Lawmakers Balk at Cuomo’s Plan for M.T.A. Leadership

The future leadership of North America’s largest transit system, including the prospect of a woman holding the top job for the first time, was unexpectedly cast into doubt by New York lawmakers on Wednesday.

Leaders of the Democratic-controlled State Senate indicated that they would not vote on a proposal by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo that would position Sarah Feinberg, a close ally of Mr. Cuomo’s, to become the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chairwoman.

The move was the latest rebuke of Mr. Cuomo by members of his own party as the governor tries to navigate several crises and overlapping investigations that have left him politically weakened.

Neither the authority nor Mr. Cuomo’s office responded to requests for comment.

On Tuesday, the governor nominated Ms. Feinberg to succeed Patrick J. Foye, the chairman and chief executive of the authority, which runs New York City’s subway and buses and two commuter train lines. Before the pandemic hit last year, the system carried more than seven million people on an average weekday.

Mr. Cuomo’s plan was to have Ms. Feinberg, 42, share Mr. Foye’s duties with Janno Lieber, who would oversee the transit system’s day-to-day operations as chief executive.

But splitting the job that way required legislative approval and would have given Mr. Cuomo even greater control of an agency over which he already holds tight reins.

As currently structured, the combined role requires Senate confirmation. Under Mr. Cuomo’s proposal, he and future governors would have sole authority to appoint the authority’s chief executive. The chair would still have needed Senate confirmation.

Critics of the governor’s plan, including Richard Ravitch, a former authority chairman, saw it as an attempt by Mr. Cuomo to institutionalize his power over the M.T.A.

The two roles have been held by different people in the past, but a 2008 commission led by Mr. Ravitch helped spur legislation that reunited them into a single job as part of an effort to restore the chief executive’s independence.

Ms. Feinberg, who is currently the interim leader of the agency that operates the city’s subway and buses, has told people that she would not take on the dual role because she wanted to reduce her workload, according to a person who spoke with her and asked not to be identified discussing a private matter.

Mr. Cuomo’s proposal was introduced in the Legislature this week, the last of this year’s legislative session. When Senate Democrats met to discuss it on Tuesday, it quickly became clear it lacked the support it needed for approval, according to Michael Gianaris, a Democrat and the Senate’s deputy majority leader.

“The governor is attempting a restructuring of the top echelon of the M.T.A. with very little notice and in such a way that the members of the Senate aren’t comfortable,” Mr. Gianaris said in an interview. “The notion that we were going to rubber stamp an effort to have even less oversight and more consolidation of power in the executive is not something we’re interested in.”

Lawmakers raised concerns about the bill’s structure and timing and even about Ms. Feinberg herself. Mr. Gianaris said she “had frequently taken to the podium to echo the governor’s attacks and that kind of politicization is not something we’re interested in.”

He added: “The idea of dropping something like that at the 11th hour expecting us to rubber stamp it is a huge miscalculation.”

It was unclear whether the State Assembly, which Democrats also control, would move to vote on the bill.

Mr. Cuomo is in the midst of multiple state and federal investigations into sexual harassment accusations made against him by former and current female aides, his handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic and a $5.1 million book deal.

Many of New York’s top Democrats have called on Mr. Cuomo to resign. And with the party’s majorities in both legislative houses big enough to override any veto he might issue, many lawmakers have sought to use the scandals he is embroiled in to secure their own priorities. Those have included scaling back the emergency powers Mr. Cuomo held during the pandemic and raising taxes on the wealthy, something he had long opposed.

Rachael Fauss, the senior research analyst for Reinvent Albany, a watchdog group, said the lawmakers’ decision not to support Mr. Cuomo’s proposal signaled that major policy decisions about the transit authority would need greater public and legislative input.

“I think it shows that there’s a shift in the power dynamic between the governor and legislature,” Ms. Fauss said. “In the past, major M.T.A. changes have happened at the direction of the governor at the last minute, and this time the Legislature said no.”

Ben Fried, a spokesman for TransitCenter, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, said the authority’s current leadership structure, with the chair and chief executive roles combined, ensured greater accountability because it placed one person at the top.

“It’s clearer whose in charge,” Mr. Fried said. “There’s no ambiguity.”

Despite the lawmakers’ move, Mr. Cuomo is still the person commuters should ultimately hold accountable for the vast public transit system’s performance, said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group.

“Whatever the structure of the M.T.A.,” he said, “it’s the governor’s job to ensure fast, frequent and reliable service for millions of riders every day.”

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