As New York City’s subway system unraveled last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo introduced a plan to renovate 33 stations and add amenities like better lighting, countdown clocks and even USB ports.
The improvements, Mr. Cuomo argued, were needed to make the antiquated and often foreboding system more hospitable, even as the agency worked on the nuts-and-bolts problems that plague the subway, including signals and tracks.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, Mr. Cuomo’s longtime foil, questioned the $1 billion station improvement plan. In essence, the argument that the mayor and other city officials made boiled down to whether spending so much on bells and whistles was justifiable at a time when the system’s infrastructure was failing.
On Wednesday, the mayor scored a rare win. The board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the subway, delayed a vote on the governor’s plan after members appointed by Mr. de Blasio objected.
The board’s decision ratcheted up the feud between the governor and the mayor and raised concerns among riders that the desperately needed turnaround of the crumbling system was at the mercy of two politicians who seemed to devote so much energy to their verbal war.
“There is nothing in it for the riders until these two leaders come to a deal,” said Gene Russianoff, the chief spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign, an advocacy group. “I’d rather take a day off from watching these two guys swinging at each other. It’s so predictable.”
The vitriol played out in boardrooms and on unusual dueling conference calls, where reporters were invited to listen as proxies for each man attacked the opposition. The conversation spiraled beyond USB ports to a much larger, festering tension: the governor’s demand that the city contribute half of the cost the $836 million Subway Action Plan, the blueprint unveiled last summer to address major issues and quickly improve the system’s reliability. Mr. Cuomo included the city’s share in his proposed budget.
First up, the mayor’s side. On the line at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday were Polly Trottenberg, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, and Dean Fuleihan, the first deputy mayor, with legal backup from Zach Carter, the city’s corporation counsel. They criticized crucial elements of the governor’s subway overhaul, framing it as a wild overreach by the state’s chief executive.
“We object to the premise,” Mr. Fuleihan said on the call, referring to Mr. Cuomo’s demand for payment from the city. About 70 percent of the $16 billion of the M.T.A. operating budget already comes from New York City payroll and other taxes, he said. “Why wouldn’t New York City contribute? We contribute!”
By 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo’s team — Joseph J. Lhota, the chairman of the M.T.A., and Pat Foye, the agency’s president — claiming they were caught off-guard by the first call, organized their own conference call and were on the line playing defense.
It is “disingenuous” and “false,” Mr. Lhota said for the city to claim the governor’s plans were unilateral. The city, Mr. Lhota pointed out, has final veto power over the transit portion of the M.T.A.’s capital plan. “They have the ultimate leverage,” he said, “the ability to say no.”
At a news conference on Tuesday in the Bronx, Mr. de Blasio weighed in on the latest skirmish. “We’re going to continue to make the point that we don’t like the direction the M.T.A. is taking, and we’re going to be speaking up about it,” he said. “The countdown clocks and the Wi-Fi and painting, having lights on bridges — all that stuff doesn’t matter compared to your subway actually arriving where it’s supposed to arrive on time.”
The governor’s office declined to comment on the interactions between the two men.
The bad blood between the governor and the mayor has included disputes over prekindergarten financing to a renegade deer apprehended in a Harlem building complex. But their protracted battle over the subway seems to have eclipsed all the others, even as riders complain that they have yet to see the kind of improvements Mr. Cuomo promised after he declared state of emergency on the subway last year.
And the schism over the station overhauls is but a piece of the mayor’s differing vision on the subway. The governor’s proposal to allow special tax districts on developments near the subway as a way to help pay for the system is too broad in scope, according to the mayor’s aides, and was done without consulting the city. During an appearance on a morning talk show on Wednesday, the mayor touted his plan to tax the richest New Yorkers, a so-called “Millionaires Tax,” to fund the subway, as more fair that Mr. Cuomo’s notion to pay for it through congestion pricing, charging drivers a fee to enter Manhattan’s business districts.
On Wednesday, the full M.T.A. board met at the agency’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, and both camps came prepared. Late the night before, Mr. Lhota sent out an open letter. “The city claims no financial responsibility for the subway system that it owns and polices and is the lifeblood of the city’s economy,” he wrote. “The mayor’s answer is simple — and he should just say it — he doesn’t want to fund the subways and help riders. So be it.”
Ms. Trottenberg came to the board meeting equipped with a handout: a list of subway stations the city said needed improvements compared with the governor’s 33 selected stations — only three overlapped. (Her demand for an explanation about how the governor chose the stations slated for improvement were partially answered by Mr. Lhota, who said the stations were selected in part on the ease with which the improvements could be made to figure out best practices.)
By midmorning, it seemed Mr. DeBlasio had won the round: the board put off voting on the station improvements until February, following more study.
Ultimately, the true victor may have been neither the governor or the mayor. Andy Byford, the president of New York City Transit, had watched the skirmishes unfold during his first full week on the job. He expressed bafflement at how in the dark many board members were about not just station selection, but about things like how the M.T.A. tabulated electrical delays, a topic that came up after an article in The Daily News appeared to show the authority massaging numbers to put the blame more squarely on Con Ed, which supplies electricity to the subway.
When it came to the wrestling match over the subway stations, Mr. Byford appeared to come down on neither side. In the end, he had urged that the decision be put off, according to officials, because the plan needed more transparency.
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