The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is, unfortunately, usually in the news for billion-dollar boondoggles. But local issues and corporate governance problems plague the agency that affects the daily lives of so many riders in Nassau County. The MTA needs some corporate governance and a renewed focus on the commuters it serves, and only then will it be able to lead us out of the pandemic era and into a robust recovery.
The MTA is the largest public transit system in America, shuttling over 11 million passengers on an average weekday, covering 14 counties, employing 70,000 people and serving over 850,000 vehicles across seven bridges and two tunnels. Because of its importance to New Yorkers’ livelihoods and the economy, it is critical that it functions efficiently and serves its constituency well.
The agency has certainly hit some big milestones recently, including increased ridership, back to pre-pandemic levels, and registering over 2 million OMNY fare-payment taps in one day. But at the same time, the MTA is failing my constituents in the 15th Assembly District, as well as the hundreds of thousands of daily LIRR riders across the MTA’s Long Island footprint.
My district stretches along the eastern border of Nassau, from Farmingdale to Locust Valley, a large portion of which is served by the notoriously problem-plagued Oyster Bay line. For years, commuters in this area have had to choose between leaving work ridiculously early in order to make it home to their families, or staying at work longer and missing activities at home.
At first, the excitement over the recent East Side Access project was palpable among Oyster Bay line commuters. After years of unreliable service and difficult train schedules, it seemed like more options were finally becoming available. To our dismay, it turned out that, once again, the line will suffer the brunt of bad schedule changes. The few popular peak trains available are now even fewer and farther between, and require changing in Jamaica.
The situation has become so dire that many people are opting to drive to other stations on other lines. This not only defeats the purpose of commuter rail, it also negatively affects small business owners around the Oyster Bay line train stations who are there to serve commuters.
The problems LIRR riders are facing are a direct result of corporate governance failures at the top. When Phillip Eng retired as LIRR president over a year ago, the MTA announced that Metro-North Railroad President Catherine Rinaldi would serve as president of both the LIRR and Metro-North. While Rinaldi may be a capable transit executive, the very nature of this dual role divides her focus and allegiance, which is not fair to Metro-North or LIRR customers, especially those who use the Oyster Bay line.
This arrangement would be untenable in any other arena of government, nonprofit or private business, and we need to get a fast and thorough executive search under way now. The fact that ridership is climbing to pre-pandemic levels means we needed a dedicated and focused LIRR president months ago.
But it’s no surprise that this structure isn’t sounding any alarm bells within the MTA. The same problem exists at the very top of the organizational chart. Janno Lieber, the chairman of the MTA, also serves as its chief executive officer. Much like the dual-president role, giving the same person the chairman and CEO powers is an inherent conflict of interest, and runs counter to the transparency and accountability that is supposed to be the bedrock of a public authority.
The private sector has for years now recognized this conflict, and more corporations are splitting the functions of the chairman and CEO. This allows the chair and the board to perform their vital oversight duties, including establishing budgets, ensuring transparency and accountability, engaging in short-and long-term planning, and evaluating executive performance, among other functions, independent of conflict.
These are problems with clear solutions. If the MTA had a better corporate structure, it would be a more transparent, accountable and efficient public authority that serves its customers better. Projects would be delivered closer to on time and on budget, and closer attention would be paid to customers throughout the system.
A clear organizational chart, with dedicated roles and talented executives, including a separate LIRR president, is the first step toward an efficient and responsive MTA. New Yorkers deserve nothing less.
Jake Blumencranz represents the 15th Assembly District.