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How a Clash of Egos Became Bigger Than Fixing the Subway

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https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/nyregion/cuomo-andy-byford-mta.html

 

 

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How a Clash of Egos Became Bigger Than Fixing the Subway

 

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Even as New York transit emerged from a crisis, a feud grew between Andy Byford, the subway leader, and his boss, Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

By Jim Dwyer

Feb. 3, 2020 Updated 9:06 a.m. ET

 

One day in October, three powerful figures in New York affairs met for a serious lunch at Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan.

On one side were Patrick J. Foye, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, which represents business leaders.

In front of them sat Andy Byford, the head of the city’s subway and buses, who had beguiled New Yorkers in less than two years with his spirited efforts to turn around a transit system in crisis.

One day earlier, though, Mr. Byford had submitted a scorching letter of resignation that detailed grievances with his ultimate boss, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, including complaints that micromanaging by the governor and his office was making it impossible for him to do his job.

By the end of lunch, Mr. Foye and Ms. Wylde had calmed Mr. Byford, sketching out a deal that kept him in place and made the harsh letter disappear, according to three people familiar with the October events.

In truth, the Byford-Cuomo relationship was already beyond salvage, and late last month, Mr. Byford resigned. It was a startling development, and to many of his admirers, a worrying stumble at the nation’s largest transportation system, where a historic rebuilding program is underway.

Behind a curtain of measured statements was a low-decibel, slow-motion collision between two of New York’s most commanding personalities — supremely confident figures, gifted at public relations, masters not only of their domains but fluent in each other’s as well.

Mr. Cuomo understands how a switch on a railroad track makes things happen just as Mr. Byford knows the power of a clause in a 2,000-word piece of legislation.

Mr. Byford had arrived in New York in January 2018 as Mr. Cuomo was bluntly asserting his XL temperament and political know-how in transit affairs, a first for any governor in the half-century of the M.T.A.’s existence and a direct response to the public’s demand that he be accountable for failing service.

Yet the two men almost never spoke. They clashed through proxies. Over the course of the past year, a series of slights — accidental, calculated, impulsive, imagined — drove a schism between them, according to numerous interviews with government officials, transit executives and business leaders.

“Andy Byford won the hearts of New Yorkers with his clear intention to make this the best transit system in the world,” Ms. Wylde said. “But it was naïve of him to think that this governor, who has put his credibility on the line, would rely on any one person to do the job.”

Neither Mr. Byford nor Mr. Cuomo has had a cross word for the other in public, before or after the resignation. But even before the October letter, Mr. Byford had threatened to quit on more than one occasion.

Reached late last week, Mr. Byford said he was grateful to Mr. Cuomo for bringing him to New York. The subway system last month had an on-time rate of 84 percent, he said, up from 58 percent in 2018.

“I get the attention, but a good leader builds a good team,” Mr. Byford said. “I will have failed if it all falls apart when I leave, but I’ve left it in good hands, with a good plan.”

Mr. Cuomo said Mr. Byford’s departure would not hobble the system’s recovery. “There has been amazing progress made at the M.T.A. with new laws, financing and its reorganization,” the governor said. ‎“All arrows are pointed up and with new projects coming on line and new resources, the best lies ahead.”

The governor has said he did not want Mr. Byford to leave, but behind the scenes, the distance between the two men widened through the past year.

Mr. Byford’s underlings would be summoned to the governor’s office on Third Avenue in Manhattan for interrogation by Mr. Cuomo about cleaning procedures, signal changes, fare evasion and construction projects. He chewed many of them out. Few spoke back, even when he was mistaken.

Mr. Byford was never invited.

On the eve of a major presentation by Mr. Byford to the M.T.A. board in May, Mr. Cuomo’s aides abruptly ordered him not to reveal dollar amounts for a spending program. Mr. Byford’s colleagues had to pulp the full-color booklets they had printed.

Mr. Byford, 55, an Englishman, had moved to New York from Toronto to run the buses and subways. Cutting a figure of cheerful candor, poised humility and tireless optimism — yes, service stinks, we owe you better, but just think of how good it will be if we all hang in and push together! — he managed to quickly win over a city that scoffs at sweet talk.

Mr. Cuomo, 62, born, reared and brined in New York politics, is, by the measure of things built, laws changed and electoral votes won, as successful as any governor in history. He was also blamed by many for the subway’s problems.

