Months of mass-transit breakdowns have done more than deepen the misery of New York City commuters. They’ve also begun to cost Governor Andrew Cuomo political capital.
Recent polls show Cuomo, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, with approval ratings near lows. A majority of New York voters disapprove of his leadership of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s subways. Over the last five years, delays have more than doubled, to about 70,000 a month from 28,000, according to City Hall data.
Cuomo has tried to deflect the criticism by saying that the city, which owns the subway system, should be paying more to fix it. As he and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio blame each other, the worsening crisis highlights a national need for investment in crumbling infrastructure after years of neglect, as commuters question where their fares are being spent.
“It’s not as if the governor just got elected. He’s had seven years to deal with these problems and this is what he has to show for it,” said Richard Barone, vice president for transportation at the Regional Plan Association, a non-profit group that advises governments on infrastructure policy. “The agency has been treading water for years without improving its subways and adapting with new technology.”
As the transit crisis worsened, Cuomo declared a state of emergency in the city’s subway system, and warned of a “Summer of Hell,” including reduced Long Island Rail Road service into Penn Station for Amtrak’s track repairs. He directed Joseph Lhota, his newly appointed MTA chairman, to prepare an overhaul plan by the end of this month.
Lhota said Thursday he will call on the city to contribute more to the MTA’s five-year, $32.5 billion capital plan. He and Cuomo both cited a 1981 state law that says the city leases the subway to the MTA, while the agency has the power to borrow money for upkeep and growth.
“The state has put in more money than ever before in the history of the state and it’s the city’s legal obligation to be funding it, even though we stepped in on a moral level,” Cuomo, who faces re-election next year, said during a July 20 news conference. “New York City is solely responsible for funding the capital plan for the New York City subway system.”
De Blasio, meanwhile, says it’s Cuomo’s job. He took their feud underground Sunday morning, attracting a gaggle of reporters and cameras by traveling to a Brooklyn event on the subway.
“The state of New York is responsible for making sure our subways run,” he said. “It has been decades and decades that the governor of the state, whoever the governor is, has named the head of the MTA and has effective control over the MTA.”
Lhota, a Republican who was defeated by de Blasio in the 2013 mayoral election, described the mayor’s comments as “disingenuous,” and his subway ride as a “photo op.”
In the past, Cuomo has touted his role as the subway system’s ultimate boss. He began this year with a party opening a segment of a new subway line extending about 1.5 miles along Manhattan’s Second Avenue, without the mayor’s participation. Cuomo decided to shut down the entire system without consulting the mayor in advance of a January 2015 blizzard.
De Blasio’s fiscal 2018 budget already includes a five-year, $2.5 billion commitment to the agency’s capital plan, its largest contribution ever. The city’s $85 billion spending plan also gives the agency about $1 billion to subsidize its operating expenses.
The governor dominates and appoints the 17-member board, to which the mayor may recommend four. Lhota says the city has ultimate control because it has the power to veto the board’s capital plan. That action is unlikely to be taken because it would precipitate an even worse crisis, withholding funds needed to keep the system in a state of good repair.
The governor and mayor were friends and political allies for decades until they both took office. In 2014, within six months of taking over City Hall, de Blasio was describing Cuomo as a vindictive and vengeful political foe who intended to hurt the city’s best interest just to reduce the mayor’s political influence.
Last week, de Blasio attacked Cuomo’s plan to place colored light shows on bridges crossing the city’s waterways. The governor said the state’s economic development agency would pay for the $250 million system.
“People who ride the subway are not interested in the light show, they are interested in getting the trains to run on time,” the mayor said.
The mayor’s comments came in the same week that a Siena College poll showed Cuomo’s favorability rating dropping 19 percentage points to 52 percent, his lowest since February 2016. Voters say they hold the governor more accountable than the mayor for the subways.
Given New York’s transit issues, it’s no wonder Cuomo’s approval is suffering, said William Cunningham, who advised former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan, and former Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo.
“The MTA is a huge entity in the most populous part of the state,” Cunningham said. “The governor of late has taken so many bows for the Second Avenue subway, reinforcing the idea that he and not the mayor is in charge, that it is an object lesson in the adage, ‘Be careful what you take credit for.”’
— With assistance by Elise Young