By Henrik Krogius
Review and Comment
Twice within the past month – the only two times I was using it within that period to get to Long Island – the Long Island Rail Road failed to perform as scheduled. The first time was on Sept. 29, when a lightning strike disabled both the switching system and its backup at Jamaica Station. Having arrived at the Hunters Point Avenue station in Queens to take the Montauk train, I waited for half an hour until it became clear nothing would be moving that evening, and I went home to Brooklyn. The second time was last Thursday, when I learned that track work would require a transfer to buses at Speonk. I figured that would add half an hour to my trip. But then, on reaching Babylon, we were informed through a garbled communication that the train would have to sit there for half an hour.
It seemed the LIRR was short a train, the train meant to take passengers on a following train from Babylon to Speonk. So we waited to take on those passengers, and I arrived at my Bridgehampton destination an hour late.
As is well known by LIRR commuters, who use the railroad far more often than I do, such breakdowns and delays occur much more frequently than they should.
So it was with particular interest that I read that Governor Andrew Cuomo has selected two men without transportation experience to run the state agencies most involved with public transportation: the Port Authority, which runs trans-Hudson trains as well as ports and airports, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the LIRR and Metro North as well as the city’s subways and buses.
Gov. Cuomo is better known for his hobby of tinkering with automobiles than for any interest in public transportation, and the men he chose for these two agencies are primarily known for the political instincts and loyalty to Cuomo. That they lack managerial experience, especially in transportation, is worrisome on the face of it, though in the choice of his economic development adviser Parrick J. Foye to run the Port Authority, Cuomo was reported giving him a mandate to get cracking on the long-delayed Moynihan Station project in Manhattan.
For the subways and LIRR, the selection of Joseph J. Lhota to head the MTA raises particular concern. We have to hope that Lhota, reported to be a Brooklyn Heights resident who takes the no. 2 train to work, appreciates transit’s importance. As a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration he was part of a team that placed motorists’ convenience ahead of transit riders’ and pedestrians’ needs. Still, he is said not to have been an automatic “yes, Rudy” rubber stamp for a mayor known to demand absolute subservience. Lhota was also known as a politically savvy, tough negotiator.
We have to hope these skills will serve Lhota well in staving off cuts for public transportation. But, as far as making improvements, those have come about when the people in charge were committed transportation people. One such was David Gunn, who rescued the subway system from the disrepair it had fallen into in the 1970s. And Jay Walder, whom Cuomo is replacing, finally brought our subways more nearly to a par with those of many other countries by improving communication and bringing us those signs that tell how soon the next train is coming. (The no. 2, which Lhota is said to ride, still lacks automated station, time and destination displays inside the cars.)
Walder evidently had trouble ever getting to see Cuomo and decided to take a much better-paying job with the excellent Hong Kong subway. One wonders if Cuomo is not secure enough to work with people who are outside his inner circle. Undoubtedly there is an advantage to an agency head to be close to the governor and to enjoy his confidence. The question then becomes one of the governor’s commitment to the agency and its mission. Will he let his two new nominees have their heads in pushing to improve the systems they run?
And will they see their functions as more than being office holders? Besides riding the no. 2 train to work, Mr. Lhota will need to ride the other lines and also to ride the various branch lines of the LIRR if he is to get a real feel for what public transportation is, and to correct the flaws in the systems. One hopes, even to bring improvements. A former governor, Nelson Rockefeller, once promised that the LIRR was on its way to becoming the world’s best commuter railroad. It never happened. That’s an ambition probably too much to ever hope for, but Governor Cuomo will certainly be judged here in the New York metropolitan area by how close his people come to making the trains run on time.