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Cuomo’s MTA Power Shakeup Threatens to Upend Transit Comeback, Critics Say

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MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber (right) and Governor Andrew Cuomo lead a tour of the East Side Access station beneath Grand Central Terminal, May 27, 2021.

Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor Cuomo’s Office

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to shake up MTA brass could throw the agency off-track as the transit system emerges from a crippling pandemic, board members, advocates and watchdogs told THE CITY.

Albany lawmakers initially rejected Cuomo’s bid to split duties currently held by outgoing Chairperson Patrick Foye among two top MTA officials. The plan was revived in last-minute talks Thursday as part of an agreement for a criminal justice bill.

The Assembly was expected to consider the measure as the Legislative session headed toward a close. But the Senate won’t pick up the bill until a later date — stalling a proposed management overhaul that critics said could lead to a heightening of Cuomo’s notorious micromanaging of the MTA.

The last-ditch bid to revamp the transit agency’s leadership structure raised concerns about a potential power play that one top labor leader called “underhanded” and “shadowy.”

“It’s fugazi,” said John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union and an MTA board member. “Any stakeholder here realizes this is not a move that lends itself toward warm feelings about the governor or the governor’s interaction with the MTA.”

Cuomo this week nominated interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg to chair the board of the regional transportation authority, while installing MTA construction and development executive Janno Lieber as chief executive officer. 

The attempted power shift came as daily subway ridership hit its highest point since the start of the pandemic, with nearly 2.4 million riders on Wednesday.

“Millions of people are riding the trains and buses today and many more are coming back soon,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy organization. “Fast, frequent and reliable service is what’s going to bring people back, not politics.”

Multiple sources told THE CITY that Foye — who was named interim president and CEO of Empire State Development Corporation in the shakeup — was “not happy” about the changes.

“It wasn’t his idea,” said an MTA board member, who asked to remain anonymous.

May the Schwartz Be With You

Other sources told THE CITY that Cuomo’s office tried to drum up support from resistant labor leaders by raising the possibility of installing his longtime lieutenant, Larry Schwartz, in a top job at the MTA, if they didn’t back the new leadership structure.

But an Albany source denied that Schwartz — long viewed as Cuomo’s behind-the-scenes enforcer — was being considered for another post at the agency and called it a “straw man.” Schwartz, who most recently served as Cuomo’s vaccine czar, has been on the MTA board since 2015.

“He is the exact type of individual that would trigger a full-blown strike,” Samuelsen said. “That’s what Larry Schwartz would bring.”

MTA board members Lawrence Schwartz (left) and John Samuelsen (right).

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Other board members criticized the swift scramble atop the MTA, which has been operating with billions of dollars in federal aid and loans after its ridership and tax revenues collapsed during the pandemic. 

“You see the same flawed decision process that has been the hallmark of all major MTA decisions since I joined the board over two years ago,” said Robert Linn, one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointees. “Major issues are submitted for decision minutes before a deadline, preempting any meaningful board, public or legislative input.”

Rachael Fauss, of the watchdog group Reinvent Albany, pointed to a 2008 commission led by former MTA Chairperson Richard Ravitch that led to legislation that put the chair and CEO roles into a single job.

“How are riders going to have any assurance that splitting these positions up again is beneficial to them?” she said. “This was seen by the Ravitch Commission in 2008 as an ill-advised structure.”

Nothing Personal

Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, praised Foye, Feinberg and Lieber for keeping transit service and capital projects afloat during the coronavirus crisis. But she added that the agency is in need of “strong and steady” leadership as the MTA emerges from the pandemic.

“That has to be in place,” she said. “That has to be in place right now.”

New York City Transit interim president Sarah Feinberg, Dec. 21, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The surprise move by Cuomo came near the end of a tumultuous Albany session in which he became the subject of multiple investigations amid a barrage of sexual harassment allegations and accusations he underreported pandemic-related nursing home deaths. He’s spurned numerous calls for his resignation. 

Samuelsen said the union has “no personality beef” with either of the MTA officials who would lead the agency. He said that it’s “paramount” that a “transit expert” be appointed to replace Feinberg as head of New York City Transit, the agency that runs subway, bus and paratransit service.

“The focus of every stakeholder here has to be on instilling confidence in the riders so they ride again and it has to be on improving service delivery so the riders migrate back to the system,” he said. “This whole entire episode takes away from that.”

The MTA declined to comment for this story.

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