Since I couldn’t find a picture of Howard Roberts, enjoy this neat photo of an old Redbird up on blocks. (Courtesy of Michael Pompili at NYCSubway.org)
At the end of last week, I slipped in the item that MTA CEO Elliot “Lee” Sander” will nominate former MTA exec Howard Roberts as the next president of New York City Transit. At the time, I knew little about Roberts. Now I know some more.
According to two stories in the New York Daily News, I know a bit about Roberts’ background and the controversy surrounding his initial departure from the MTA over twenty years ago. Let’s start with the controversy.
In 1986, Roberts was in charge of the buses as an VP of NYCT when he was booted by then-MTA head David Gunn. According to the News, Roberts was dismissed because — get this — he actually got along with the transit workers. Pete Donohue has more:
Carolyn Konheim, former head of the NYC Transit’s advisory committee wrote in a letter that she was “shattered” when Roberts was shown the door. She described him as the “the first person I knew at the Transit Authority to treat passengers like customers and to give us, their representatives, an enormous amount of respect and attention.”
The president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 at the time, Sonny Hall, wrote to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board to express his shock and disgust. He suggested Roberts was forced out because his management style included cooperation and consultation with workers as opposed to a more authoritarian approach.
So lesson: If you work at the MTA, don’t try to cooperate and consult with the workers in an effort to make everyone’s lives easier. That only means that your performance is subpar, as reports have Roberts being told in 1986.
Meanwhile, this departure didn’t stop Roberts from going on to a successful career elsewhere. As Pete Dononhue reports in this other article, Roberts was second in command of SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, for nearly 10 years where he also developed the reputation for getting along with the SEPTA employees.
Some in Pennsylvania, however, felt that Roberts may have been too deferential to the labor unions. We’ll see how that plays out in New York where the transit workers are a strong force in city transportation politics.
Additionally, Donohue reports, Roberts was a 20-year military vet; he retired as a colonel. He served as a VP of Citibank and holds a masters in Civil Engineering and Public Affairs from Princeton.
So we have a highly qualified official who may get along too well with the unions. We certainly could do worse. Now if only someone could turn up with a picture of this guy…