Ahead of 2018 Session, Cuomo Mum on Pursuing MTA Board Overhaul


In June, as New Yorkers became increasingly frustrated with subway performance and braced themselves for the expected “summer of hell,” Governor Andrew Cuomo was the focus of intense criticism, responding with a series of measures he said were needed in order to fix the ailing Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).

Among them, Cuomo introduced last-minute legislation that would allow the governor to appoint a majority of MTA board members, a gesture some saw as an attempt to bolster his sometimes claim that he does not actually control the MTA and its beleaguered subway system. Currently the governor appoints a plurality of board members as well as the chair and CEO of the MTA, giving the state’s chief executive de facto control of the board.

Cuomo’s bill, announced June 20, the final day of the session — giving it minimal chance to be passed through the Legislature this year — adds two state seats to the MTA board appointed by the governor and an additional vote for the chair. The proposal drew swift criticism from board members not appointed by the governor, who believe the body’s independence is hampered enough, and transit experts, who see it as a cynical ploy.

The measure was not included in the final legislative deal of the session and the governor has been silent on the subject since, though his nomination of Joe Lhota to once again lead the MTA was accepted and the governor appeared to retake responsibility for the future of the subway system.

Cuomo’s board reform proposal came amid a debate between the governor and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, both Democrats, over control of the state authority. The governor, while appointing the leadership and six members, has argued that the board’s organizational structure — which allows city and downstate suburban appointees to total a slight majority of votes over budgetary and contracting decisions — is flawed and has historically led to finger-pointing and dysfunction.

“Who’s in charge? Who knows! Maybe the county executive, maybe the president, maybe the governor, maybe the mayor,” the governor said, during a press appearance where he defended the bill.

“If you believe I have control with six [voting members], then you shouldn’t have a problem giving me actual control. And if you have a problem giving me actual control, you know what that means? You were disingenuous when you said I had control,” he added.

Along with the governor’s six board appointees and the mayor’s four, Westchester, Suffolk, and Nassau Counties each get a board member, and Rockland, Orange, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties appointees share a collective vote. There are six non-voting members of the board. If Cuomo had his way, there would be 16 total voting members and the new structure would give the state eight board appointees and nine votes.

When asked whether the governor still stood by the proposal and whether he would promote it as part of his 2018 agenda — his State of the State speech and policy platform release will occur January 3 — a spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said that the governor’s view on the issue had not changed but that the governor’s agenda was not yet finalized.

“The MTA’s board structure was purposefully created to avoid accountability, which is why in June Governor Cuomo advanced legislation to update it. Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to adopt the bill,” said spokesman Peter Ajemian.“That design flaw still exists today with the city’s refusal to pay for the system without recourse, and the MTA’s inability to implement its full Subway Action Plan.”

Ajemian emphasized that Cuomo’s administration has appointed a new leadership team is still making significant gains with the half of the plan that is funded by the state.

While the MTA board approves the budget and the chair and CEO run the authority, there is no credible argument that the governor does not effectively control the subway. Critics, including de Blasio, quickly pointed to the governor’s attention to and oversight of the completion of phase one of the Second Avenue subway extension as evidence of Cuomo’s control of the MTA.

“The governor controls the MTA. That’s a hard, accepted fact in the eyes of New Yorkers, said mayoral spokesperson Austin Finan, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “What’s needed now is a new, dedicated revenue stream to modernize the subways and buses that city riders depend on.”

The current board structure dates back to 1965, though in 1983 Cuomo’s father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, similarly attempted to add members to the board to gain a majority, The New York Times has pointed out. The elder Cuomo gave up due to opposition from then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch and suburban officials.

After the board convened and objected to the legislation, Cuomo appointed Joe Lhota, who briefly ran the authority before leaving for a 2013 mayoral run, as its chair — a move that was hailed by transit experts as a step in the right direction in terms of taking responsibility for the transportation system and its ongoing woes.

hRegardless of whether the governor decides to move forward with controversial MTA board restructuring, he and his chair seized a collective unilateral control over much of the authority’s actions.

Days after appointing Lhota, Cuomo declared a state of emergency at the MTA, ordering Lhota to assess the transit authority’s needs within 60 days. The administration has extended the order every 30 days, granting Lhota the authority to execute many contracts without a board vote.

“State of Emergency declarations must be renewed every 30 days, and as such, the Governor has renewed MTA’s order every 30 days so the MTA can continue to work swiftly and without constraint,” said Ajemian in statement, when asked when the order would be allowed to expire.

