You Blew It, Andrew Cuomo

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Andy Byford doing what he loves best: Riding the rails, talking—and listening—to his customers and employees.

New York City Transit President Andy Byford resigned on Jan. 23. Andy was hired in January 2018 to improve and transform New York City’s 116-year-old subway, North America’s largest, and he was doing just that. But he got fed up with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who thinks he’s in charge of running New York’s railways. Now, someone else will have to carry on—if they’re capable—and that remains to be seen.

Late last year, Cuomo brought in AlixPartners, a management consulting firm and self-described turnaround specialist that was paid $4 million to produce a 37-page report. That report and its organizational flow chart (must have been some really expensive software that spit it out) is the basis for the “MTA Transformation Plan,” an RFP for which is now circulating.

The Transformation Plan, the brainchild of a politician who has no experience running a transportation system, would have relegated Andy to running day-to-day operations at NYCT. That was not the primary reason he came to New York City.

Photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

Here’s what The New York Times observed:

“After being lured to New York two years ago to help revive the city’s subway, Andy Byford earned praise from riders and mass transit advocates for bringing about improvements on an antiquated system that had been undermined by breakdowns, delays and mismanagement. But as Mr. Byford rose in stature, even earning the nickname ‘Train Daddy’ among rail enthusiasts, he increasingly clashed with the one official who has the final say over the subways: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who considers himself something of a modern-day master builder. On [Jan. 23], Mr. Byford resigned, sowing doubt about the future of extensive plans that are intended to modernize the nation’s largest subway system.”

Despite what he thinks of himself, Cuomo is no Robert Moses.

In his resignation letter, Andy said that a “focus solely on day-to-day-running of service” could be carried out by others who could “perform this important, but reduced, service delivery role.”

In other words (and these are my words): “I’m not going to compromise my values. You, Guv’nor, go do your own thing. I’ll do mine. I’m not going to be part of it.”

Andy would never say these things himself, at least in public. He’s far too much of a gentlemen and professional.

More from The New York Times: “Interviews with transit officials and lawmakers and others indicate that Mr. Byford’s departure capped months of escalating tension between the two men: a hard-charging governor from Queens who frequently mocks the transit bureaucracy, vs. a self-described subway nerd from Britain who has spent his career reviving and running transit systems around the world. His colleagues at the MTA believed Mr. Byford’s high profile may have irked Mr. Cuomo. The governor’s aides said that Mr. Byford often tried to take credit for improvements that were unrelated to his own work.”

Of course, Cuomo’s minions are going to fabricate BS like that, if they want to keep their jobs. As far as Andy’s high profile and popularity angering Cuomo, that’s true. But know this: Andy did not ask for the spotlight. He is a humble man who is determined to do what’s right. If you question my characterization, take a look at this CBS 60 Minutes story from Oct. 21, 2018.

Here are some excerpts from a July 2, 2018 profile of Andy in The New Yorker. Author William Finnegan accompanied him as he visited several NYCT locations:

Between [talking to] customers, Byford straightened a pile of free newspapers. He had already introduced himself to the station agent, several platform cleaners, and the conductors on a couple of downtown trains. Each employee stared at the metal name tag pinned to his navy-blue suit. Yep, it was the president, the new guy. “Everything O.K.?” he asked. The employees seemed disarmed by his enthusiasm and his English accent. He shook hands and told people, “We’re one team.”

Byford was new to the city—new to the country—and was still perturbed by things that most locals accepted as inevitable. “That brown tiling,” he said, pointing at a rust-streaked wall. He took a photograph with his phone. Down on the platform, Byford regarded the track bed. It looked, as nature intended, like hell: filthy water, strewn garbage. “My customers shouldn’t have to look at that,” he said. “We’ve ordered three vacuum cars. They’ll suck up all of this.”

Byford, who is 52, got his start in mass transit as a station foreman on the London Underground. The work ran in his family. His grandfather drove a bus for London Transport for 40 years; his father worked there for 12. Byford earned degrees in German and French, but after college he went to work for the Underground, learning car maintenance, operations, customer service, safety. He later worked on Britain’s main-line railways, and then ran mass transit in Sydney, Australia. His last stop before New York was Toronto, where, by nearly all accounts, he turned around a troubled transit system with spectacular results.

Announcing his departure in late 2017 from the Toronto Transit Commission for the New York MTA, Andy Byford said, “I will look back on my time at the TTC as the absolute highlight of my 28-year transit career to date.” I think he can still say that!

