The Political Ghost That Should Haunt Andrew Cuomo as He Again Pledges to Fix the New York City Subway

Trains… can he make them run on time? 

Getty Images

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in Manhattan on Thursday to declare a “state of emergency” at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the beleaguered agency that moves millions, some of them to the office and some of them to tears, every workday.

The event in question was the launch of the MTA Genius Transit Challenge, a yearlong quest to figure out how to run a big city subway system. Three $1 million prizes will be distributed. (Nobody tell Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow, London, or Paris—we want to keep this a fair fight.)

It’s part of Gov. Cuomo’s campaign to show the world he really does run the MTA, at least when he feels like it. This new effort to disrupt the status quo might have a little more credibility had he not, three years ago this week, established a commission of 22 experts to reinvent the MTA. (Reader, they didn’t.) This year’s task is reimagining. It is at once an odd diversion, since managing a subway system is not rocket science, and a welcome one, since it reinforces a sense of political accountability at a time when it feels like the system has reached a crisis point.

It’s also an interesting turn for Cuomo, who came into office with a transit system functioning in high gear, with annual record ridership on shiny new trains. He inherited credit for finally completing the Second Avenue Subway, adding the most new track mileage to the subway system in decades. His relationship with the unions was good. He made cheap, cosmetic improvements like installing Wi-Fi in stations as service steadily languished.

It all left him free to focus on his true love: cars. (Or so he thought …) In an effort to brand himself a modern-day Robert Moses, Cuomo built new bridges—one of which, the State Assembly decided today, will be named after his late father, Gov. Mario Cuomo—invested half a billion in tolling technology, and spent billions on highway construction in upstate New York while shorting the city’s own infrastructural needs.

As a result, Cuomo now finds himself celebrating two new bridges whose predecessors together carried 320,000 cars a day, while a derailment snarls the A and C trains, which clock 800,000 rides per day. (Oh, and the city bus system is in terminal decline, which has helped contribute to subway crowding problems.)

It’s déjà vu all over again, as Cuomo follows in the footsteps of his counterpart across the Hudson River, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. When Christie took office, the state’s commuter rail system, New Jersey Transit, was a model. Now it’s a mockery. When he took office, the state had billions in federal money ready to build a second trans-Hudson rail tunnel. Now it has one, deteriorating tunnel whose imminent failure will irreparably damage the state’s economy.

That Gov. Christie is now the least-popular governor in the long, misruled history of the Garden State has much to do with his alleged involvement in a scheme to punish a political rival with a traffic jam. But Christie also did his part to punish the state’s transit commuters.

First, in 2010, he canceled that tunnel, then the nation’s largest public works project. Whatever its faults, Access to the Region’s Core, as it was known, would have provided a back-up to the 107-year-old North River Tunnels to Penn Station. Christie spent the state’s own contribution on roads. Decried as shortsighted then, the decision has looked even more dumb since 2012, when the existing, ancient tunnel was flooded by Superstorm Sandy. Amtrak subsequently announced the tunnel must be shut down for repairs. Senators from both New York and New Jersey are desperately trying to procure federal support for a new tunnel before that happens.

Confronted with the delays caused by the aging tunnel, the two governors spent a while trying to dodge that problem as well, though they eventually came around, as I wrote last year:

In July [of 2015], Christie had called on his attorney general to investigate Amtrak. In August, Cuomo had said the tunnel was not his problem. “It’s not my tunnel!” he told reporters. “Why don’t you pay for it?” But by September, the men agreed their states would pay for half the new project. “Our shovels are ready,” a joint letter proclaimed.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Transit—the commuter rail system that shares the tunnel with Amtrak—underwent its own decline. NJT was been the country’s fastest-growing commuter railroad between 1980 and 2016, a period during which rail passengers crossing under the Hudson to New York more than tripled. In 1980, 9 percent of New Jersey travelers bound for Manhattan used commuter rail. By 2014, that figure was 16 percent.

It has since become, the Newark Star-Ledger wrote in a scathing May editorial, a “dystopian nightmare”:

In the past year, the agency had a $45 million shortfall, the director’s office was empty, its board hid from the public, it had a fatal crash and several derailments, and its grim safety records were marked by federal fines, an alarming breakdown rate, and slow installation of an automatic braking system.

Over the past 12 years, even as ridership has risen 20 percent, capital expenditures have gone down 19 percent. “The agency has been starved,” its co-founder and former director Martin Robins said last year, after a commuter train came screaming into Hoboken and half-destroyed the station. State subsidy to NJT has fallen 90 percent on Christie’s watch.

Now, it’s hard to know how much of Christie’s decline can be attributed to this—his approval rating has been volatile, spiking with Sandy and plummetting with Bridgegate. But it has continued to slide since. According to a Quinnipiac poll released last month, the percentage of New Jerseyans who approve of Christie’s handling of trans-Hudson mass transit is 18—the same percent that think he’s handling his job well. Just 18 months earlier, he was at a more respectable 39 percent, according to a Rutgers poll. Meanwhile, transit has been a big issue in the current gubernatorial race—a subject of real debate in a way that would surprise anyone accustomed to transit’s quiet political profile. Crashing trains look bad even if they don’t personally snarl your commute.

Cuomo doesn’t need me telling him he doesn’t want to end up like the guy who fetches President Trump’s chicken nuggets. He had a 41 percent approval rating in June, according to Marist, and it’s up to 51 percent in heavily Democratic (and subway-dependent) New York City. He isn’t embroiled in a federal conspiracy trial.

But it’s hard to avoid the sense that New York, under Cuomo, is living a delayed version of New Jersey under Christie. Christie took office in 2010, Cuomo in 2011. Two governors, each of whom saw himself as a moderate capable of bridging the political divide, each had presidential ambitions, each mistook “infrastructure” to just mean “roads,” and each failed to make the trains run on time.

Christie has paid the price. Can Cuomo learn from his example?