This time next year, New York is poised to start implementing the nation’s first congestion pricing program, which will charge drivers a fee to enter Manhattan below 60th Street. The finer details of the plan—like exactly how much drivers will pay, and who might be exempt from the fees—will be hashed out based on recommendations from a six-person panel of yet-to-be named members.
Though the so-called Traffic Mobility Review Board (TMRB) can’t legally issue its advisory report until after the 2020 elections, advocates are urging the transit authority to appoint the group’s members as quickly as possible, and are pushing to ensure its future meetings are transparent.
“With congestion pricing, I think the hope is that as much of the decision making is done out in public, so there can be confidence in the decisions that are made,” says Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst for the good government group Reinvent Albany. The transit system’s future relies heavily on the funding to be drummed up through congestion pricing, she notes. “There’s a lot at stake.”
It’s not the first time lawmakers have placed major MTA decisions heavily in the hands of an appointed task force, panel or advisory group. This most recent push for congestion pricing, for example, emerged largely at the recommendation of FixNYC, a 16-person panel convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017. In the last three years, the governor—or the MTA, at the governor’s behest—has established expert groups to tackle issues like transit system homelessness, subway train speeds, repairing the L train tunnel and revamping Penn Station.
Experts say there can be benefits to utilizing entities like this in MTA decision-making: It can ensure a range of voices and opinions are heard, and help brainstorm innovative solutions to problems. “Bringing diverse opinions and experience and education and professionalism to the table is a good way to talk through some of these looming issues, which are only going to grow,” says Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA (PCAC).
But there are downsides, too. The process can be time-consuming, and perhaps often politically motivated. “Sometimes you create committees and you create task forces to stall,” says Daglian, adding that a panel’s efficiency often depends on how its members are appointed, and who those members are. “Handpicking those experts and those opinions means you’re going to get an outcome that you desire, and sometimes that’s not always the best outcome.”
The governor has turned to task forces to address issues beyond transit. He’s launched them about cell service coverage in upstate New York, legalizing marijuana, combating worker exploitation and revamping Common Core education standards (Cuomo, however, vetoed an effort by state lawmakers to launch a task force for encouraging local interest in the sport of cricket).
While reliance on outside groups and experts to come up with solutions for the MTA’s problems brings more voices to the table, it also takes some power out of the transit authority’s hands.
“There’s been this sort of default from the governor that the MTA is not equipped to make these decisions … It has been used as a way to say, ‘The MTA can’t do this,’” Fauss says.
“Has decision-making at the MTA become too politicized, where the professionals aren’t being allowed to do their jobs?” she adds. “Rather than setting up task forces and commissions, why not build expertise at the MTA?”
Colin Wright, a senior advocacy associate for TransitCenter, agrees that some of these workgroups end up “really step[ing] on the MTA’s toes.” He pointed to initiatives like the “MTA Genius Transit Challenge” launched by Gov. Cuomo in 2017, which asked outside experts, engineers and designers to submit their proposals for improving subway service, later doling out millions of dollars to the winning applicants.
“These task forces can be counterproductive because they’re demoralizing to the professionals who are doing this job on a regular basis,” says Wright, adding that the tactic also serves to further cut Cuomo off from his role overseeing the transit system, a responsibility the governor has repeatedly tried to shake. “This helps create an artificial distance between the governor and the MTA.”
Some experts think one key to ensuring such entities are successful is if their work—how members are appointed, its meetings and recommendations—is done transparently and out in the open. If an MTA advisory group is created as a result of legislation, like through a budget agreement, it is then subject to the state’s Open Meeting laws, which require meetings be open to the public, among other criteria. But groups convened by the governor or MTA might not be, according to Fauss.
Reinvent Albany and other good government groups are fighting to have the Traffic Mobility Review Board subject to Open Meeting laws, though the MTA had previously argued it isn’t required to since the panel’s recommendations will only be advisory, according to a report from the New York Post.
The State’s Committee on Open Government, however, issued an advisory in November stating the board is indeed subject to the open meeting rules since it was created through state law, and tasked with carrying out governmental work.
“Sunshine really continues to be the best disinfectant,” says Daglian. “I think having the public see how the sausage is made is important.”
Below is a look at some of the panels, workgroups and task forces created in recent years to aid the MTA, and a look at what they did—or didn’t—accomplish.
Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup
This 10-member group was established as a result of the 2018-2019 state budget agreement, and was tasked with coming up with solutions to the city’s ongoing transit crisis—specifically to address traffic congestion and find new funding sources for the MTA. Transit advocates initially accused Gov. Cuomo of dragging his feet in appointing and launching the workgroup, which officially convened in September of 2018. Its members were picked by the governor, the mayor, State Senate and Assembly leaders as well as the state and city’s departments of transportation. Appointees included current and former elected officials, like Sen. Mike Gianaris and Melissa Mark-Viverito, transit experts like Sam Schwartz and business community leader Kathryn S. Wylde.
The workgroup met at least nine times during the second half of 2018, according to an MTA spokesman, and published a number of wide-ranging transit recommendations in a report that December. Its main proposal was for the establishment of congestion pricing to fund MTA repairs, and Wright credits the workgroup for helping to convince some lawmakers to support and later pass the plan.
“It’s had a notable and enduring effect on transit policy,” he says.