But he persuaded the State Legislature last spring to create a first-in-the-nation congestion pricing system for cars entering parts of Manhattan, generating money to pay for transit improvements. He maneuvered to make changes in state law to curb the little-known powers of a few well-positioned politicians to take hostages in exchange for M.T.A. spoils.

He got permission to overhaul the authority, which includes commuter lines for nine counties outside the city.

An asset to the nation, fraying

The work of Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Byford and their relationship mattered far beyond New York.

At a casual glance, the M.T.A., a glued-together bundle of local transit services, some of which date back nearly 200 years, might seem to have little to do with the rest of the country. But the New York region generates 10 percent of the gross domestic product. Mass transit makes it possible, almost in spite of itself.

By some estimates, New York is the only global city to have fewer miles of track today than in 1940. Monumental works of civil engineering — tunnels dug under rivers or threaded beneath the pipe-crowded underground of Manhattan — were abandoned, left empty as generations came and went.

In 2017, with the city growing at its fastest rate since the early 20th century, transit managers were unable to explain why tens of thousands of subway trains were delayed every month.

So Mr. Byford, who had overseen transit systems in London, Australia and Toronto, started in 2018 at an agency with cultural rot.

Mr. Cuomo was already fully engaged: He had personally driven the completion of a half-century-delayed section on the Second Avenue subway line, declared a state of emergency for the system in 2017, allocated more than $800 million for a repair blitz, and was using his mastery of government to “blow up the M.T.A.”

Mr. Cuomo invited me to be a part-time fly on his wall during the spring and summer as he pursued his overhaul of the M.T.A., an agency I have followed as a columnist and reporter, with varying degrees of attention, across four decades.

The Byford-Cuomo estrangement was highly unusual. Governors have always held considerable power over the M.T.A., but until the last four years, they had so little to do with transit leaders that a feud between them was no more likely than a couple who had never met announcing their divorce.

During his first term, Mr. Cuomo followed the risk-averse tactic of virtually all of his predecessors by staying as far from transit as possible.

Then, in 2017, he was driven into what he called a “forced marriage” with the transportation authority by a service meltdown.

What he had seen from afar, Mr. Cuomo said, was just as true when he looked at it under a microscope. The authority seemed comfortable with failure and armored to resist change.

He was radicalized, he said, when he discovered in late 2018 that the transit establishment had not seriously entertained alternatives to shutting down the L train tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan for repairs, which would have disrupted the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people for 15 months.

When the governor announced a plan suggested by engineers outside the transit system that would allow most service to continue, Mr. Byford said he would get his own team of experts to assess it, then embraced it.

Mr. Byford’s initial public skepticism opened a major breach with the governor that never closed.

Cuomo takes on the M.T.A.

Mr. Cuomo met spies with inside information about the M.T.A. He gloried in the emerging beauty of a new train hall.  He strung together deals with mayors of small towns on Long Island so he could build 10 miles of new railroad track. He changed laws, upended the agency’s board, dueled with major vendors.

He invoked Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” while planning for one important transit vote, and Michael Harrington, author of “The Other America,” on the need for dramatic exposés of problems to force change in a leaden bureaucracy.

That happened to be when he was discussing the city’s torn safety net for homeless people who had taken up residence in subway stations and trains, but he routinely used theatricality as a tool for reforms, or for wished-for revolutions, or just to see his name in neon.

As with most humans, Mr. Cuomo’s purposes can be so tightly woven that it was occasionally hard to tell which or how many were driving him at a given moment.

The upshot was that Mr. Byford found himself working at an agency where the governor was sinking his hands deeper every day.

One night, near midnight, Mr. Cuomo walked down two flights at the 59th Street station on Manhattan’s East Side, then used a step ladder to reach the tracks. In the tunnel 100 yards north, transit workers in glowing safety vests lifted tools from a cart.

About two feet of water had pooled in a clogged holding basin between the tracks, a murky tea of subway filth. The basin’s drain pipe was blocked. The governor had seen dozens of them, and they still infuriated him.

During the 2017 crisis, transit managers told him that standing water on tracks was a chronic problem that caused delays. Since the subways have an ingenious drain network, Mr. Cuomo assumed that climate change and rising water tables were to blame. Not so.

The water had nowhere to go because most drains, like the one at 59th Street, were silted shut. The governor called for inspection reports. They falsely showed that drains were open. Of roughly 418 miles of drain pipe, just 17 miles were scheduled for annual cleaning. Even that was not being met.   

“Happy talk has been the death knell of M.T.A. management,” Mr. Cuomo said.

