Transparency questions weave throughout MTA crises

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Questions about transparency at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority resonate on several fronts as its hierarchy grasps with a variety of crises.

Its board on Wednesday held another feisty exchange over an overtime payment fiasco, then retreated for a two-hour executive session, one of its longest private huddles at a public meeting in recent years.

Also that day, some board members were upset that the global chief executive of contractor Siemens, Joe Kaeser, met privately with MTA Chairman Patrick Foye and two other officials but not with the full board over delays and cost overruns related to the positive train control safety technology project for Long Island and Metro-North commuter railroads.

And a parade of transit advocacy groups want openness as consultant AlixPartners LLP compiles its report on an MTA restructuring, included in this year’s state budget bill.

The MTA agreed to hire yet another consultant to study timekeeping and attendance for 60 days, Foye told reporters after the private meeting.

The authority, one of the largest municipal issuers with $41.8 billion in debt, has been reeling from reports that some personnel, notably at the Long Island Rail Road, had pocketed more than $300,000 in overtime in one year.

“It’s a review of timekeeping and attendance processes and systems,” Foye said. “They vary across the agency and within the agency. It’s an appropriate approach.”

Board member Lawrence Schwartz, an appointee of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the governor's former chief of staff, had requested a special prosecutor. The MTA’s inspector general is already studying the matter.

Nonvoting and pro-labor board member John Samuelsen, the international president of Transport Workers Union — the primary labor group for MTA employees — wanted the overtime discussion open.

“What’s the rationale not to do that?” he said. “It’s the bosses that want to skulk into the back room and have this conversation in private.”

Foye cited a provision in the state open meetings law in justifying the executive session, though he admitted the MTA has ample room for improvement regarding openness.

"I think at the Port Authority, with help from lots of people, we improved transparency and I think we need to do the same thing here, including getting board materials online, to the board and the director's desk and to the public earlier than a week before board meetings," said Foye, who was executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 2011 to 2017.

Officials from Siemens and joint-venture partner Bombardier officials appeared Wednesday, saying they would meet finish the positive train control project before the federal December 2020 deadline.

Kaeser did not. He met five days earlier with Foye, MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim and board transit and bus committee chairwoman Sarah Feinberg. The latter is a former safety coordinator for the U.S, rail system.

Schwartz did not attend that meeting, saying Kaeser should have appeared before the full board.

“I’ve spent enough time on this board to watch contractors lie to my face about getting projects done on time and under budget,” Schwartz said.

PTC is a form of remote-control train technology intended to minimize crash risk. A federal law initially required PTC in place by the end of 2015. Extensions have pushed the deadline for LIRR and Metro-North to the end of 2020.

"I don't give a flying fish if some German bigwig comes here and sits here and tells me something," said Susan Metzger, a board member from upstate Orange County . "Until I see better quality control, it's just words."

Language in the budget bill enables the MTA to debar any contractor that exceeds 10% of the contract cost or time on a capital construction project.

AlixPartners is scheduled to submit its report on restructuring the MTA to the MTA board by the end of June. The board expects to vote on it in the fall.

“Reorganizations can be costly and disruptive, which is a significant concern to transit riders weary of service problems,” said a letter from 11 transit advocacy groups to Foye.

The organizations include NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, Regional Plan Association, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Reinvent Albany and TransitCenter.

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