‘Tough Guy’ Cuomo’s Hard Reign Over MTA Shaken by Growing Scandals

‘Tough Guy’ Cuomo’s Hard Reign Over MTA Shaken by Growing Scandals

Jose Martinez, THE CITY

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Governor Cuomo shakes hands with then-NYCTA President Andy Byford during a Brooklyn subway station opening, April 12, 2018.
Governor Cuomo shakes hands with then-NYCTA President Andy Byford during a Brooklyn subway station opening, April 12, 2018. | Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor Cuomo’s Office

For ex-transit chief Andy Byford, moving to head London’s transportation system after his two-year stint running New York’s buses and subways marked his own declaration of independence.

“I’m now given the space and leeway as a transit professional to do my job,” Byford told THE CITY from London Thursday. “I can do my job for the people of London without interference.”

The former head of New York City Transit — who pinned his January 2020 resignation, in part, on “being undermined” by Gov. Andrew Cuomo — is far from alone.

Cuomo’s power over the MTA is unmistakable, insiders say, with bruising calls and commands to officials at the transit agency constantly coming from his top aides in Albany. 

THE CITY spoke with nearly a dozen former and current MTA officials and board members who said Cuomo’s hard-charging influence over the transit agency has repeatedly driven away top executives while shaking up a bureaucracy of nearly 70,000 employees

Now, with Cuomo weakened by a string of sexual harassment allegations — prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio and dozens of lawmakers to call on him Thursday to resign — the fallout could have implications for the MTA. 

Several officials with Cuomo ties were handpicked by the governor for key positions at the agency and on its board — putting him at center stage for decisions from scrapping the long-planned L train tunnel shutdown to pushing pet projects like station renovations. 

There are concerns that with Cuomo’s fate in limbo, system leaders could be temporarily hamstrung as the agency struggles to help the city to rebound from the pandemic.

faceless multiethnic students in masks walking in metro
Photo by Keira Burton on Pexels.com

“That outsized influence introduced significantly more politics into an already political agency,” said Veronica Vanterpool, who left the MTA board in 2019 after three years as one of de Blasio’s picks. “It made it difficult, if you weren’t in that inner circle, to have your voice and feedback well-received.”

One former senior MTA official said working for the Cuomo-controlled agency left many shell-shocked.

“Every decision is made for ‘The Second Floor,’” said the former official, using the Albany shorthand for the governor’s offices at the Capitol. “There were days when if I heard ‘The Second Floor’ one more time, I would want to jump out a second-floor window.”

‘The Character of a Tough Guy’

Multiple sources used words like “vindictive,” “mean” “unreasonable” and “intrusive” to describe how Cuomo has operated at the MTA, detailing how transit officials are regularly berated by him and his staff during phone calls and meetings at his Midtown office.

In the months leading to the Jan. 1, 2017, opening of the Second Avenue Subway, sources recalled meetings where Cuomo would “scream and yell and pound the table” as contractors pushed to meet his deadline for opening three new stations.

“People knew he was the guy everyone ultimately had to answer to — whether or not the organizational chart said the governor was your boss,” said another former MTA official who asked not to be identified by name.

Still, some of his detractors and supporters alike contend the governor’s unforgiving management approach has helped push through some crucial projects.

Gov. Cuomo opens the Moynihan Train Hall, Dec. 30, 2020.

Patrick Foye, who was named MTA chair by Cuomo in 2019, said the governor has given the transit agency the most attention it has seen from state leaders in decades.

“While it’s no secret he is demanding, the results have been undeniable,” Foye said in a statement to THE CITY. “Under the governor, we’ve seen approval of a record $51 billion capital program that has helped us begin to modernize with new signal systems, accessibility projects and major upgrades.”

The MTA chairperson and CEO also cited the opening of the Moynihan Train Hall and the ongoing $2 billion addition of a third track to the Long Island Island Rail Road’s main line as projects that will “greatly benefit commuters,” along with improved subway on-time performance in recent years.

“There is no doubt that before the world was hit with a global pandemic, the MTA was heading in the right direction as a result of our partnership with the governor,” Foye said.

Michael Horodniceanu, who was head of the MTA Capital Construction division when the Second Avenue Subway opened, said the governor has made priorities at the MTA “very clear.”

“New York is a tough city and you can’t be a weakling here,” Horodniceanu told THE CITY. “Let’s put it this way, you have to have an iron hand in a velvet glove.”

Charles Moerdler, who left the MTA board in 2019, said the governor has, at times, employed “brutish” tactics at the transit agency and “prefers to use the rod rather than the carrot.”

“He is a man who prefers to take on the character of a tough guy, he likes that role,” said Moerdler, who was appointed to the MTA board by Cuomo’s predecessor, Gov. David Paterson. “But he achieves the results.”

More Respect, Same Power? 

Cuomo’s aggressive approach has pushed people out of the MTA, sources told THE CITY. They cited the sudden 2019 departure of the head of the agency’s Bridges & Tunnels division and the late 2018 exit of an MTA official who had been instrumental in planning the L train shutdown before Cuomo abruptly changed it.

Then there was Byford’s exit, which one source called “Exhibit A [of what happens] if you don’t bow and scrape to the governor.”

“The institutional knowledge that the MTA has lost over the last several years as a result of the governor’s micromanaging and meddling is astonishing,” said another former MTA official who asked not to be identified.

With Cuomo’s political future cloudy, some are hoping for a change to the way things get done at the MTA.

“As a result of the recent revelations in Albany, I would hope there would be a more respectful and reasoned receptivity to diverse thinking,” said Robert Linn, a longtime labor-relations expert who was appointed to the MTA board in 2019 by de Blasio.

But Cuomo’s focus on the state transit network has fundamentally changed the nature of how governors handle an agency with enormous needs, said Vanterpool, the former board member.

“This is the governor’s MTA,” she said. “And any future governor is going to have to step into that responsibility.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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