It’s no secret that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a car guy. He loves to talk about his personal collection of muscle cars, and on Friday, he had an opportunity to host his favorite type of ribbon cutting for the opening of the second span of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. He gathered his entire family on the bridge along with the usual collection of local politicians and Hillary Clinton, and he “opened” the bridge by driving FDR’s 1932 Packard across the new span. And then the bad news arrived.
As The Times reported on Monday, the Cuomo administration essentially bribed contractors to rush the finish of the span so the Governor could host the opening before Thursday’s Democratic primary election, but the bridge couldn’t actually to open to traffic because engineers found that the old one had destabilized and is at risk of collapsing onto the new one. In a way, it’s a perfect metaphor for Cuomo who governs by press release and ribbon cuttings, trumpeting other people’s accomplishments, and it mirrors the way he treated the Second Ave. Subway. He demanded the project open by the end of 2016 even though an extensive punch list remained (and still remains). He wants his photo ops, and come hell or high water, he’ll get them.
Cuomo’s grinning appearance on the bridge on Friday was in marked contrast to his Thursday press conference in Penn Station in which he debuted a new entrance to Penn Station and some Moynihan Station-related improvements. He spoke about catacombs and the general dinginess of Penn Station in ways that clearly made talking about transit sound like a chore for him. His muscle cars and FDR’s Packard it was not.
After nearly eight years of Gov. Cuomo, it’s become abundantly obvious that his disdain of public transit (and its riders) is a feature and not a bug. By most counts, he’s taken the subway only around 2-3 times during his gubernatorial tenure, and at least one of those was a special train from the Rockaways. Thus, this piece of reporting on Politico New York from Dana Rubinstein should come as no surprise: Cuomo’s disdain for public transit runs deep and is rooted in his outdated preconceptions about transit riders. Rubinstein writes:
Would-be governor Cynthia Nixon does straphanger photo ops. Council Speaker Corey Johnson does them, too. So occasionally does avowed motorist Mayor Bill de Blasio. Across the Hudson, Gov. Phil Murphy does it, on the foundering NJ Transit. In fact, perhaps the only major local politician who doesn’t do it is the one who controls New York’s crisis-ridden subway system. That would be Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
It’s not like his advisers haven’t tried to persuade him to give it a try. They’ve urged Cuomo, who is running for a third term, to ride the subway on more than one occasion, according to two knowledgeable sources. The governor has demurred. One explanation has it that the image of a “passive straphanger” doesn’t align with the governor’s can-do persona. It doesn’t enable him to don a windbreaker or grapple with machinery alongside predictably deferential transit workers.
The situation on the subways, on the other hand, is less controlled and rife with potential landmines. What if he pulls a Hillary Clinton and his swipe doesn’t work — on a Metrocard machine he’s responsible for, because he runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway? What if the countdown clocks his MTA installed are inaccurate? What if he gets heckled? “He’s smart enough to know that if he showed up on a subway platform at this point, he’d get his ass kicked,” said one Democratic political consultant who asked for anonymity, lest he suffer a similar fate.
Cuomo, a car guy who can’t recognize the limitations of automobile travel or the fact that he has no control over traffic or other drivers, thinks that the subway he controls is beneath him because of all the things that can go wrong. Talk about a telling psychological reaction to a collapsing subway. So instead of understanding the travails of subway riders, instead of knowing what his stewardship of the subways has wrought, Cuomo feels emasculated by the trains because he’s not the one behind the wheel, zooming down the 8th Ave. line with his pedal to the metal.
After two terms of this attitude toward transit, it’s clear that no matter what his allies claim, no matter the absurd gaslighting campaign from the TWU, no matter his supposed support for some congestion pricing plan, Andrew Cuomo doesn’t care about the subways and isn’t going to be the one to save them. He’s sucked all the oxygen out of the room arguing over the legal technicalities of control over the subway and the allocation of money for his aesthetically-orientated Enhanced Station Initiative without addressing how the taxpayer base — New York City residents and workers — is the same whether the money comes out of the state budget (as it should) or from the city. He’s spent years siphoning dollars away from the MTA’s budgets, whether for state-run ski slopes losing money or road projects. He has constantly refused to sign lockbox legislation that would put stringent strings on his MTA budgetary sleight-of-hand, and he barely endorsed Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan until his lack of support was on the verge of becoming a political albatross.
Meanwhile, on his watch, as we all know, progress at the MTA has slowed to a crawl. The agency was enjoying boom times in the late 2000s as focus on investment seemed to be catching up with reality, and as service improved, ridership boomed. But on Cuomo’s watched, delays and problems have become daily occurrences as ridership has shown year-over-year declines for the better part of his second term in office. These trends are stopping without significant cost reform and investment, and Cuomo hasn’t embraced either yet.
Meanwhile, on the capital side, Cuomo has dragged his feet (some say to make the city look bad) so that with the opening of the rebuilt WTC Cortlandt station on Saturday, there are no big-ticket subway expansion items under active construction right now. A few years ago, we had the 7 lin extension, South Ferry, Fulton St. and the Second Ave. Subway all ongoing, and today, we have the promise of Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and nothing else. For a 21st Century city, this lack of growth and progress is a travesty that will hinder New York’s promise for decades to come.
On the edge of primary day, that leaves New Yorkers with a governor who doesn’t support transit, openly disdains it and won’t change his tune. Make no mistake about it: Governor Cuomo is in charge of the MTA and the New York City subways, and he has been a bad steward of the crown-jewel American subway system. If he earns himself the nomination on Thursday or a victory in November, I don’t expect anything to change, and neither should you. A Cuomo third term will bring more of the same: He’ll use the subways for photos ops without forging ahead on real progress, and without an aggressive primary challenger pushing him to act, do you think he’ll continue to embrace Andy Byford and his earnest push for improvement? After all, the subway, a lifeblood of New York City and the state, is too passive for the Can-Do Press-Release governor.