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Riding out COVID

MTA's outgoing chairman and CEO Pat Foye says

MTA's outgoing chairman and CEO Pat Foye says even with the federal dollars it has received, the MTA's financial future remains in question. Credit: NYS Governors Office

Daily Point

An exit interview

In Pat Foye’s assessment of his four-year tenure at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, every answer to every question came with an added context — the pandemic.

In an exit interview with The Point, Foye, who is leaving the MTA at the end of the month, noted that before COVID-19 took hold, the MTA was on a path with strong ridership, better performance and an enormous capital plan. Congestion pricing was on its way to becoming reality, and while concerns remained, the authority seemed to be moving in a positive direction.

"Little did anybody know in April of 2019 that the world was going to change dramatically in less than a year," Foye said.

Foye pointed to the "heroic" effort of MTA workers who kept the trains and buses running during the pandemic and to the successful lobbying for $14.5 billion in federal funding that he said "saved the day," making the difference between "the survival of the MTA and not." He noted that his personal and professional relationships with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the New York congressional delegation, especially Rep. Tom Suozzi, helped to push the federal dollars over the finish line.

But even with those dollars, Foye said the MTA’s financial future remains in question.

"The lingering question is what is the mid-term and long-term impact on MTA revenues," Foye said, noting that the federal funds will be exhausted by 2024. "That uncertainty lingers and that uncertainty will create issues with respect to the region’s recovery."

Some of those questions will be left to the next MTA head — but it’s unclear who that will be. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had recommended splitting the chair and chief executive jobs, nominating Sarah Feinberg as chairwoman and Janno Lieber as CEO. But that requires legislative approval — which it doesn’t appear will happen before Foye leaves at the end of the month. Sources say it’s possible Lieber will take on the joint position, instead.

"I think the MTA is going to be in strong hands," Foye said. "But it’s important not to overlook those fiscal challenges — real and coming through the tunnel."

When asked to describe a disappointment or frustration, Foye said he wished the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have advised mask wearing sooner.

Foye has been a regular Long Island Rail Road commuter for decades and local observers have said that connection has helped the railroad. But Foye said whoever leads the MTA next will focus on the LIRR, too.

"The LIRR is absolutely critical to the economy of Long Island, Queens and the entire city," Foye said. "I know the LIRR is going to continue to get high level focus and support from MTA leadership going forward."

Among the tasks the MTA will have to address, Foye said: Whether LIRR’s various ticket options accommodate commuters’ post-pandemic changing needs.

The railroad’s customers might have some opinions. And that could include Foye, who won’t stray too far from the MTA. After all, even after he starts his next gig at Empire State Development, he plans to keep riding the LIRR. Time will tell what customer Foye thinks of the railroad’s performance going forward.

— Randi F. Marshall @RandiMarshall

Talking Point

Suffolk IG plan can’t pass inspection

Back in 2015, with former Suffolk County police chief James Burke facing charges that he beat a criminal who ransacked his car and then conspired with other officers and former DA Thomas Spota to cover it up, Democrats in the county legislature came up with a fix.

Rob Calarco and Kara Hahn penned a bill creating an inspector general that would look into any potential wrongdoing or inefficiency in Suffolk County government.

But it never went anywhere.

Then last year, and again last week, Republican Legis. Rob Trotta submitted what he says is essentially the same bill, and got nowhere. Wednesday an attempt by Trotta to move the bill in the Governmental Operations Committee could not even garner a second.

Neither Hahn nor Trotta is sure exactly what happened to the bill in 2015. Trotta remembers it was introduced, and then quickly killed, because the PBA and other county unions were vocal in their disapproval. Hahn knows they wrote it but can’t recall if it was formally introduced, and says she never discussed it with the unions.

Hahn says she looked into the issue further back then, talking to counties and communities that had such an office, and was told it would take a staff of 10 or 15 workers to do right, and cost millions of dollars. She also said personnel changes, like turning the department over to first Tim Sini and then Geraldine Hart, along with procedural improvements, and fiscal concerns made her pull back.

Trotta says he does not envision a big department or staff, figuring it could be two or three people, and points to Nassau County’s IG office, created in 2017 with a budget of about $550,000 a year, as evidence.

And he doesn’t buy the budgetary concerns as a reason not to have an IG because "they sure didn’t worry about money when they were approving huge raises for cops."

To Trotta, the reticence on an IG is about political ambition and union support.

But Trotta didn’t get a second from his own party either, possibly because the only other Republican on the committee, Kevin McCaffrey, was absent.

— Lane Filler @lanefiller

Pencil Point

Teaching the truth

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Final Point

New York starts to look at election reforms

For months, the Brennan Center for Justice has been working on an analysis comparing the woebegone New York City Board of Elections with elections operations in other large U.S. jurisdictions.

It’s a hot topic given the board’s embarrassments in the June mayoral primary, including mistakenly adding some 135,000 test ballots to a preliminary vote count. The issue became more urgent with elections committee chair State Sen. Zellnor Myrie launching a Brooklyn hearing this Wednesday to solicit testimony on NYC voting experiences and issues. It’s the beginning of what’s expected to be more hearings and debates on the forever thorny issue of statewide election reform. The Brennan Center decided to release some early findings and recommendations from its report. "We wanted to inject this into the conversation," Larry Norden, director of the group’s Election Reform Program, told The Point Tuesday. "We figured now before the hearing was the right time to do it."

Some of the topline suggestions are structural changes that would require major action from the State Legislature, like giving local elected officials the authority to remove elections commissioners who are currently nominated by political parties, or cutting the requirement that agency staff are equally represented between the two major political parties. Other changes don’t cut as much at the heart of the state’s bipartisan election system, but could still change business as usual, like mandating that the board advertise vacant positions and conduct national searches for staff. That’s already done in places like Los Angeles and Maricopa County, Arizona.

Some of these suggestions are NYC-specific, but others could apply to county boards around the state, Norden says, like removing the one-Democrat-one-Republican setup for staff, and advertising widely for jobs to keep them from being patronage positions.

Party leaders around the state have rarely budged much on the big systemic election changes, but Norden says a look around the country shows how different things could be: "New York is an outlier and not in a good way."

— Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano

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