A public relations fiasco sparked by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's initial stance to charge ride-hailing companies $3.50 for each airport pickup and drop-off has turned up the heat on the authority's executive director, Kimberley Minkel.
Influential political players have expressed increasing frustration with Minkel and her leadership team. They point to a series of slights and missteps that have led those with ties to the governor to criticize Minkel's political instincts and raise questions about her job security.
Aside from the dust-up over fees charged to ride-hailing companies, her perceived resistance to relocating the authority's downtown bus terminal on Ellicott Street into a proposed transportation center for buses and trains has rubbed elected leaders the wrong way, say staffers and political administrators with both local and state political ties.
The governor, who appoints the majority of seats on the NFTA board, has been a vocal proponent of both upstate ride-hailing services and a city transportation center.
For her part, Minkel pointed to a series of successes during her seven-year tenure: maintaining and expanding services, providing excellent customer service, and being a good steward of the NFTA's $222 million budget. She's not politically naive, she said, but views her first loyalty to the customers the transportation agency serves.
"My focus since becoming the executive director of the NFTA has been to focus on the people that we serve," Minkel said. "That's where I spent my time and my effort. I think the accomplishments of the authority bear out that spending my time there have paid off."
Strong NFTA leadership is critical to the region. The transportation agency oversees the airports at both Buffalo and Niagara Falls, which serve more than 5 million passengers a year. Bus and rail ridership exceed 26 million. But the agency struggles to maintain services and has hired a lobbyist in recent years to help build stronger ties with lawmakers, she said.
The initial decision by the NFTA board to charge a $3.50 fee on Uber and Lyft, whose arrival has been much anticipated and celebrated, has frustrated critics. They called the recent action by the NFTA another example of Minkel's weak political instincts.
Several NFTA commissioners said they are aware of the political pressure placed on Minkel and her leadership team.
"People in the governor's administration are upset about how this has been presented to the board – inaccurate facts and the lack of transparency," said Commissioner Anthony Baynes, the sole dissenting commissioner on the initial fee proposal. "And it's upsetting as a board member to believe that they're giving us the correct information, and in reality, we find out it's a fallacy."
Baynes said that while he supports ride-hailing services and even agrees that a charge is necessary, the amount and the timing were problematic.
Sam Hoyt, regional president for the Empire State Development Corp., denied claims that the Governor's Office is angling to get rid of Minkel. But he declined to elaborate further on her job status. He also confirmed that senior Cuomo staffers want the NFTA to improve communication and coordination with the Governor's Office regarding certain, ongoing transportation issues involving the agency.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said he's met with Minkel only twice since she took her position in 2010. Poloncarz said he doesn't expect the NFTA to seek his approval or clear anything with his office, but he'd appreciate not being "left in the dark" before the transportation authority announces changes that have a major effect on county services.
The airport fees being charged to Lyft and Uber are an example of how his office was taken by surprise, he said.
"It would have been good to have had a heads-up because our office got a lot of calls," he said. "The NFTA has always done its own thing for a very long time. I can't say I have any relationship with the leadership there."
That stands in contrast to the relationships he has with leaders at Erie Community College and the library system, he said.
State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said when he heard ride-hailing companies were refusing to offer Buffalo and Niagara airport service because of the NFTA fees, he was "mortified" and surprised the leadership wouldn't reach out to the state lawmakers so they could intervene and help ensure airport service.
Several commissioners have been vocal in their defense of Minkel. Commissioner Philip G. Wilcox called her leadership "magnificent." Commissioner Adam W. Perry called her work "exemplary."
Even most of her critics have not implied she lacks competence, despite some hard feelings from the Governor's Office when she was appointed as an internal candidate in 2010, just prior to Cuomo taking office.
Perry, chairman of the Aviation Committee, pointed out that Minkel has successfully and repeatedly settled contracts with 12 of the 13 NFTA unions. The last contract, with the bus drivers union, is in the process of being presented to members for ratification, he said, despite a years-long delay highlighted by critics.
"To me, that's a metric of outstanding performance," Perry said.
He also pointed out that Minkel is an example of a successful female leader in a region that needs more of them.
"There are very few successful women CEOs in Western New York," Perry said. "Men in power are bashing her for insubstantial reasons."
Minkel said she also wondered whether her leadership style is being criticized by outside power players because she doesn't wield her authority the way a man might.
"I have a softer touch, a more inclusive touch," she said. "But that doesn't make me weaker. I think if you looked at the accomplishments of the authority, I think the facts and figures speak for themselves."
The authority has weathered some tough times and controversy during Minkel's tenure, including bus route rollbacks and declines in Metro Rail ridership. But Minkel pointed to high customer service ratings at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the dramatic growth of Niagara Falls International Airport, plans to extend the Metro Rail line and selling Outer Harbor property as examples of achievement.
Some call the sudden, negative spotlight on Minkel part of a "political vendetta" because Minkel declined to hire Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, as the authority's new head of public affairs after the retirement of longtime spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer. They said Hoyt lobbied hard for Dixon to get the PR job.
If Dixon – who caucuses with the Republicans – had been hired and vacated her Legislature seat, it would have given Democrats a better chance at winning the seat and overturning the current Republican-supported majority.
Hoyt said he knew of Dixon's interest in the job, but concerns related to NFTA leadership have nothing to do with that.
"There is zero politics involved in this issue," he said. "Nobody associated with the Governor's Office has ever insisted that any individual, from the highest administrative levels to someone pushing a lawnmower, be hired at the NFTA."
The ride-hailing fees appear to be just the latest issue.
Several political staffers said the NFTA has a long history of seeking public money but showing little appreciation for "where their bread is buttered" -- belatedly inviting elected leaders to press conferences, for instance, or making public statements that throw cold water on initiatives championed by Cuomo. They also said NFTA leaders lack insight on how to leverage good political publicity for big bucks.
For instance, when Minkel announced a $65 million renovation for the Buffalo airport in January, those close to the governor said no effort was made to coordinate with the Governor's Office to try and lobby for more money that would have helped close the funding gap. It would also have given Cuomo an opportunity to look good and do some good for the region during a time when he was announcing other grants for LaGuardia and JFK airports in New York City.
NFTA administrators, however, said the authority had actively applied for grant money from the state but had been denied. So the NFTA found a way to move forward without firm state commitments.
Agency defenders say the NFTA enjoys a reputation of being less politically bent than other authorities but understand the importance of keeping political leaders informed. Minkel said she and others regularly reach out to elected leaders.
Hartmayer, the former NFTA spokesman and longtime member of the agency's management team, said Minkel has the respect and loyalty of her managers and the majority of employees at the agency.
In regard to the fees the NFTA is imposing on Uber and Lyft, the authority lowered the fee for Lyft from $3.50 per pickup and drop-off to $3 after Lyft initially refused to offer airport rides because of fees that Lyft described as the fifth highest in the country. Uber, meanwhile, has agreed to pay the NFTA a flat sum of $180,000. The terms of the agreements with both companies is limited to a one-year pilot program.
The County Legislature has called on NFTA leaders to appear at its committee meetings on Thursday and account for the agency's recent decisions.
Minkel acknowledged the decision on airport ride-hailing fees could have been handled better.
In retrospect, she said, "I probably would have done some things differently."