In our rambles together by subway and bus through the arteries and capillaries of what he calls, with a straight face, New York City’s “quite fabulous system,” I never saw him sit down. “The seats are for customers,” he says. More often than not, he’d start conducting customer-satisfaction surveys with randomly selected travelers, listening to their tales of riderly woe.

On the platform at Chambers Street, he studied a small group of workers, all in high-visibility orange vests, idling in a dim corner. “I wonder what they’re doing, or supposed to be doing,” he said. He decided against inquiring. “I’ve learned that it’s sometimes best not to just go steaming in.” But, when it comes to fixing the subways and buses, his approach will very much be to go steaming in. He wants to transform New York City’s mass transit—and had already committed himself to delivering a comprehensive plan within a hundred working days. “I don’t think they hired me to tweak things here and there,” he said. “This company needs a complete modernization.”

Now that’s a rail transit professional, one who loves his work. Cuomo, on the other hand, doesn’t have enough smarts to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) when he’s traipsing around New York City’s subway and Amtrak tunnels, news cameras in tow.

Why aren’t you wearing PPE, Governor Cuomo?

I’m sure that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s praise of Andy didn’t help. It’s well known that de Blasio and Cuomo can’t stand each other.

Governor Cuomo, you blew it, big time. You’ve played with your life-size electric train set, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, far too long. You’ve rearranged the toys in your sandbox far too many times. Now, you’ve caused a huge derailment. You’ve dumped sand on the one person who knows better than anyone else how to build a better, bigger place where everyone can play, on a level field. Why? Because you thought he was dimming the spotlight in which you so love to bask. That person—Andy Byford—said “enough.” Who will suffer? About five million people a day. And you don’t give a damn, because you consider expendable the people in your perceived fiefdom who refuse to be squashed by your thumb.

But wait! There’s more! The day after Andy’s announcement, Pete Tomlin, who Andy brought to NYCT from the TTC to run the agency’s complex CBTC program and accelerate it, resigned. This is not surprising at all. Can anyone say “short circuit”? Governor Cuomo, do you understand the meaning of “unintended consequences”?

New York City’s double loss is going to be some other transit agency’s gain. And if and when things start to fall apart at the rail joints and circuit boards start to melt (and I hope they don’t), there will be one person to blame.

“A frog? I don’t see any frogs. I thought there were only rats down here … ”

Professionals need to run railways. Not politicians.

“Out-of-town MTA executive managers always come and go,” says retired Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office administrator and Railway Age opinion columnist Larry Penner. “Give Governor Cuomo, who enjoys micromanaging the MTA, NYC Transit, LIRR and Metro-North, credit for Byford’s departure. Just how much could anyone put up with Cuomo’s interference? He never travels to and from Albany via Amtrak. When in New York City, he travels around town by car with a driver and police security detail, rather than a bus or subway. Unlike the millions of New Yorkers, he doesn’t own a Metro Card or use public transportation on a daily basis. His motto is ‘do as I say, not as I do.’

“If Cuomo believes he could have done a better job than Byford, there is a simple solution. In his last act, appoint himself NYC Transit President and resign as Governor.

“It will continue to be disappointing for MTA employees, along with riders, advocates, taxpayers and other funding agency partners, if the MTA continues this pattern of bringing in out-of-town talent that comes and goes. There are many experienced internal MTA candidates who are qualified to fill the vacancy of NYC Transit President. Successful organizations groom, train and promote from within.

“Asking Ronnie Hakim to return as interim if not permanent NYC Transit President would be the best choice to ensure that the progress under Andy Byford continues. She previously served as MTA Managing Director. As NYC Transit President, she ran the nation’s largest bus and subway system. She also served as Special Counsel at NYC Transit as well as Executive Vice President and President. As General Counsel at MTA Capital Construction, she worked on megaprojects such as the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access and the #7 Hudson Yards subway extension. She has served as the Executive Director of New Jersey Transit and New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

“While working for the MTA and NJ Transit, Ronnie never promised what could not be delivered. As they say in Brooklyn, her word was her bond. This gave her excellent credibility with major funding agencies such as the Federal Transit Administration. The MTA is heavily dependent upon federal assistance for more than $8 billion in formula and  $3.5 billion in discretionary competitive funding to fully pay for the its $51 billion 2020-2024 Five Year Capital Program. Ronnie makes an excellent advocate for federal funding. She has already proven her experience to hit the ground running to build on the foundation established by Byford.”

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