways, plagued by breakdowns and delays following years of under-funded maintenance and repairs. Last week, he said he wanted to “blow up the MTA” during a meeting with editors at the New York Daily News.

The current MTA governing structure allows the governor to appoint six of its 17 board members, including its chairman. The mayor selects four, and regional county executives choose seven members, who share four votes between them.

Although Cuomo denies that this gives him control, he demonstrated his power over the agency earlier this month when he countermanded years of planning by MTA and city officials to create means of alternative transportation in advance of an intended 15-month shut down of a flood-damaged subway tunnel linking Brooklyn and Manhattan. The governor’s involvement came after a panel of engineers from Columbia and Cornell Universities suggested a less-expensive alternative that allowed him to announce a call off of the planned closure.

Yet, the governor’s power isn’t absolute and his proposal still requires board approval. And each individual board member has the power to veto the agency’s $30 billion capital plan. Even after the board passes a budget, capital spending can be vetoed the governor, leaders of the state senate and assembly and New York’s mayor. Cuomo said.

While seeking more power over the agency, the governor didn’t give up his assertion that the city should pay a greater share for the MTA’s huge operating and capital spending requirements.

Cuomo’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year calls for the MTA to receive $5.3 billion from the state, a $287 million increase over 2019. The MTA’s $30.3 billion capital program for 2015-2019 contains about $8.6 billion in state funds, which Cuomo called an “unprecedented level of state support.”

The governor’s 2020 fiscal year budget message also contained a vow to enact “congestion pricing” to help fund operations for the agency, which controls city subways and buses, commuter rail and several bridges and tunnels. Subway service, plagued by a year of derailments, breakdowns and delays, compelled the governor to declare a state of emergency last year.

The city’s 110-year-old subway system, already starved for revenue, needs billions of dollars for yearly operating expenses and for repairs and replacement of obsolete equipment. The congestion pricing plan would create a dedicated MTA revenue stream with a toll on motorists traveling into midtown Manhattan at 60th Street and below. It would also mitigate severe traffic congestion.

“By charging fees for vehicles to move within the most congested area of New York City and then reinvesting those funds into transit improvements in underserved areas and upgrading the subway and bus system to modern standards, this plan will combat gridlock and deliver to the city’s residents and visitors the world-class transit system they deserve,” Cuomo said.

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