The MTA is Now Governor Cuomo's Hot Potato

With the resignation of MTA chief Jay Walder, Gov. Cuomo has to answer to straphangers

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Aug 1, 2011  |  Updated 6:21 PM EDT
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The MTA is Now Governor Cuomo's Hot Potato

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Governor Andrew Cuomo, like several governors before him, is facing a challenge that the state’s leaders have long tried to avoid.

The troubles of the MTA have been dumped in his lap -- and the citizens who may have applauded his efforts at fiscal and ethics reform -- will judge him now on how he handles the hot potato of New York politics.

Jay Walder, the MTA chairman, has just announced that he will step down in October to take over the Hong Kong transit system. In two tumultuous years Walder managed to keep the system on an even keel. But, as Walder leaves, contract talks with 59 transit unions are due to begin -- and that promises to be a major headache for Walder’s successor and the governor.

Cuomo’s first priority must be to find someone who can fill Walder’s shoes. Then they need to agree to an agenda that promises to protect the 9 million daily riders from more fare increases, more service cuts, poor maintenance and delays in construction projects.

As the new governor confronts these problems, it’s important to consider the history of the MTA.  The agency was created for two reasons:  to increase efficiency and to diffuse responsibility. It goes back to Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay.

For years mayors had taken abuse from straphangers for fare increases, and governors took their share of abuse, too. But, by creating a board to oversee the MTA’s operations, it wasn’t too clear who was too responsible for the miseries of the riding public.

The state’s two biggest unions have settled with the governor for wage freezes to avoid layoffs. But the Transit Workers Union is expected to balk against a similar deal. Its leader, John Samuelsen, told the Post:  “Local 100 is not agreeing to zeroes.”

Walder announced a $12.7 billion budget last week, steering away from fare increases and service cuts but assuming that the transit unions will do their share, like the state unions.

And the latest development in the transportation crisis, for that’s what it is: an audit by the state and city comptrollers. It finds that the MTA is wasting about $10.5 million by poor management of  service disruptions.

State Controller John Thomas DiNapoli says: “Our report today finds that when it comes to subway service diversions for maintenance and capital projects, the MTA has been diverted far off track. The MTA is leaving subway riders in the dark.”  City Controller John Liu adds: “Subway service is just taken out too much, much more than is actually necessary. “

Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College, says that the MTA probably brought more efficiency to transit operations. But, he told me: “It also diffused responsibility. It became hard to pin down who exactly was responsible for any shortcoming or failure. Governor Cuomo has the responsibility now for reform. It’s in his lap.”

The MTA, the bane of every governor’s existence, is challenging the new man. How he handles this agency may, in large measure, determine the 58th governor’s success or failure. 
 

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