While MTA board members interviewed by Gotham Gazette declined to comment on the record about Cuomo’s restructuring bill, those from New York City have made clear that the governor already calls the shots at the agency. At least one gubernatorial appointee, Scott Rechler, sided with Cuomo on the legislation, when speaking to the New York Times in June.

“Let him put 100 percent of his political capital, his expertise, his energy, his relationships into fixing something that is immensely broken,” he told the outlet.

The general consensus is that the governor already has more than enough power over the MTA.

To restructure the MTA board, Cuomo would need the support of Legislature, which is led by an Assembly member from New York City and a Senator from Long Island.

A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said no legislation had been proposed in the Assembly, so the speaker could not comment. A bill was hastily introduced and sent to the Senate’s rules committee on the last day of this year’s legislative session, and a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not return a request for comment.

GE startup designs a less painful blood test

Schenectady Gazette

Scientists in Niskayuna developed crucial part of collection device

Getting blood drawn for medical testing may become quicker, less painful and more informal with new technology being developed by a General Electric startup.

The device developed by Drawbridge Health is usable by untrained personnel, takes a tiny amount of blood from a skin prick and stabilizes it so it will keep for days at room temperature until it can reach the testing lab. It’s a technology that could one day be available for in-home use by patients.

Today’s widely used blood-draw procedures require a trained phlebotomist to puncture the patient’s vein and draw one or more vials of blood in a clinical setting, before sending the vials, which must be kept cool, to a lab.

The new technology involves GE at a number of levels:

GE Ventures in Boston came up with the idea for the product, then created Drawbridge to make it a reality, with development help from engineers and scientists at GE Global Research and GE Healthcare. Drawbridge is now privately held and independent, but GE remains an investor.

The Drawbridge team designed the device to do the mechanical work of extracting blood.

Global Research scientists in Niskayuna developed the paperlike matrix that absorbs the blood and stabilizes it for the potentially lengthy wait for testing.

The device is undergoing review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“We expect to complete that process sometime next year,” said Risa Stack, who is managing director of new business creation for GE Ventures and also sits on Drawbridge’s board of directors.

Then the hard work begins: building market acceptance for the new device and capturing market share. Blood is drawn billions of times per year in the United States.

Drawbridge is talking to potential partners that already operate in the industry.

Stack has a long academic and professional background in the field but was born with one unique qualification for this project: a strong dislike of needles and a history of passing out during blood draws. She’ll often bring a book to distract herself when scheduled for a blood draw, and a candy bar to boost her blood sugar.

Drawbridge hasn’t named its device yet, nor released photos of it. But prototypes have been tested on volunteers including Stack, who found it noticeably less painful than the traditional venipuncture blood draw and also less painful than the fingertip-prick done for blood sugar monitoring.

The device withdraws less than a milliliter of blood. It can be used anywhere on the arm but is typically placed near the shoulder. Because it is not pulling blood from the vein, it does not require the skill of a phlebotomist, and it works well on patients with hard-to-find veins.

Making the blood tests easier, it is hoped, will allow for better tracking of medical conditions and response to therapy, saving time, money and even lives.

The Drawbridge device sends the blood into a cartridge, where the paperlike matrix stabilizes it within a few minutes. The cartridge is then removed for transport to a lab. The promise is that blood tests can be done on a more informal basis at more remote settings — and with less discomfort.

David Moore, a chemist who is the technology operations leader for the functional materials group at Global Research in Niskayuna, led the effort to develop the matrix.

It was essentially an adaptation of technology GE developed for the Life Sciences section of its Healthcare business. The collaborative nature of research efforts at Global Research allows for easy sharing of ideas and expertise across disciplines, technologies and businesses, Stack and Moore said.

Moore said the Drawbridge Health product gathers samples that can be tested in many ways, including for proteins, genetic material and biomarkers that would indicate a wide range of conditions and diseases.

“The possibilities are quite extensive,” he said, though the product is not envisioned as a forensic or substance-abuse test device at this point.

Stack said the device is part of a health care industry trend toward giving patients increased control over treatment and decreased time away from work or other activities for clinical settings.

Technology to allow quicker and/or easier blood tests has been in development and on the market for years. Many companies make finger-prick glucose testers for diabetes patients. Various apps allow smartphone-linked monitors to provide real-time blood-sugar data and, if needed, instructions or advice. Roche Diagnostics has a device that checks coagulents. CardioChek markets a cholesterol tester. Athelas is developing a device that does a 60-second check on cancer patients for an array of diseases. Silicon Valley startup Theranos has had a high-profile roller-coaster ride with its own finger-prick device that promised a battery of quick, inexpensive blood tests.