Several of the workgroup’s other recommendations, like creating a transit funding “lockbox” to ensure money meant for MTA improvements isn’t spent elsewhere, were also eventually adopted. Other ideas, however—such as charging for-hire vehicles a “cruising” fee for driving around without passengers—have yet to happen.
“The sustainability working group came out with some good recommendations, I know not all of them are being followed,” says Daglian, who thinks there should be more follow-through on the MTA’s part in carrying out the ideas produced by its many panels and task forces. “The implementation shouldn’t be sort of an afterthought or an addendum.”
Taskforce on Homelessness in the NYC Subway System
The MTA launched this task force in July of 2019, after Cuomo sent a letter to the agency imploring it to do something to address homelessness in the subway, in which he argued the transit system’s homeless population was growing and causing issues like train delays.
The taskforce’s members were not named individually, though a press release said it would include representation from the State’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, New York State Department of Health, the New York State Office of Mental Health, and the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. The group released a 9-page report in October—a month after its initial deadline—and its main recommendations were for increased homelessness outreach and enforcement, including expanding the police force that patrols the subway, a controversial proposal Cuomo had already pushed for in an earlier effort to combat fare evasion.
“Often when the governor convenes a taskforce, it seems like the conclusion is predetermined,” says Wright, who called the Homelessness Taskforce report “an after-the-fact justification for hiring of new police officers.”
“It was a directive essentially, through the governor, to address homelessness through the police,” says Fauss. “It seemed like a more political conclusion.”
L Train Engineering Panel
When Superstorm Sandy flooded the Canarsie Tunnel linking Manhattan and Brooklyn in 2012, it caused damage requiring extensive repairs, prompting officials to plan a 15-month closure of the tube and halting service on the L train, which runs through it. The so-called “L train shutdown” was expected to start in April of 2019, following at least two years of planning and a series of public hearings about the closure. New businesses sprung up to capitalize on the shutdown, and some Brooklynites even moved homes to avoid the expected arduous commute.
But many were stunned when Cuomo, just months before the service shutdown was expected to kick off, announced that he’d corralled a panel of engineering experts to revisit the plan “with a new set of eyes.” The group—made up of faculty from Columbia and Cornell universities—determined that a complete closure of the tunnel was unnecessary, and that repair work could be done by closing one tube at a time and using different, less invasive design techniques.
While many riders cheered the news that the L train would keep running, some questioned the timing of the abrupt change, saying it raised questions about the credibility of the MTA and the carefully-crafted plan it had spent years putting together, which was then thrust aside, with the MTA Board ultimately approving the recommendations of the governor’s experts instead.
“You want a diversity of opinions at the table, but you can’t start that process three months before—there needs to be engagement earlier on in the process,” says Daglian. “So you don’t waste precious resources, and you don’t waste precious time.”
Penn Station Task Force
The governor formed this group in the spring of 2017 in preparation for Penn Station’s “Summer of Hell,” in which needed Amtrak track repairs was expected to cause chaos and capacity issues at the midtown transit hub. Task force appointees included former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota—at the time in a leadership position at NYU—elected officials representing the city and Long Island, business leader Kathy Wylde and realtor Steve Roth, whose company Vornado owns a number of properties around Penn.
The group’s plan for mitigating “Summer of Hell” service disruptions included offering new bus and ferry service and free subway transfers to LIRR ticket-holders, adding more and longer trains during rush hour and offering discounted truck tolls on the city’s bridges overnight to reduce congestion during peak hours. The plan succeeded in that the “Summer of Hell” didn’t end up being all the hellish, according to many commuters.
Cuomo has continued to focus on revamping Penn Station: In his 2020 State of the State address this month, he proposed expanding the station by acquiring properties on the block south of it, combining it with the new Moynihan Train Hall to create a behemoth “Empire Station Complex” that would increase Penn’s capacity by 40 percent. Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm, will oversee the project.
Train Speed and Safety Task Force
Cuomo directed the MTA to form this group in June of 2019 to speed up travel times on the subway and commuter rail lines. Its nine members, appointed a month later, included New York City Transit President Andy Byford, U.S. Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey, then-MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim and Dominick Servedio of the engineering firm STV.
The task force released its preliminary findings in October, which declared that subway speeds could be increased by up to 50 percent by making changes to the system. These included making sure signs notifying train conductors of speed limits are up to date, as well as “alleviating bottlenecks and fine-tuning schedules to optimize train movement.”
Critics, however, saw the Task Force as largely replicating the work already being done by New York City Transit as part of Byford’s earlier “Saving Safe Seconds” campaign launched a year earlier to speed up train times. The task force was expected to submit its final recommendations of the MTA chairman by the end of 2019; the MTA did not immediately respond to a query about whether or not that’s happened.
“To what extent was that task force redundant for what the [MTA] staff is already doing?” says Fauss. “If there’s going to be a task force, it gets back to that basic question of: why isn’t the first instinct then just to build that capacity at the agency itself?”
Wright agreed, saying it’s crucial for governor to focus on “building capacity within the MTA,” to ensure the agency will be able to successfully carry out its $51.5 billion five-year capital plan—the largest in the transit authority’s history.
“The governor should hire the best government talent that he can, and empower them to do their jobs,” he says.