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All The Governor's Men

When comparing the legislation that defines New York’s four upstate transportation authorities, the theme that emerges is that one of these things is not quite like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong.

If you thought the NFTA’s aviation and real estate responsibilities were the only thing separating them from the other quasi-governmental public-benefit corporations in the state, well, you have at least one more think coming.

It turns out the systems operating in the Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany metro areas have much different mechanisms in place to provide local input into the composition of their governing boards. All authority commissioners are appointed ultimately by the governor; the difference lies in how the governor is allowed to pick the appointee.

Here’s the rundown:

• The Capitol District Transportation Authority currently has an eight-member board of voting directors, three of whom are appointed from a list of six provided by Albany County; the majority party in the legislature nominates four people, the minority party two. The legislatures of the surrounding counties (Schenectady, Rensselaer, Saratoga) serviced by the CDTA have a similar provision carved into the law: Each receives a total of two seats that are chosen from four submitted names—three for the majority party, one for the minority. (Currently, Schenectady has only one representative.)

• The CNYRTA-Centro board members are appointed in a similar but slightly less confusing process. The City of Syracuse provides the governor with six names for three seats, Onondaga County provides 10 names for five seats, and Oneida County submits four names for two seats. Information from the Centro website indicates only one representative of the City of Syracuse but an additional seat each for Cayuga and Oswego County.

• Moving westward, the RGRTA works very similarly to Centro. The City of Rochester submits six names for three seats while Monroe County submits eight for four. Additional counties have the ability to recommend two names for one seat. Currently the 12-member board represents seven counties in addition to the City of Rochester.

• Finally, the NFTA. The NFTA’s board is comprised of one chairman, one non-voting representative of the labor union that represents many of the NFTA’s employees, and 10 commissioners. Of those ten, only two are appointed with any formal local input at all. One name is submitted for one seat by the Erie County Executive, and one name is submitted for one seat by the Erie County Legislature. (The county executive’s seat, per Mark Poloncarz’s office, is the currently vacant seat, and the legislature’s pick is James Eagan, one of four members of the board whose term is expired.)

Everywhere else in the state, 100 percent of the governing boards of transportation authorities comprise people recommended by the municipalities they represent. Locally, the number is 20 percent.

At stake for the NFTA, of course, is the prospect of replacing one political process with another, more localized one. Some might ask what the difference may be.

One consistent advocate of the NFTA’s riders, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, sees a distinct advantage in the way upstate’s other transportation authorities are governed. “We need to have more people on our board who are more connected to the local community,” he says.

Imagine a restructured NFTA board with three members who represent the city, five members who represent Erie County, and two members who represent Niagara County. As it stands, the NFTA’s board of commissioners has little public accountability. There’s no easy way, for example, for anyone in the public to access any of them.

Ryan contends that things could be different: “In many ways it would make them more answerable to the local community,” he says. “Just by virtue of being on the scene, closer, and understanding how their constituents use transportation services. I was surprised to see how all the other transportation authorities do it, and ours really sticks out.”

Ryan is not in favor of a proposal by State Senator George Maziarz and Assemblyman Robin Schimminger to put a non-voting seat representing disabled/transit dependent riders on the NFTA board. “While I agree with the sentiment of this bill, I do not think it goes far enough,” he says. “I think we need to be the first one in the state to have a voting, full board member who actually rides the bus. We’re out of whack with the way the rest of the transportation authorities put their boards together.”

Expect future legislation asking for the NFTA to borrow some organizational pointers from its neighbors.

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