What makes Drawbridge different, GE Venutres said, is that the blood test is done in a traditional blood lab, with all the technology and infrastructure there, rather than in a portable consumer device.

1867: Railroads North

From the Utica OD
1867, 150 years ago

Pictured is the Remsen Depot

A new chapter in the history of Central New York is ushered in when the Utica and Black River Railroad is extended to Lyons Falls, thus connecting Utica with the North Country and its lumber and wood products.

The line was organized on Jan. 29, 1853 and on Dec. 13, 1854, it was opened from Utica to Boonville. Errors in management and underestimating construction and operating costs doomed the unprofitable railroad and it was forced to close. In 1860, a group of Central New Yorkers – headed by John Thorn – purchased the line. Thorn, a wealthy Utican in the soap and candle-making business, was elected president. He and his partners began to improve the railroad and its service and it soon began to make money and, for the first time, began to pay stockholders a dividend

Thorn was born in 1811 in Ruishton, near Taunton, Somersetshire, England. He settled in Utica in 1832. Today he is a director in several Utica banks and knitting mills and is a parishioner at Tabernacle Baptist Church. (He donated the land on Hopper Street for a new church. His wife, Mary Maynard Thorn, donated a lot of King Street for a chapel.)

History Suggests the Hyperloop Is an Uncertain Promise for Future Cities


Proponents of Hyperloop have repeatedly suggested that their transportation technology will create new “mega-regions,” essentially reshaping the scope of cities. Multiple startups are now striving to defy critics and connect different dots on maps. But in the process they face formidable barriers and uncertain sociological outcomes.

Most recently, Richard Branson made a sizable investment in Hyperloop One, causing it to be rebranded as Virgin Hyperloop One. His investment helps legitimize the radical technology. This latest round of capital could allow the world to experience a new and distinctive transportation system. But will it transform cities in the ways being promised?

The idea for Hyperloop was first popularized in 2013, when Elon Musk published a white paper (PDF). Musk outlined a new method for expedited travel, characterizing it as “the right solution for the specific case of high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart.” This solution entails shooting capsules of people and freight through near-vacuum steel tubes at speeds exceeding 700 miles per hour.

Governments all over the world have now signed exploratory agreements with Hyperloop companies. And if you’ll pardon the pun, hyperbolic claims have been made.

Tim Houter, CEO and founder of Hardt Global Mobility, stated, “[Hyperloop] will make you able to travel over this whole continent, as you can now travel with a metro in a city.” His company’s website calls on people to imagine “a world without traffic jams, without schedules or rush, a world where you can live and work at any place you desire, a world where distance does not matter.”

Alan James, VP of worldwide business development at Hyperloop One, has suggested, “If you connect two cities with Hyperloop, you get, effectively, a sort of global city punching above its weight in a global economy.”

If built, it’s unclear how these systems would actually impact society. In spite of this ambiguity, public presentations about Hyperloop are consistently grandiose. A Hyperloop One blog post authored by strategic communications manager Leslie Horwitz suggested that the new technology could “stimulate growth and bring much-needed economic balance to the UK.”

Hyperloop pods would theoretically allow workers to commute over vast distances, connecting them with previously inaccessible jobs. “Through fast and seamless connections, a Hyperloop system would distribute the massive economic pull of London more equally and more productively,” states Horwitz’s blog post.

However, the cost of a ticket and the system’s reliability are looming question marks. Even occasional technical glitches would pose a significant impediment to the daily commuter. Additionally, “the massive economic pull of London” has not been distributed “more equally and more productively” within London itself, as was graphically demonstrated by the 2011 England riots and the Grenfell Tower fire.

Bridging Social and Economic Divides

It makes sense that Hyperloop companies are framing their product’s value in grandiose societal terms, given that the stakeholders are involved in governance and are more interested in public policy than linear electrical motors. However, some of the PR materials make even bolder claims than the UK post.

A recent blog post was titled “How Hyperloop Could Transform Mexico’s Megaregion.” The post alleged that “a high-speed intercity link could alter the economic calculus of central Mexico: employers in Guadalajara could access job seekers in León, and industry knowledge created in Mexico City could spill into firms across the four cities. Municipal governments, charged with governing a more connected region, could pursue coordinated infrastructure plans.”

