National News

The $19 Billion Question: Will Cuomo Support the Subway Plan?

Posted May 24, 2018 8:18 p.m. EDT

When the new leader of the New York City subway presented his ambitious plan to save the system on Wednesday, he was working to win over several audiences: subway riders who are fed up with service; transit agency board members who must approve any proposal; and elected leaders who must pay for it.

But most of all, Andy Byford, had to impress Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the man who controls the transit system and will be most responsible for securing money for the multibillion dollar plan.

Instead of winning his praise, Cuomo, who played a behind-the-scenes role in hiring Byford, claimed he had not seen the plan and responded with a shrug. “I am not wed to that amount of money,” Cuomo said of the proposal’s possible $19 billion price tag.

Cuomo’s response left many wondering: Why did the governor bring on a transit chief to overhaul the subway if he was not going to support his plan meant to do exactly that?

Byford arrived in New York in January after winning acclaim for improving Toronto’s transit system. His proposal pushes for an aggressive rollout of new signals to replace the antiquated World War II-era equipment that is responsible for many breakdowns on the subway.

“I certainly wasn’t expecting people to just overnight say, ‘Yeah, we love it,'” Byford told reporters on Thursday after a speech to promote the plan. “But the good news is the debate is underway, the plan is being written, it’s out there, so I look forward now to working with anyone — all stakeholders — to now get this thing funded.”

Still, it is difficult to imagine that Byford’s proposal would have much of a life without the governor’s buy-in, leaving some transit advocates suggesting that this could become a critical test for the subway chief.

“If Byford put in the work to produce the plan, but the response from the governor is, ‘I’m going to hang you out to dry, and I’m going to pretend to be fiscally responsible in the face of a high price tag,’ then I think Byford should call his bluff and walk away,” said Benjamin Kabak, a transit advocate who runs a popular website about the subway.

Asked whether he might leave the job, Byford told reporters: “I love this job. And the reason I’ve written this plan is I want to execute this plan. So I’m itching to get on with it.”

Later Thursday, Cuomo’s office released a new statement in response to questions about whether the governor supported Byford and his plan. Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Cuomo, offered support for Byford — and a list of other top executives at the authority. “The governor looks forward to reviewing the report and supporting the MTA's new management team in their effort to overhaul and modernize NYC Transit and bring relief to riders,” she said. “Andy Byford, Joe Lhota, Pat Foye, Ronnie Hakim, Phil Eng and Janno Lieber are changing the MTA and that’s why they’re there.”

Technically, Byford was hired by leaders at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-controlled agency that oversees the subway. But Cuomo, who has taken a close role in setting the agency’s priorities, interviewed Byford in person and essentially signed off on him.

In the past, Cuomo has praised Byford in public, though Cuomo has also pressed him to focus on a new signal technology that has not been used on any major transit system. Byford’s plan relies on a proven technology that has already been thoroughly tested in New York.

The authority’s chairman, Joseph J. Lhota, says Cuomo is simply trying to keep pressure on the agency to become more efficient. Lhota views his role as helping to protect Byford from the difficult politics surrounding the agency so Byford can focus on running the system.

But the plan’s release was quickly overshadowed by political squabbling between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, and criticism from actress Cynthia Nixon, who is running for governor in the Democratic primary.

On Thursday, Nixon said Byford’s plan is exactly what the subway needed. “The question is, will the governor listen to the study that he himself has ordered?” Nixon said.

A day earlier, Cuomo had told reporters the plan could not succeed without de Blasio pitching in some cash. De Blasio said fixing the subway was Cuomo’s problem because he ran it. An MTA spokesman hit back, saying the city owned the subway and the mayor’s unwillingness to help pay for the plan had made it “dead on arrival.”

Eric Phillips, a spokesman for de Blasio, then responded with a searing statement: “New York City contributes billions of dollars to subways the governor and MTA mismanage. We wish the governor was less obsessed with the mayor bailing him out and more obsessed with doing his job to fix the subways.”

On Thursday, Scott Rechler, chairman of the Regional Plan Association, an urban policy group, joked that Byford was Superman and his kryptonite was politics. “We need to protect Andy from kryptonite poisoning him,” Rechler said.

Byford was hired by Lhota, who is facing questions about his possible conflicts of interest, and Veronique Hakim, the authority’s managing director.

Cuomo is critical to the plan’s fate because most of its financing would likely have to come from Albany, where Cuomo controls the agenda. Several new funding sources have been discussed, from congestion pricing — which would toll drivers entering Manhattan — to de Blasio’s idea for a tax on millionaires, and either would require the approval of state lawmakers.

But there is little doubt that New York City would have to kick in some money as well. The authority’s roughly $800 million short-term rescue plan ended up being split by the state and the city, but only after months of mudslinging between Cuomo and de Blasio.

Even if Cuomo did not give a ringing endorsement for Byford’s plan, his representatives on the MTA board weighed in after Byford’s presentation. Rechler, a real estate executive and major donor to Cuomo, endorsed the plan.

“We need to find the money to get it done, and we need to provide you with the political cover and the resources to make it a reality,” Rechler said.

Another board member, Lawrence S. Schwartz, a former top aide to the governor, said the authority, which is known for finishing projects late and overbudget, first had to regain its credibility.

“Our focus should not be on money right now,” he said. “Our focus should be on restoring the trust and confidence in the system that people rely on.”