New York’s transit troubles intensify as Cuomo scandal delays leadership plans

August 4, 2021, 7:00 PM UTC

The leadership troubles at New York City’s transit system are intensifying as Governor Andrew Cuomo faces mounting calls for his resignation amid allegations that he sexually harassed staff members.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the largest U.S. public transit agency, has been waiting for state lawmakers to approve Cuomo’s leadership plan. The state agency manages New York City’s subways, buses and commuter-rail lines and is struggling to restore ridership to pre-pandemic levels.

The MTA Tuesday scrapped a planned press conference with its acting Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Janno Lieber minutes after state Attorney General Letitia James issued a report that cited multiple violations of federal and state laws, including unwanted groping and sexual comments. Cuomo strongly denies the claims and released his own report Tuesday challenging the allegations.

Cuomo has been pushing state lawmakers to approve his proposal to split MTA’s leadership into two separate positions, with one person serving as CEO and another as chairman of the board. That plan looks unlikely to succeed as Cuomo finds himself increasingly isolated, with President Joe Biden calling for his resignation and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie late Tuesday pledging to conclude the chamber’s impeachment investigation as quickly as possible.

“This cloud is hanging over the governor,” said Rachael Fauss, senior research analyst at Reinvent Albany, which advocates for government transparency and accountability. “Any of his actions are going to be thought of in the light of his scandals. I can’t imagine that they’re going to want to approve a plan from this governor now on governance.”

Lieber stepped into the new role on July 31 after former MTA CEO and Chairman Pat Foye left the agency to head the Empire State Development. State law limits Lieber to serving in an acting position for six months. If Cuomo were to resign or be impeached, current Lieutenant Governor Kathy Kochul may seek to install her own pick to head the transit agency or nominate Lieber for Senate confirmation.

Transportation advocates have put their support behind Lieber, who has overseen the MTA’s major infrastructure projects as president of the agency’s Construction and Development, which executes the its capital plan.

“It is crucial the MTA have strong, stable leadership as we emerge from COVID,” Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, an independent civic group that promotes quality of life issues for the New York City area, said in a statement last week. “Janno has demonstrated his leadership and ability by leading the MTA’s Construction and Development department over the past four years, in addition to his prior experience in both the public and private sectors.”

Cuomo wants Lieber to serve as MTA’s chief executive officer and Sarah Feinberg, the agency’s former interim head of subways and buses, to become the board’s chair.

“Janno Lieber is the chair and CEO and he’s gotten to work and the MTA is moving forward,” said Ken Lovett, special advisor to the MTA’s chair and CEO.

The MTA needs steadfast leadership as subway and commuter train usage must increase to help boost the agency’s revenue collections. Subway ridership fell by as much as 90% and it’s still carrying less than half of the weekday riders it did in 2019.

The agency is embarking on a record $51.5 billion multi-year capital plan to extend the new Second Avenue subway line to Harlem, update subway signals to decrease delays and rehabilitate Penn Station, the busiest rail station in the U.S. The MTA must also implement a new congestion-pricing plan to charge motorists entering Manhattan’s business district, with that new revenue source providing $15 billion of financing for capital projects.

The transit provider faces an estimated combined operating deficit of $3.5 billion in 2024 and 2025. That’s when the MTA anticipates it will exhaust $14.5 billion of federal aid to help cover revenue losses from the pandemic.

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