Under an emergency declaration, transit officials spent $57 million to unblock drains along all 418 miles, barely touched for 20 years, estimated Elizabeth Keating, a deputy inspector general for the M.T.A.

Now the governor watched workers banging at one of the last clogs.

“You guys break your rear ends,” Mr. Cuomo said. “This is what makes the system work.”

On another evening, Mr. Cuomo arrived unannounced at the 207th Street train yards in Upper Manhattan. The public was spending millions of dollars every week to overhaul train cars, three shifts a day, but at this hour, a few minutes after 10 p.m. on a Monday in April, there was neither sight nor sound of work. 

One man scrambled from a booth to greet him. Yes, he said to the governor, the crew was working on trucks — the wheels and engines that the shell of a train car sits on. 

“Where are you doing that?” Mr. Cuomo asked. 

The man pointed to a long line of trucks, one after the other, above a shallow repair pit.

“They are working here?” Mr. Cuomo asked.

Not a soul was in sight.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied, nodding vigorously.

“They must be very short people,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Or invisible.”

About 130 people were being paid to work until 11 p.m., though their day had clearly ended well before that.

Byford and the bureaucracy

No single episode, no blowout fight led to Mr. Byford’s departure.

Every day, he treaded an unmarked boundary. On one side, he served as the champion for his work force. On the other, he was in danger of being seen, fairly or not, as the ambassador of an unrepentant bureaucracy.

He saw its follies up close. Trains in some places were running 30 to 50 percent below speed limits because of broken equipment that could have been simply fixed.

On a whiteboard in his inner office, he posted battle plans. Much of it came down to fussy little tasks, each shaving a few seconds that, during the time a train ran from the north Bronx to Coney Island, would add up to a crisper trip. Trains did not leave terminals on schedule. Doors were held open too long. “Temporary” speed restrictions were left in place for years.

He sipped coffee in break rooms, chatted with station cleaners, visited repair shops and made 26 videos urging on his 50,000 employees.

The record of his first year included 20,000 fewer delays per month and the highest on-time performance in six years.

No one could authoritatively parse how much was due to the Cuomo Subway Action Plan or to the Byford operations initiative; both were necessary, neither sufficient.

Still, it was Mr. Byford who was profiled as “the subway’s Mr. Fixit” by “60 Minutes.” His Thomas-the-Tank-Engine optimism was more telegenic than Mr. Cuomo’s Dark Knight of the tunnels.

One town hall event at a time, Mr. Byford, who flunked the only driving test he ever took, preached that a better day was coming.

“Remember,” Mr. Byford told an audience in the Bronx, “we can give you world-class transit in less than 4,000 days.” That “4,000 days” was wordsmith sugar for “10 years,” and he spooned it out week after week.

The core of his vision was hardly revolutionary — a modern signal system that would make service faster and more reliable — yet he left his audiences glowing.

But those signals, a multibillion-dollar construction project, would land Mr. Byford in one of his biggest disputes with the governor.

The signals were part of Mr. Cuomo’s proposal for the largest capital investments in the authority’s history — $54 billion over five years — but he did not trust the transit bureaucracy to pull it off.

Under Mr. Cuomo’s M.T.A. reorganization plan, part of his effort over the last year to improve agency operations, virtually all construction would move to a division headed by different aides with a record of getting things done.

Because that included the proposed signals, it became one of the reasons for Mr. Byford’s resignation letter in October. The intervention of Mr. Foye, the M.T.A. chairman, reversed the decisions on both sides, for a while.

A little more than two weeks ago, crowds thronged a town-hall-style meeting in Jackson Heights, Queens, where Mr. Byford presented a draft bus route redesign for the borough, as CBS reported. It was highly unpopular. Mr. Byford stayed late to hear why.

Whatever the proposal’s merits, the Byford team had taken on a thankless, vital task that others had shirked: modernizing bus routes based on ancient lines drawn by streetcar companies, little changed since horses pulled milk wagons on the same roads.

That bruising session in Queens was the final day of Mr. Byford’s second year as transit president. He was still doing his job, but it was shrinking. Yes, he would be running trains and buses, and was promised control of the signals.

But he had lost a voice in policy and had new bosses. His time was up.

A week later, on the evening his resignation was announced, Mr. Byford and some of his colleagues repaired to a bar in Brooklyn.

Then they heard that the bar next door had a space for throwing axes. They changed venues.

 

 

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