During Nelson Rockefeller’s fifteen years as New York’s chief executive (1959-1973), he created more perpetual state authorities — shadow governments — than any governor that proceeded or succeeded him.
One such agency is the Metropolitan Transit Authority that Rockefeller persuaded the state Legislature to charter in 1965 and to expand in 1967.
The MTA was empowered to consolidate the region’s structurally and financially ailing urban and suburban commuter transportation lines with the profitable facilities of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
Under this umbrella arrangement, surplus toll dollars from the Midtown and Battery tunnels and the Whitestone, Throggs Neck, Triborough, and Verrazano bridges are doled out to subsidize money-losing rail and bus operations and to help finance capital project debt issued to repair crumbling NYC subway and suburban rail infrastructure.
The ramification of the Rockefeller plan was that the state’s chief executive — not local mayors, county executives, or legislators — would control the MTA and its mass transportation systems.
As Reinvent Albany’s recently published “Open MTA” report pointed out, the governor “controls the activities, planning, budgeting and priorities of the MTA an its operating agencies. The Governor exercises control through his appointment of the MTA/CEO/Chairman, whom he hires and fires and who leads both the staff and board of the MTA.”
This gubernatorial power has often been mishandled. For instance, during their respective tenures, Governor Mario Cuomo and Governor Andrew Cuomo intervened in LIRR labor negotiations in election years and gave away the store to the unions to avoid or end a strike.
In July 1994, when Mario was running for a fourth term against George Pataki, he folded the second day after a Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) walkout. He was portrayed in the media as the big loser in the showdown.
Similarly, in the summer of 2014, when the LIRR unions threatened to shut down the system if they did not get raises totaling 17% over six years, Andrew stepped in at the last minute and mirabile dictum, an agreement was reached.
The end result? Seventeen percent raises over six and a half years. What a deal for farepayers!
Thanks to such antics, commuters must endure “more delays than any metro system in the industrialized world” and an infrastructure that is falling apart. Also, politically motivated gubernatorial decisions help explain why it “costs roughly four times more to build a mile of subway in N.Y.C. than anywhere else in the world.”
Sadly, Governor Cuomo, a micro-manager, constantly blocks the path to progress. His intervention in the Canarsie L trainline in December 2018 is a classic example of his meddling. To protect his political butt, Cuomo sidestepped “a Board decision that had undergone years of review.”
The MTA board was pressured to toss out four years of expensive long-term planning to rehabilitate the L train tunnel in favor of the governor’s “short-term solution that has risks which may trump the immediate awards.”
The 171-page Reinvent Albany report is fascinating, yet depressing reading. “Open MTA” reveals an agency that has been plagued by construction delays and cost overruns; has disjointed and dysfunctional external oversight; and has a lax ethics code.
Here is a summary of the report’s findings:
The MTA has suffered from a failure of political leadership and governance at almost every level;
The MTA is terrible at telling the public what it is actually doing well, what it has done poorly, and what it intends to do to improve;
The state Legislature and numerous government oversight bodies have failed MTA riders and abdicated their responsibilities;
Radical restructuring and “blowing up” of the MTA’s regional governance compact is not politically realistic given the governor’s power over MTA and Albany politics, and would be totally ahistoric.
The report does describe 50 realistic things that can be done to increase the MTA’s credibility, accountability and transparency. Many of them make sense, particularly the one that calls for the state comptroller to be empowered with enhanced oversight of MTA contracts.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for major reforms to be implemented. Governors in general, and control freak Andrew Cuomo in particular, do not like to give up power even when it’s for a greater good.
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." He is chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA. Mr. Marlin also writes for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. To read more George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.
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