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William J. Ronan, the MTA’s first chairman and one of the masterminds of the drive to push Robert Moses out of power, passed away last week at the age of 101. The one-time transit leader also headed up the Port Authority, and he oversaw a tumultuous time in New York City transit history. He died at his home in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“Bill Ronan was a legend in the field of public transportation and an inspiration for everyone who understands that mass transit is the engine that powers New York,” current MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “His vision of how an integrated transportation system can improve the region, and his skill in turning that vision into reality, have made life better for millions of our customers every day. We at the MTA send our deepest condolences to his family, and remember his service fondly.”

Ronan became the MTA Chair on the same day the MTA came into existence — March 1, 1968 — having served as head of the successor agency, the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority, for three years. Ronan led the effort to integrate the LIRR into the new entity and was instrumental in pushing for an expanded system after years of contraction following the destruction of the elevated lines. Ronan though did not meet with much success as he become persona non grata following two quick fare hikes, and the public eventually stopped voting in favor of transit bonds. His MTA had restarted construction on the Second Ave. Subway in the late 1960s and had to stop work in the early 1970s.

The Times had more in its obituary of Ronan:

Dr. Ronan presided over two tumultuous increases in the subway fare: to 30 cents from 20 cents in 1970, and to 35 cents in 1972 (about $2 in today’s money). After the first increase, he received death threats, and the police detailed detectives to protect him. “I was at one point probably the most hated man in New York,” he recalled in a 2005 interview for this obituary…

The next six years were hard ones for Dr. Ronan, who inherited the chronic problems — vandalism, declining ridership and disinvestment — that would plague the transit system until the 1990s. “We’re making up for 30 years of do-nothingism in mass transportation,” he said in a 1968 interview. He laid out an ambitious expansion agenda that called for a subway line under Second Avenue, a connection from the Long Island Rail Road to the East Side of Manhattan and the construction of a new subway tunnel under 63rd Street. The first two projects, long dormant, were revived in 2000 and are under construction; the third project was completed in 2001…

He laid the groundwork for the creation of the Metro-North Railroad by acquiring, from the Penn Central Railroad, the New Haven line in 1971 and the Harlem and Hudson lines in 1972. Metro-North went into operation in 1983. But far from expanding under Dr. Ronan, the subway system actually contracted: The Myrtle Avenue El in Brooklyn shut down in 1969, the Third Avenue El in the Bronx in 1973. When he stepped down in 1974 to become chairman of the Port Authority, The New York Times described him as “the quintessential civil servant” but also as “a transportation mendicant.”

Ronan, who eventually earned some bad press while at the Port Authority for a first-class travel scandal, was a public servant through and through and a friend of transit. I wonder though if he inadvertently created a monster. In an effort to unseat someone who was beyond the touch of many politicians, he created an agency that many politicians do not want to touch. The MTA kinda sorta unified Conrail/Metro-North, the LIRR and New York City Transit under one roof but without streamlining operations and agency-level management. Today, the MTA is manipulated by the elected officials who have to pass off tough decisions and otherwise ignored. If that’s Ronan’s real legacy, it’s one to which time and, more importantly, practice have been unkind.

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A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a bunch of transit-minded folk, and we were joking about Tom Prendergast’s tenure atop the MTA. He has been officially in charge for a year now, and based on recent history, that means it’s about time for him to step down, get booted out or decide to run for mayor. Of course, we were joking, and barring something out of left field, Prendergast will not be surrendering his CEO-ship any time soon. But that we could make light of the fact that the MTA has gone through nearly a chairman a year since late 2006 speaks volumes of the political upheaval affecting the agency.

Over the course of the year, Prendergast has presided over the good and the bad. The MTA’s budget remains fragile, and out-year projections will be altered by the fact that the net-zero goal ended up proving elusive. Fare hikes, though smaller, are still on the table every two years for the foreseeable future, but beginning yesterday with the M train and today with the G, subway service is being increased for the first time in years. Meanwhile, a new five-year capital plan looms with the immediate future for subsequent phases of the Second Ave. Subway in doubt, and safety problems abound for Metro-North and, to a lesser extent, the Long Island Rail Road. The latter railroad will face its own labor issues in the coming months.

