Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Governor Cuomo Resigns - What Does This Mean For Mass Transit and Infrastructure Projects?

Governor Cuomo looking at progress of the 72nd Street Second Avenue subway station
 in December 2016 

Cuomo resigns. What does that mean?

We believe that as long as he has a telephone and a computer, not much, other than the title of Governor. And we still have the COVID deaths in nursing homes to investigate and hold him accountable for.

This is New York, where the web of politics strangles independent thinkers. 

Betsy Combier
Editor, NYC Rubber Room Reporter
Editor, New York Court Corruption
Editor, National Public Voice
Editor, NYC Public Voice
Editor, Inside 3020-a Teacher Trials

What Cuomo’s Resignation Could Mean For Mass Transit and Infrastructure

By Stephen Nessen, Gothamist, August 11, 2021

When Governor Andrew Cuomo steps down in two weeks, he leaves behind a legacy of transportation and infrastructure projects — from bridges to airports, to a new train station in midtown Manhattan. Other projects have yet to begin or secure the funding they need, but transportation watchdogs are optimistic that the incoming governor, Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Hochul, and whoever comes after her, will keep them on track.

As governor, Cuomo has lorded over transportation projects for better and worse, and has called the shots from Albany on many matters that affect the daily commute in the New York City region. Most prominently, he controls the MTA by recommending the majority of its 21 board members, and approving all of them.

“One can hope that transit professionals will be able to serve independently, and have space to do their jobs,” said Rachael Fauss, senior research analyst with the good government group Reinvent Albany.

Former New York City Transit President Andy Byford said the main reason he resigned in January 2020 was because of the Governor making his job “intolerable,” and that he was being “undermined.”

MTA board member Neal Zuckerman, who has been on the board since 2014, said Cuomo’s involvement moved along some major projects. Three Second Avenue subway stops opened, East Side Access is nearly complete, and four new Metro-North stations in the Bronx are on track to be completed.

“It is certainly true that in those years, related directly to greater involvement from Governor Cuomo and through his representatives, there have [sic] been an increased focus on operational efficiency and capital investment and it has benefited New Yorkers,” Zuckerman wrote in a statement. But, he added that he’ll be glad to see an end to the governor’s interference with the board’s decision-making.

“The MTA, as an independent public authority, should be governed as one,” he said.

Board member David Jones said Cuomo’s successor will need to remain focused on the MTA’s expected deficit in the coming years — up to a $3.5 billion in 2024 and 2025 combined if there are no fare hikes, wage freezes, or reductions in service. And the agency is still trying to figure out how to get more people back to mass transit, due to plummeted ridership during the pandemic.

“We have a lot at risk here, we’ve seen it from a lot of the projections that we’re going to need resources into mass transit,” Jones said.

Two of Cuomo’s appointees to the MTA board were cited in Attorney General Letita James’ report that concluded he sexually harassed 11 women, and it’s unclear if they would have to step down along with the governor.

Board member Linda Lacewell, who is also Department of Financial Services Superintendent and a former special counsel to Cuomo, was referenced several times. The report says she helped co-write a statement about Cuomo’s integrity, and one victim said Lacewell was involved in working to discredit Cuomo accuser Lindsey Boylan.

In March, MTA board member and Cuomo confidante Larry Schwartz, who was named the state's "Vaccine Czar," called county executives to drum up support for the governor, after a second allegation of sexual misconduct surfaced.

The group Riders Alliance has held frequent rallies and press conferences condemning Cuomo for playing politics when it comes to mass transit. The group is looking forward to seeing what Hochul could do to improve it.

“The future of the city and state hinges on our governor putting fast, frequent, reliable, affordable, and accessible public transit at the top of her crowded policy agenda. Riders will look to Governor Hochul to empower competent MTA leaders and give them the resources they need to provide the services we demand,” spokesperson Danny Pearlstine wrote in a statement.

Other regional projects are likely to forge ahead without Cuomo.

He recently balked at supporting the Gateway project, which would require a mix of federal and local funds to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River, and repair another damaged by Hurricane Sandy. He questioned whether New York would contribute its share of the funding, and seemed to be tying Gateway to his redevelopment plans for Penn Station. But with a deadline at the end of August for all parties to get paperwork in to federal officials, it now appears Gateway is still on track.

"New York State has made its support for and commitment to Gateway clear time and again, including in its most recent capital and financial plan published just a few days ago,” according to a statement from Stephen Sigmund, a spokesperson for the Gateway Project. “Today's announcement does not change that commitment,” he said of the governor’s resignation.

Cuomo was a champion of airports, pushing renovations and upgrades at John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia, as well as the controversial AirTrain plan in Northern Queens. There were also his bridge projects, with expanded lanes opening on the Kosciuszko Bridge in 2019, and the replacement of the ailing Tappan Zee Bridge with new spans named after his father in 2017. In the midst of the pandemic, he heralded the opening of the Moynihan Train Station, across the street from Penn Station, and now used by Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road riders.

“Any one of these projects is more than any one individual,” said Tom Wright, President and CEO of the Regional Plan Association. “I think what’s been put in place is going to remain, and in particular with the federal funding coming through, now’s not the time to slow down, take a pause, rethink things, but rather to try to move forward and try to complete them.”

On the day Cuomo announced his resignation, the U.S. Senate passed President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, although its fate in the House is uncertain. An expected $11 billion from the bill could flow to the MTA for major projects Cuomo championed, like the next phase of the Second Avenue subway into East Harlem, and the Gateway Project. A key component of Gateway includes expanding Penn Station and redeveloping midtown, a project Cuomo made the centerpiece of his final state of the state speech this year.

There’s also the future of congestion pricing, which could raise a billion dollars a year for mass transit. The plan to charge drivers that enter Manhattan below 60th Street was approved by Cuomo in 2019, held up by the Trump administration, and then moved forward by the Biden administration this spring. It appears congestion pricing is not a priority for Cuomo because the MTA has not created the paperwork the federal government requires to move it forward, a point Mayor Bill de Blasio flagged last month.

“New York City’s congestion pricing plan is mission critical for generating a new revenue stream for the MTA, reducing traffic congestion in Manhattan, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions,” according to a statement from Renae Reynolds, Executive Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“As the city recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, the new governor must move quickly to implement congestion pricing fully and fairly, provide more frequent subway, bus, and commuter rail service, and build out a more accessible transit network.”