Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced a series of emergency actions for mass transit in New York City, including $1 billion to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's capital program.

In addition, MTA chairman Joseph Lhota will craft a reorganization plan. Lhota, who ran the authority in 2011 and 2012 and returned as board chairman last week, has 30 days to complete the review.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was first elected in 2010.
"We need to go outside the box because the box is broken," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Bloomberg News

"He will start with a blank piece of paper. There are no givens, no sacred cows," Cuomo said at the kickoff of the MTA Genius Transit Challenge, a $3 million competition intended to elicit new strategies and technology for one of the nation's oldest transit systems.

"We need to go outside the box because the box is broken."

Delays and breakdowns have become more frequent. Yet another power failure occurred Thursday near Penn Station, leaving more commuters stranded. Two days earlier, a derailment in Harlem -- which MTA officials traced to a stray piece of rail left between tracks -- injured 34 people and incapacitated several subway lines.

The MTA, which opened in 1904 and was designed in the 19th century, is one of the largest municipal issuers with nearly $38 billion in debt.

"It is what arteries and veins are to the human body," the governor said, adding that the region's economy needs an efficient MTA.

Cuomo also ordered a review of the authority's 2015 to 2019 capital program within 60 days. The MTA has a $32 billion capital program request, not including Cuomo's allocation on Thursday, pending a state review board.

"A billion more dollars ... without the procurement [frustration] that's going on, that's like another billion," Lhota said in the Hammerstein Ballroom.

Cuomo, in fact, pushed for streamlined project delivery, calling the MTA's current ways too cumbersome. "I could build a car in five years," he said.

Additionally, Cuomo ordered state officials to complete a review of the transit power failures, with a focus on utility company Consolidated Edison. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will also be involved, he added.

"If ConEd is responsible, they will be fined severely," said Cuomo.

The governor said he would push the legislature for a long-term funding stream at the MTA, which operates the city subways, the Long Island and Metro-North commuter railroads, and several bridges and tunnels.

The "genius" event is an international competition seeking innovative ways to modernize the system. The state will award a $1 million prize for the best idea in each of the following categories: improve signaling in the city subway system, modernize cars and improve communications infrastructure such as WiFi.

Representatives from foreign systems including Paris, London, Istanbul, Torono and Zurich were among the 400 people in attendance.

Skeptics questioned such an undertaking.

“We don’t need a genius to fix our subway system,” said Veronica Vanterpool, an appointee of Mayor Bill de Blasio to the MTA board and the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“I think what we do need is innovation. What we do need is attention and focus. I think the challenge really is, what is the subway’s package of improvements that we can identify?”

High-tech ideas often don't mesh with legacy systems, according to infrastructure expert Nicole Gelinas.

"I would be nice if they paid some attention to construction-cost issues," said Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Subscribe Now

Independent and authoritative analysis and perspective for the bond buying industry.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.
Paul Burton

Paul Burton

Paul Burton is the Northeast Regional Editor for The Bond Buyer and the author of the book "Tales from the Newsrooms." He is a sought-after public speaker and has appeared on radio and TV shows, including former CBS News White House correspondent Sharyl Attkisson’s public-affairs program, “Full Measure.”