These projections also seem unsubstantiated. The cost of a ticket has yet to be determined. Industry knowledge can already “spill into firms across the four cities” via the internet. And it’s hard to imagine a near-vacuum steel tube redeeming economies and governments that are presently embroiled in corruption and cartel violence.

Infrastructure investments don’t always yield the expected social dividends. China’s bullet trains were initially promoted as forward-thinking and a means of putting migrant workers within reach of jobs. For many, China’s high-speed rail now serves as a painful reminder of debt burden, the growing wealth gap, and the corrupt ministers and contractors involved. The high-speed trains are used almost exclusively by wealthy businessmen. The working poor simply can’t afford the higher ticket prices and instead travel on long-distance buses.

A high-speed train may save everyone the same amount of time, but different peoples’ time is valued differently. For a low-paid worker, the arithmetic doesn’t make sense. An extra dollar is better than an extra hour. A report from the World Bank notes “the overall financial performance of high-speed train services broadly depends on enough people being able to pay a premium to use them.”

Paradigm Shifts

Academics have long studied the effects of human geography, and have observed dramatic and unpredictable paradigm shifts. In the 1950s, city planners used hyperbole when they suggested that highways could act as a panacea, unclogging the arteries of unhealthy cities. Many of these federally-funded highway projects decimated African-American communities. Automobiles and highways led to suburbanization and urban decline. If Hyperloop technology does indeed transform the very meaning of a city, could there be negative consequences?

When asked to comment on these implications, Timothy McGettigan, a Fulbright Scholar and professor of sociology, replied, “Such Hyperloops give new meaning to the notion of white flight. Beginning with freeway bypasses, wealthy white folks have been engineering forms of transport that augment their privilege and minimize contact with pigmented ruffians. The privileged are always looking for ways to live the good life while minimizing contact with folks who make them feel guilty.”

He added, “Believe it or not, I am a big supporter of science and technology. It irks me, however, that we spend untold trillions on chasing stars, while hungry kids must fight over crumbs.”

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission proposed a Hyperloop that would connect Chicago to Columbus to Pittsburgh. When asked about this “Midwest Connect” proposal, Earl Smith, Rubin Distinguished Professor of American Ethnic Studies at Wake Forest University, observed that there are many unknowns.

“We don’t know about the development of ghettos because we don’t know what’s on each end. We don’t know the race/ethnicity of those leaving Chicago for Pittsburgh nor do we have a good hold on just what exists in Pittsburgh,” he wrote in an email to this reporter. “Who is the target audience leaving Chicago? What types of jobs are in Pittsburgh: Tech industry? Blue collar laborers? White collar business jobs? Finally, does this proposal bring any meaningful economic development to the city of Chicago? I doubt it.”

Proponents of Hyperloop have often noted that railways ushered in the global industrial revolution. They claim that Hyperloop now offers similar potential.

Risto Penttilä, CEO, Finland Chamber of Commerce, opined, “In the 19th century, railways created nations and trading areas in North America and Europe. In the 21st century, the new regional catalyst could be rapid transport. Instead of tweaking NAFTA, the new US administration should be building high-speed transport systems that would connect Canadian and US cities.”

In an introduction to the book, Canadian National Railways, Vol. 1: Sixty Years of Trial and Error, S.W. Fairweather characterized the railway as a tool through which nations were forged. “No wonder railways became an obsession. No wonder that any and all means were used to obtain capital to build them and that speculative enthusiasm passed the bounds of reason,” he wrote. “The errors arising from too enthusiastic speculation, though disastrous to investors in railway securities, did not greatly lessen the usefulness of railways to the country.” Although these words were written many decades ago, they could be considered a warning for Hyperloop investors in our modern times.

Large amounts of investment capital have already been poured into Hyperloop startups. Hyperloop One received a significant investment from DP World Group of Dubai. Their total funding is now $245 million. In 2016, a rival company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, also claimed to have secured over $100 million in investments, but that total included an approximation of volunteered man-hours.

Megaprojects are difficult to plan and predict. A 2014 paper from Oxford University’s Bent Flyvbjerg noted that nine out of ten megaprojects have cost overruns, due to a variety of factors such as long planning horizons, inadequate contingencies, optimism bias, and over-commitment to project concepts at an early stage.

It is apparent that transportation can significantly impact the way people live. However, society is complex, consistently defying the expectations of central planners and corporate visionaries. Despite Hyperloop’s potential, it’s currently impossible to know how it will truly impact our cities, societies, and lives.