One of the great myths of Andrew Cuomo’s eleven years in office was that he was tough, nasty guy who got a lot done. “There hasn’t been a governor who has done as much to improve, modernize and strengthen the state in probably fifty to eighty years,” New York University urban policy and planning professor Mitchell Moss told NY1 recently.
Cuomo, the myth goes, may have been alienating — but it was all in the service of the greater good. Personality doesn’t matter if a bridge or a train tunnel is completed. And Cuomo, who resigned in disgrace after he was accused of sexually harassing almost a dozen women, certainly had his fair share of ribbon cuttings for transportation and infrastructure projects.
There was the new Tappan Zee Bridge (now the Mario Cuomo Bridge) and the new Kosciuszko Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Queens. The Upper East Side spur of the Second Avenue Subway finally opened. LaGuardia Airport is getting rehabbed, with a new train link to boot.
Cuomo apologists will point to historical models. Lyndon Johnson said a lot of mean things while signing Medicare, Medicaid, and sweeping civil rights bills into law. Robert Moses, the master builder, was a hateful tyrant who dramatically reshaped the landscape of New York, building many parks, beaches, and public housing developments that would probably not exist otherwise.
But it’s time to puncture the Cuomo myth for good. He was no Moses, let alone Johnson. Compared to them, he was a lightweight. Even when matched up against ordinary, level-headed governors in other states, Cuomo doesn’t come out looking much better.
The hallmark of Cuomo’s transportation legacy was the flashy, expensive project that delivered little substantive improvement. The subway system, which Cuomo controlled as governor through the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, deteriorated under his watch, as money was funneled to vanity initiatives, crucial maintenance was ignored, and cost controls on infrastructure projects failed to materialize.
As journalists and good government watchdogs like Reinvent Albany have documented, Cuomo micromanaged and politicized the MTA, empowering cronies to interfere with the work of transit experts. The long-awaited Second Avenue Subway project, which extended the Q train three stops along the tony Upper East Side, ended up diverting resources away from routine maintenance, particularly of the subway’s almost century-old signaling network. The extension came with an absurdly high price tag, revealing the staggering inefficiency of Cuomo’s MTA compared to transit agencies around the world.
Meanwhile, Cuomo pumped MTA money into useless light displays on bridges, manipulating multiple public authority contracts to hide the spending. Purchases were hidden for decorative towers for car and bus tunnels in MTA contracts. When in doubt, cosmetic changes like colorful tiles in the tunnels were more than enough for Cuomo.
The much-heralded renovation of the Farley Post Office building into Moynihan Train Hall did not increase train capacity or add new rail links. It merely created a new, more elegant waiting room for Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers.
The Mario Cuomo Bridge may end up costing $5 billion. The design-build team that worked on the project sued the state earlier this year for $961 million in additional costs associated with a crane collapse and numerous changes requested by Cuomo officials during construction. The structural integrity is now in question: documents released raised questions about whether the state and its contractors knew about bolts breaking during construction. A local petition, meanwhile, is underway to change the name back to the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Overhauling the hideous LaGuardia Airport is an accomplishment, but in an age of climate change, it’s legitimate to ask whether pumping billions into air travel by airplane ought to be the priority. And why not spend that money on the unglamorous but far more crucial subway system instead, which serves millions daily and transports all of those who don’t drive cars and routinely fly on airplanes?
Perhaps the worst project of all — a singular mix of Cuomo’s arrogance and idiocy — is the AirTrain to LaGuardia Airport. The airport, in the northern reaches of Queens, lacks a train link and can only be accessed by car or bus. Over the years, transit experts and politicians have called for a local subway line, the N, to be extended to LaGuardia so passengers can be ferried easily through Queens and Manhattans.
Neighborhood opposition killed the idea, leading Cuomo to propose a solution few believe is workable: build a train from the end of the 7 line, near Citi Field where the New York Mets play. No one’s commute time to the airport would be shortened this way. It’d be quicker to just take a cab or a bus.
What’s makes it all the worse is the cost. Cuomo hoodwinked the public into thinking, at first blush, the rail link would cost $450 million. The price tag, as transit experts predicted, ballooned over the years. If Cuomo’s successor, Kathy Hochul, pushes the project through, it will cost the public at least $2.1 billion, despite the fact the train would travel just 2.3 miles.
None of this waste mattered to Cuomo. For the imperial governor, it was merely about pursuing gaudy, visible projects that would superficially bolster his legacy. Thankfully, New York is rid of him now. It will be up to Hochul as well as progressives in the state legislature to fix the subway system and pursue the kind of building and maintenance that can actually benefit the millions who live here.