As part of a big feature recognizing his first year on the job, Crain’s New York this week looks back on year one and looks forward to Prendergast’s year two. Andrew J. Hawkins summarizes:

It’s been a bumpy ride for Thomas Prendergast, head of the world’s largest transit system: three derailments, two labor negotiations, a power failure, employee and commuter fatalities, megaproject delays, a budget raid, and persistent aftereffects from Superstorm Sandy.

And Mr. Prendergast’s second year as chairman and chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority doesn’t look any easier. The MTA’s capital plan, which will outline the next five years of spending on the transit system’s massive infrastructure needs, is unfunded yet is due in September, around the same time that Long Island Rail Road workers plan to strike unless their contract is settled. Soon after, the federal government will render judgment on the MTA’s long list of resiliency needs post-Sandy. Fare increases are scheduled for 2015 and 2017, technology to replace the MetroCard is in the works, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered a long-term plan to harden and transform the entire system.

“I’ve been losing sleep for a while,” Mr. Prendergast admitted. “You realize you’re responsible for a function that carries millions of people a day.”

Prendergast talks about “transformational change,” and that could come in any area, from capital projects set to open to that elusive Metrocard replacement initiative to sustainable funding sources that need to be identified and realized. But as I think back on Prendergast’s last year in office, I think it’s not so much a busy year as it was the status quo. Although much of the focus has been on storm recovery of late, in the year two years prior, the MTA had to confront and fight off those storms. Before that, the agency’s finances tanked, and before that, capital projects were launched, delayed, overbudget and plagued with problems. If we go back a few more years, the TWU strike looms. It is never easy.

For his second year, Prendergast must seal the deal on a new $25-$30 billion capital plan that doesn’t include the same sexy projects as the past few. The MTA needs to perform a behind-the-scenes overhaul of nearly everything, but those don’t come with commemorative plaques and ribbon-cuttings. Preparing for another storm remains a priority as well.

So year one is in the books and year two will, finally, belong to the same MTA CEO and Chair. His term actually is set to expire in 2015, a legacy of the fact that so many people have come and gone since 2009 when the current six-year term began. How Prendergast does this year will determine if he gets another bite at the apple. The MTA sure could use that stability.

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Two minor transit stories surfaced today that warrant a quick mention. Toward the end of his tenure as MTA CEO and Chairman, Joe Lhota announced a plan to reduce the number of MTA Board meetings per year. Lhota proposed eight meetings and two public forums instead of 11 monthly meetings. This move lasted all of seven months as the MTA this week will vote on a plan to revert to its long-standing tradition of monthly meetings.

The Times first reported this story earlier today, and the details are buried in the Governance Committee materials [pdf]. Essentially, the change hasn’t fit in with operating procedures at the MTA. Data is gathered monthly even if it is reported to the Board only every six or seven weeks, and a long gap between meetings can slow down emergency appropriates and approvals needed to respond quickly to damage caused from, say, a major hurricane. Whether this is a case of a lumbering bureaucracy failing to adapt to a new normal or a clear sign that monthly meetings are required is up for debate.

In other news, renovations at two Northern Manhattan subway stops have begun, DNA Info reported. On its own, this isn’t exactly a pressing concern, but these aren’t normal stops. Back in 2009, a section of the ceiling at 181st St. fell on the tracks, and a subsequent inspection revealed structural concerns with the tiling at that station and 168th St. It’s stunningly taken nearly four years to get long-term repairs started.

The work will cost $42 million, and the MTA anticipates a completion time of 29 months. During the next two a half years, the 1 train will not run north of 137th St. for 13 weekends and 40 overnights. This is a prime example of a location where a total line shutdown would result in faster work, but many commuters north of Dyckman St. have no nearby alternate subway service.

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Joe Lhota confirmed today what we already knew but with a twist: As of December 31, and not this Friday, as originally reported, he will be stepping down from his post atop the MTA in order to assess a run for mayor. Lhota began at the MTA on November 14, 2011 and was officially confirmed as Chair on January 9, 2012, making his tenure just 357 days long.

