Home MTA Politics Sander finding life lonely at the top

Sander finding life lonely at the top

by Benjamin Kabak

Elliot Sander, the MTA’s first CEO and Executive Director, has a tough job right now. He’s supposed to be wielding the power once left to the chairman of the MTA’s board, and he’s supposed to be guiding a beleaguered public-benefit corporation through some very tough economic times.

While I think Sander has done an admirable job, he has steered something of a bumpy ship. In a very well done piece in today’s Times, transit beat writer William Neuman analyzes Sander’s tenure. The transportation expert-turned-MTA head has his supporters, and while his detractors are rather guarded in their words, they’re still there, assessing his every move.

When Mr. Sander took over the authority in January 2007, he became the first executive director to take full advantage of the expanded powers. But Mr. Sander’s position is also something of an unwieldy hybrid: he has much of the power once held by the chairman but not the broad sway and job security that comes with a fixed term and a vote on the board.

Though Mr. Sander is an employee of the board, he serves at the behest of the governor and can be removed at any time. And the governor he serves today is not the one who appointed him: his friend, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned earlier this year in disgrace. Though Mr. Sander says he has a strong relationship with Mr. Spitzer’s replacement, Gov. David A. Paterson, the two are clearly not as close.

Richard L. Brodsky, a Westchester assemblyman who helped lead the push for the 2005 change in the authority’s structure, now worries that it was a mistake. Having no fixed term, he says, might undercut Mr. Sander’s ability to make demands of the governor, who is struggling to close his own widening budget shortfall.

“Lee has been a very good C.E.O.-slash-executive director at a time when that was needed to get the M.T.A. functioning again,” Mr. Brodsky said. “But it also needed a 400-pound gorilla who didn’t need the job and could say ‘No’ to governors, and I don’t think Lee ever thought of himself as having that job.”

Neuman’s article goes on to touch upon some of the ammunition Sander’s critics have used against them. He took a significant pay raise a time when the MTA’s finances were in shambles. He promised service increases and then had to roll them back a few weeks later. His State of the MTA speech, while appropriately grand, has approximately no chance of becoming a reality.

In the end, I give Sander a good grade for his effort. He’s overseen the agency through some of its toughest fiscal times while ensuring that the trains continue to run and that service levels remain the same. While there’s trouble brewing on the financial horizon for the MTA, for now, Sander remains the man for the job. He has the expertise and political support to see the MTA through some dark days.

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eric October 28, 2008 - 7:35 am

The head of the MTA will never be able to get anything done with the current system. The city pays almost nothing into the system that keeps it’s citizens moving and until that’s changed nothing else matters.

Marc Shepherd October 28, 2008 - 9:03 am

Ultimately, Sander will need to be judged by his ability to negotiate a more stable funding structure for the MTA. So far that hasn’t happened, but he deserves a little more time before we start passing judgment on his tenure.


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