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Transportation officials say they're on board with change in governor's office

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo shakes hands with a

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo shakes hands with a worker at the East Side Access project at Grand Central Terminal on May 27. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Transportation officials and advocates said they are on board for a leadership change in the governor’s office, following a decade of Andrew M. Cuomo’s heavy influence on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

MTA officials said the terms of Cuomo’s appointees to the MTA Board will expire when he leaves office on Aug. 24, and that it will be up to the incoming governor, Kathy Hochul, to decide whether to keep or replace them.

During his more than 10 1/2 years in office, Cuomo made no secret of his goal to wrest control of the MTA, which, as a public authority, historically has maintained some autonomy from the state. He appointed several allies to key positions throughout the MTA and its governing board, including state Financial Services Superintendent Linda Lacewell, state Budget Director Robert Mujica, and Lawrence Schwartz, Cuomo’s former secretary and vaccine czar.

In 2019, Cuomo proposed adding even more appointees to the 17-member board "to establish clear authority over the MTA."

Most recently, he appointed another ally, infrastructure guru Janno Lieber, as the head of the MTA, and sought to change state law to split the jobs of MTA chief executive officer and chairperson in order to appoint another supporter, Sarah Feinberg, to the latter role. The State Legislature has not acted on his proposal, and Lieber currently holds both jobs.

"I think the governor’s office certainly would like to say that he’s taken control and taken charge, but the question is: at what cost?" said Rachel Fauss, of Reinvent Albany, a political watchdog group that has been critical of Cuomo’s grip on the transit authority.

"For us, the biggest concern has been the levels of micromanagement, where staff has been both simultaneously paralyzed and not being able to do anything without the second floor signing off, and on the other hand also kind of scrambling in a frenzy to change things at the last minute," said Fauss, who hopes a revamped MTA, and its board, is "composed of as many transit professionals as possible who are given the space to do their jobs."

Hochul has not disclosed her plans for the MTA, but said Wednesday she would not keep anyone "who was named as doing anything unethical" in the state attorney general’s report on the sexual harassment accusations against Cuomo. Both Schwartz and Lacewell are accused in the report of working to shield Cuomo from the accusations.

LIRR union leader Anthony Simon agreed that Hochul should move away from having representatives on the MTA board known for "intimidating and strong-arming" the agency.

Although it was Cuomo who brokered a deal with Simon and other LIRR union leaders in 2014 to avert a strike, Simon said he was confident Hochul, too, "knows how to get contracts done."

"I think she’s familiar with the working class," Simon said. "She has a way of understanding the working man and woman."

At a November event marking the elimination of grade crossing in Westbury as part of the LIRR’s Third Track project, Hochul spoke about the importance of shortening the commutes for LIRR riders so they can have more time with their families, and of improving stations to provide more comfort, "something that’s been missing for far too long."

Suffolk County’s representative on the MTA Board, Kevin Law, also expressed confidence in Hochul, who he said "understands the importance of the big projects" affecting Long Islanders, including the Third Track and East Side Access.

Despite enjoying a good working relationship with Cuomo, Law agreed that a more hands-off governor could benefit the MTA.

"I think authorities are designed to be independent from interference from executive and legislative branches, and that’s what we should strive for," Law said.

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