Being the next head of New York City Transit may sound like a thankless, no-win situation. Between a public rightly demanding something resembling reliable and trustworthy transit service and a boss in Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanding whatever half-developed idea pops into his head on any given morning, the constituencies for this presidency are fickle and, in the case of commuters facing another morning of subway meltdowns, angry. But that doesn’t stop many people from taking on the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of running and fixing the subways, and last week, the MTA announced that Andy Byford, from London by way of Sydney and Toronto, will assume the role of New York City Transit President by the end of the year.
Byford replaces Ronnie Hakim atop Transit. When Joe Lhota took over the MTA, Hakim moved into the position of MTA Managing Director, splitting responsibilities with MTA President Patrick Foye and MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber. “We are thrilled that Andy is going to lead NYC Transit during this time of great change,” Lhota said in a statement last week. “Our transit system is the backbone of the world’s greatest city and having someone of Andy’s caliber to lead it will help immensely, particularly when it comes to implementing the Subway Action Plan that we launched this summer. In order to truly stabilize, modernize and improve our transit system, we needed a leader who has done this work at world-class systems and Andy’s successes in Toronto are evidence that he is up to this critically important task.”
The British native started out working for the London Underground in the late 1980s before working in leadership for both South Eastern Trains and London’s Southern Railway. He spent a few years in Australia with RailCorp before moving to Toronto where he has led the Toronto Transit Commission since 2012. APTA recently named the TTC, under Byford, as its Outstanding Transit System of the Year, but not all has been wine and roses for Byford in Toronto. Some Torontonians have grown weary of near-annual fare hikes, and Toronto transit voice Steve Munro told The Times that Byford has grown “somewhat less receptive to criticism” over the years.
Still, Byford brings an international perspective to an agency that has been mired in New York Exceptionalism for years. The MTA has been seemingly shy or afraid about implementing best practices not invented here for reasons that have been tough to explain. If Byford can bring his learnings from London, Australia and Toronto to New York City, perhaps Transit can fight its way out of this crisis with an approach more robust than Lhota’s pet Subway Action Plan.
But Byford’s approach in Toronto and the legacy he leaves behind is almost besides the point as the 800 pound gorilla in New York’s room looms large. That gorilla is of course Andrew Cuomo and the influence he exerts over, well, everything. Byford brings a unique perspective to the insular MTA, but the question is whether Cuomo will listen. So far, he hasn’t as Byford participated in the laughably sterile MTA Reinvention Commission a few years ago and on a panel this past summer as part of the MTA genius campaign. Both led to recommendations that were routinely ignored in Albany.
In The Times last week, Marc Santora explored the question of politics and the ways in which Byford should or shouldn’t play politics. (It’s the companion piece, in a way, to Jim Dwyer’s full-on assault on the poor politics of transportation in New York right now.) Santora’s thesis is that Byford should avoid political fights, specifically the feud between Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. But Byford shouldn’t be afraid of taking positions, and I worry already that he’s going to thread too fine a needle. Take a look at this excerpt from Santora’s piece (the emphasis is mine) :
Mr. Cuomo supports a congestion pricing plan that would charge drivers entering the most crowded parts of Manhattan and is expected to offer a detailed proposal early next year. Mr. de Blasio has been steadfast in his opposition to congestion pricing, saying it would burden low-income New Yorkers, and has instead pushed a plan to raise taxes on wealthy residents.
Mr. Byford said he was “agnostic” about how the money is raised, adding that his task was to show that he could win political support by building a management team capable of running the subway. Transit advocates said he must also win over riders by quickly showing concrete gains, especially by improving on-time performance.
I am willing to give Byford a pass because he’s the new guy, but being agnostic as to matters of transit, transportation equity and funding is a recipe for being a Cuomo pawn. We need a New York City Transit president who is willing to be a champion for New York City transit with a lower case t. He should fight for smart policies and intelligent funding that can help stabilize and modernize our old system. That will involve challenging Cuomo and taking sides that aren’t always popular in Albany. Will that play with the Governor? Will that help push Transit toward a future where delays and poor service aren’t the norms? It’s a tall task, and for now, it’s Byford’s.