In the hullabaloo over the opening of the Second Ave. subway, the revolving door that is the MTA Chair/CEO position started to turn again as Tom Prendergast announced that he planned to retire at the end of January, and as January came to an end last week, Prendergast did just that. After 25 years heading up the LIRR, New York City Transit and the entirety of the MTA, Prendergast worked his last day on January 31. He will be replaced by current New York City Transit President Ronnie Hakim on an interim basis with Fernando Ferrer overseeing the MTA Board.
“Ronnie Hakim is ready to embrace the challenge of running the nation’s largest transportation network during this transition. She is a true transportation professional who has dedicated her life to improving the commute for millions of New Yorkers and I am confident that in this new role she will continue doing that as we reimagine and modernize the MTA for the 21st century,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement announcing the interim succession plan.
When Prendergast first announced his retirement in early January, it did not come as a surprise to Cuomo as the two had been taking about it for a few months. Transit advocates and politicians had hoped that the governor would be ready to name a permanent replacement at the time, but instead, Cuomo has opted to engage in a search committee — which includes Prendergast and Ferrer — to find a suitable candidate for the top spot at the nation’s largest transit agency. Joining this committee will be one-time MTA head Joe Lhota, Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for NYC, RPA Chair Scott Rechler, TWU President John Samuelsen, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater.
At one point, Lhota had been mentioned as a potential replacement, but he put this speculation to rest via his Twitter feed:
— Joe Lhota (@JoeLhota) January 25, 2017
So who is, then, on the short list? Hakim is under consideration for the job, but according to The Times, Cuomo, who has taken a heavier hand of late with the MTA, could opt for one of his loyalists. Lawrence Schwartz, an MTA Board member, and Rick Cotton are on the list along with NYSDOT Commissioner Matthew Driscoll, Port Authority head Patrick Foye (who desperately wants to leave the PA), Anthony Foxx and John Porcari (though Porcari has told confidants he’s not interested in the job). If chosen, Hakim would be the first woman tabbed for the job.
Prendergast’s ultimate successor though has his or her work cut out for him or her. The L train shutdown is looming large with little public-facing urgency from MTA and NYC DOT to resolve what will be a disruptive situation, and the next board head will have to confront steep declines in subway performance and spiking capital costs while navigating the transit politics of Cuomo which may be well-intentioned but wrongly focused.
So it is again another time of transition atop the MTA. Prendergast leaves with his legacy more or less on the positive side. System-wide subway ridership is up, but he never solved the problems with buses. On-time performance has slipped precipitously, but the MTA opened four new stations under his watch. And he oversaw a period of labor peace (though without enacting any badly-needed work rule reforms). It’s a pivotal time for the MTA (though when isn’t it?), and we’ll have to see how long this executive search can drag on as time ticks toward the L train shutdown.