Succeeding Lhota as MTA Chairman will be Fernando Ferrer. The one-time Bronx Borough President and failed mayoral candidate has a whopping 18 months of experience with the MTA Board, but he won’t be responsible for day-to-day operations. That duty will fall to Tom Prendergast, current NYC Transit president who will assume the mantle of Executive Director as Gov. Cuomo looks to fill the MTA vacancy. The Governor, by the way, has yet to say much of anything about Lhota’s departure.

Ferrer offered up a perfunctory statement to the press. “The MTA continues to face serious fiscal challenges, but I am pleased by the progress we have been able to achieve in cost containment and service improvements, as well as the swift restoration of service after Superstorm Sandy,” Ferrer said. “The MTA is blessed with a dedicated Board and skilled and loyal staff at every level. I look forward to working with management to continue to strengthen and improve the system that is so essential to the region’s daily life and economic vitality.” And don’t forget: Fares will go up in March no matter who’s in charge.

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But does he get to keep the sweatshirt? (Metropolitan Transportation Authoirty/Patrick Cashin)

Stability. Of all the problems plaguing the MTA — from debt to deferred maintenance — stability remains the overarching theme. Since Eliot Spitzer’s election when then-MTA head Peter Kalikow announced his intentions to step down, the agency has run through CEO and Chairmen faster than the Mets have discarded their fan favorites. After Kalikow, we saw Lee Sander and Dale Hemmerdinger come and go, we saw Helena Williams and later Andrew Saul serve as interim heads, and we enjoyed the all-too-brief tenures of Jay Walder and Joe Lhota. Now, the MTA is left once again without a leader.

We learned on Tuesday evening that Lhota will be stepping down from his position atop the MTA this week, ostensibly to run for mayor as a Republican candidate. Lhota said nothing of his plans on Tuesday night, and the MTA issued a perfunctory no-comment. But the outgoing Chairman and CEO will face the press after Wednesday’s board meeting, potentially his final amidst much upheaval at the MTA.

According to the report in The Times, Lhota’s political future is no sure thing. Guy Molinari, a leading Staten Island Republican, issued a full-fledged endorsement. “I would be on his side,” he said. “He’d make a great mayor. He’s sharp, tough and he can handle the City of New York. Not that many people can.”

Lhota is hoping to ride a tide of popularity that came the MTA’s wide after the agency worked hard to restore subway service after the flooding from Sandy. Still, Lhota hasn’t yet officially entered the race one way or another. Matt Flegenheimer and Jim Dwyer reported:

Mr. Lhota would probably face a primary for the Republican nomination. A former Bronx borough president, Adolfo Carrión Jr., a former Democrat, has been exploring a possible quest for the Republican nomination, as has John Catsimatidis, a billionaire grocer. Tom Allon, a newspaper publisher, and George T. McDonald, a founder of the Doe Fund, have both switched parties to run as Republicans…

A person close to Mr. Lhota said that by stepping down from the authority, he could engage in the kind of deep deliberations, with political operatives and potential donors, that he felt unable to as chairman of the authority. This person cautioned that while Mr. Lhota had warmed to the idea of a mayoral run, he had not yet made a decision.

With Lhota stepping down, according to The Times, it seems likely that current Transit president Tom Prendergast will serve as an interim MTA head while Fernando Ferrar will sit as vice chair. That’s neither here nor there though as the MTA is left once again searching for a leader. Needless to say, such turmoil at the top hardly leads to stability elsewhere.

Lhota leaves with the job unfinished. One of his last acts later today will be to authorize a fare hike that goes into effect on March 1. That’s hardly a stellar bullet on the résumé for someone hoping to be the next mayor. He also leaves with the Sandy restoration job unifinished. The MTA has to secure nearly $5 billion in federal aid — a few months after firing its top D.C. lobbyists. And service to South Ferry and the Rockaways has yet to be restored.

Meanwhile, long-term planning continues to flounder. Among the projects that require stability and long-term leadership are the MTA’s MetroCard replacement efforts, a countdown clock solution for B Division subway stations, the cell service/Help Point division and various other technologically-related initiatives to say nothing of long-term capital planning and Sandy recovery efforts. The TWU, as well, has been without a contract for nearly a year, and John Samuelsen as union president has now outlasted two MTA heads.

