National News

Cuomo Finally Says the Obvious: He Backs the Transit Rescue Plan

Posted May 31, 2018 10:56 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo may have played coy about embracing the new transit rescue proposals when they were announced last week, but on Thursday he jumped in with both feet.

Of course. He knew every important detail before the plans were made public, said Joseph Lhota, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The man who created them, Andy Byford, had been hired as the new transit chief with Cuomo’s blessing. Neither the governor nor anyone in his office asked Byford for changes.

If your house were burning down, would you call the firefighters and then try to tell them how to thread their hose to a hydrant?

Byford is the firefighter. He and his plans have weathered a little behind-the-scene friction with at least one board member at the MTA. In pushing back, according to an official who knows both sides, Byford told the board member to butt out — politely — saying he was hired to run transit, and that he would use his judgment.

If the governor was going to back Byford’s ideas all along, why didn’t he just say so? One strong possibility is that Cuomo, who is running for a third term, tactically held his tongue in an act of political tradecraft. Perhaps he timed his statement in the hopes of drowning out an announcement on the subject by Cynthia Nixon, his opponent for the Democratic nomination who has not let a day, or practically even an hour, go by without criticizing his management of the subways.

The stakes are much higher than a momentary political edge for a governor or his opponent. Much of the city’s future rests on a transit system that has fallen into a decrepit state, just as New York’s population has boomed. It bears mentioning that in the last eight years, the city has added as many new residents as if it had absorbed every last person in Boston. People come to New York for a chance. Only the mobility offered by mass transit makes that possible.

The gravity of the moment does not mean being politically adroit is not important. Just the opposite.

So far, Byford has shown a winning way. He spoke Tuesday evening at a town-hall meeting in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a tradition of asking sharp questions of government officials. His presentation won an enthusiastic response, with lots of applause when he said that he, too, found weekend detour signs to be “baffling.” He said that he has been given “political cover” in Albany by his boss, Lhota.

Last week, Byford received a standing ovation at a major forum on transit convened by the Regional Plan Association at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. Urban planning nerds ride the trains and buses, too.

The Byford proposals have been so well received that Nixon announced Thursday that she was adopting them, practically to the iota. Who, after all, could argue with a program that calls for better signals and new rail cars so the train traffic moves faster? Or a more rational bus system? Or better accessibility?

Not surprisingly, Cuomo pre-empted, by a few hours, Nixon’s embrace of the plan with his own endorsement. The governor said he would push forward with congestion pricing, essentially a toll on vehicles entering lower and midtown Manhattan. A panel created by the governor proposed the pricing in January. The legislature approved a part of the plan that adds new charges for passengers in taxis and for-hire vehicles.

Nixon also supports congestion pricing. But she says a millionaire’s tax ought to help pay for the subway overhaul, which happens to be supported by her ally, Mayor Bill de Blasio. New York state already has a stiff tax on higher incomes that brings in $4.5 billion a year. Periodically, someone proposes raising it higher to pay for college grants, or prekindergarten, or, most recently, transit improvements.

It is a worthy argument, perhaps, but most New Yorkers probably don’t care where the money to fix the transit system comes from. No one calls firefighters to a burning building, only to get fussy about which hydrant they tap.

Or, for that matter, to decide that they shouldn’t have any water at all.