The real reason the country’s largest subway became such a total disaster.
What do you do when your political brand is based on old-school competence, but you literally can’t keep the trains running on time? For New York governor Andrew Cuomo, presiding over a subway system that’s become a total nightmare, the answer seems to be: Hope your constituents think it’s someone else’s fault.
Cuomo’s public image has never been about an inspiring message or firing up a passionate base. He lost more than a third of the vote as an incumbent in a Democratic primary in 2014 after pushing deep cuts to school aid, declaring war on unions, and tacitly supporting a Republican takeover of his state senate. Nor is he one of those happy retail politicians who derives popularity from attending local events, shaking hands, and flashing a friendly smile.
Instead, a key selling point for Cuomo has been a promise of barebones effectiveness. Or, as the man himself explained in a 2015 New Yorker profile: “Show me, it’s show-me time. Show me results. Build a bridge, build a train to LaGuardia, clear the snow, save lives. Huh? A little competence.”
It’s precisely this “a little competence, huh?” shtick that makes the disastrous state of New York City’s subways so dangerous to Cuomo—and why it’s vital for him that city residents continue to not realize that it is he, Cuomo (and not his nemesis, Mayor Bill de Blasio), who controls this mess.
How bad is the subway situation, exactly? A woman recently got her head stuck in a train, and people just kept walking past her. These people resorted to taking their shirts and pants off after being stuck in an underground tunnel for 45 minutes. This guy missed his graduation and had to settle for some passengers giving him a makeshift subterranean ceremony because his train was delayed for almost three hours. Signal malfunctions, crowding, and track repair delays have become commonplace, and there are now 70,000 delays a month—nearly triple the number five years ago. The results, beyond people losing their minds, include lost wages from tardiness and missed medical appointments.
And all of that’s before the pending shutdown of the L train upends thousands of people’s lives.
Seizing on those who understandably assume this stuff is the province of the local mayor, Cuomo recently proposed an adorable bill giving himself control of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) that he already oversees. “Who’s in charge [of the trains]?” he asked last week. “Who knows! Maybe the county executive, maybe the president, maybe the governor, maybe the mayor.”
It’s super weird that Cuomo isn’t sure who controls the transit system, since this winter he orchestrated a multimedia self-promotional tour to take credit for opening the “Second Avenue subway.” This included a fawning profile in the Times in which he invoked Robert Moses, and a celebration in which the MTA’s Tom Prendergast gushed about how proud he was to serve the governor. Never mind that the project was over budget, overdue, and basically amounted to the addition of three subway stops. For this particular development, Cuomo was not confused as to who controlled the subways. (He was right then: The governor not only appoints the head of the MTA, but also a plurality of its board. The MTA is chartered by the state, and even the agency’s own website says the governor appoints the members.)
Cuomo’s real coup has been dodging a full-fledged media scandal over this stuff, due partially to a quirk of geography.
Some excellent journalists are out there covering Cuomo’s administration, holding his feet to the fire on everything from his double talk on political corruption to a water poisoning crisis in upstate Hoosick Falls. The vast majority reside and work in Albany—which is great when a major event or story occurs in the State Capitol or nearby. In those cases, reporters are able to experience it directly and viscerally (and then go a short distance and report on it). Many times, the big stories requiring context and reporting involve the legislative process, and the Albany press corps are experts at condensing this super boring but important minutia.
The problem is when a Cuomo story happens hours away from the people keeping tabs on him. In the case of the ongoing subway nightmare, the reporters experiencing (and covering) these hellish commutes, the ones who know precisely how the MTA works on a day-to-day basis, are not necessarily in position to put pressure on Cuomo in Albany.
While the governor has received his share of unpleasant criticism over this fiasco, he still seems to be evading a total bulldozing in the press. Which means many people still don’t know where to point their fingers.
Speaking of Albany reporters covering the legislative process, some dogged ones noticed earlier this month that Cuomo tried to slip in a provision in the dark of night that would replace the honorary name of the Tappan Zee bridge from that of one former governor, Malcolm Wilson, to that of another: Cuomo’s father, Mario.
Ultimately the provision was stalled (though perhaps just temporarily), when members of the state assembly declined to vote on it.
While the effort by Cuomo was roundly criticized, with one sharp observer calling it an “incredibly classic Cuomo/Albany story” and a “ridiculous farce,” perhaps it could still spawn an idea that actually serves the public. If the governor is so keen on blessing major infrastructure with his family name, Albany leaders might just oblige—by naming the current transportation mess after its rightful owner.
The Andrew Cuomo Subway System has a nice ring to it.