8:12 am Nov. 5, 20121
Governor Andrew Cuomo has finally, unequivocally, taken ownership of the M.T.A.
"He's made it clear to all New Yorkers, if there was any question," said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives.
Technically, Cuomo has been in charge all along of the subways and buses and commuter rails that undergird the metropolitan region's economy and very way of life, and whose absence has been so sorely felt in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The governor appoints the M.T.A.'s chairman and its board. Along with the state legislature, he determines the authority's funding, or lack thereof.
But the chairman, in this case Joe Lhota, runs the authority's day-to-day operations. And thanks to the very nature of authorities like the M.T.A. (or the Port Authority or the Thruway Authority), governors can avoid taking responsibility for their shortcomings.
The authority structure facilitates bond issuance. It also facilitates political distance.
For example, when the Port Authority announced it was going to raise tolls, Governors Cuomo and Chris Christie, who together control its board, denied they had any foreknowledge, even though nobody believed them.
Similarly, Cuomo has kept his distance from the M.T.A., an authority which is frequently under siege and which is a favorite target of suburban elected officials in particular.
Before the hurricane, Cuomo rarely mentioned it, discussed any policies pertaining to it, or in any way demonstrated that he has any interest in it whatsoever. Better to let the authority take the heat for the fare hikes and service cuts made necessary by the regular winnowing of its dedicated sources of revenue.
(In fact, one of the few times it's arisen as an issue for Cuomo is when he chose to defund it.)
Last week was a big departure for him.
It was Lhota and Cuomo who announced the subway's official closure on Sunday, and Cuomo and Lhota who've been regularly updating downstate residents about the state of the flooded East River tunnels, and the gradual restoration of subway service, and gradual reopening of M.T.A. tunnels and bridges.
It's been Lhota and Cuomo who've announced that subway fares and bus rides would initially be free. And it is Cuomo who first suggested that the state would have to rebuild its infrastructure to be better than it was before.
Transportation advocates hope Cuomo matches his rhetoric with action, once the crisis surrounding Sandy subsides.
"I hope that the impacts of this storm have made it more clear to the state and to the city and to all of our elected officals that investment in transit is really a smart way to go moving forward, to prepare our region for these sorts of calamities, and, doing anyting less is shortsighted," said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
"For the issues that have been brought to light by Sandy and for the issues we all lived with everyday before Sandy, the executive can really help in a big way, can really help New Yorkers," Budnick said.
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