And so the city’s transit agency is back where it was barely 14 months ago when Jay Walder was forced out. It had a good run for the past year with cost-savings measures maintained and Fastrack pushed forward. But it is left once again with a leader who used it as a potential springboard for better things and higher office. It’s tough to move forward on five-year plans when the longest-tenured chairman stayed for barely more than two years. But here we are again, with no stability and no clear incumbent chair.

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While New Jersey Transit’s response to Sandy left much to be desired, the MTA seems to have earned itself some praise in the eyes of a generally skeptical public. According to a Quinnipiac poll released today, 75 percent of New Yorkers rated the MTA’s overall response to Sandy as “good” or “excellent.” Utility companies, on the other hand, earned just a 37 percent approval rating in the poll.

As the MTA spend a considerable amount of time working to restore service shortly after many of their tunnels were flooded and rail yards inundated, the authority kept the public informed through a wide array of social and traditional media outlets. Customers knew what was going on and why and had a solid sense of the timeline of service restorations. It has been a rare moment of good will directed toward the MTA, but we’ll have to see how long that lasts. Fares are set to go up on March 1.

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Here’s a bit of inside baseball for you: Citing productivity concerns for its board members, Joe Lhota has proposed that the MTA Board meet less frequently in 2013. Already, the MTA Board convenes 11 months out of the year — omitting the August — and the MTA head believes this schedule does not promote the “efficient use of time and resources” of Board members or agency heads. Thus, when the Governance Committee meets tomorrow, its members will address a proposal to reduce the number of meetings to eight a year. The Board and its committees would meet approximately every six weeks.

In addition to reducing the number of board meetings, Lhota has proposed a twice-yearly “Chairman’s Forum” in which Lhota and the agency presidents would field comments and questions from the public. These forums, Board materials say [pdf], would “promote transparency in MTA operations and ensure that MTA leadership remains accessible and accountable to the riding public, transportation advocates and elected officials.” These meeting would be streamed live over the Internet as well.

Generally, I’m agnostic on the issue of board meeting frequency. The meetings themselves are generally the same and only of interest when the MTA is fielding a big-ticket procurement issue, has a capital projects update or must debate a fare hike/budget. Fewer meetings may raise some oversight concerns, but an organization of the MTA’s size can easily get by with eight meetings a year instead of 11. The forums, on the other hand, are an intriguing idea that would allow more direct interaction (other than through Twitter) between MTA execs and riders. The trick though is to avoid the same litany of complaints and speakers at every forum, as has happened at these types of meetings in the past.

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The MTA drew criticism last year for being overly cautious when it shut down subway service in the face of Hurricane Irene. While New York City Transit was spared the brunt of the storm a year ago, Metro-North’s Port Jervis line suffered a wash-out, and the agency incurred significant planning costs. Yesterday, the MTA announced that it has submitted a $65 million claim to FEMA for reimbursement of these expenses.

So far, the MTA has recovered approximately $27.7 million in insurance proceeds and is targeting around $50 million as its total recovery. Of the $65 million, $21million will cove repairs of the Metro-North washouts west of the Hudson River, and New York City Transit has submitted a request for $22 million. That breaks down as $8 million in overtime costs for storm preparedness and $14 million in lost revenue when the subway system shut down for the first time in its history.

Meanwhile, as the one-year anniversary of the storm comes and goes, it’s tough to say that the MTA is any better prepared long-term for shifting ocean levels, major weather catastrophes and a changing environment. A request to FEMA to cover last year’s expenses helps the budget, but comprehensive long-term planning will help avoid shutdowns in the future.

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With the MTA Board meetings this morning came a flurry of news. I’ll round it up here.

Albany approves MTA Capital funding plan

While the details of the backroom deals have yet to be released, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has persuaded Republican State Senators to approve the MTA funding requests in his New York state budget. Originally, Dean Skelos and his GOP caucus in the State Senate had stripped all MTA funding from the budget in a show of faux-concern over MTA debt levels. But now, the MTA bond cap will jump by $7 billion, and the state will provide $770 million in new funds.

This move also assuages MTA fears that the feds would rescind favorable funding deals as well, and the authority was pleased with the deal. “The MTA is grateful for Governor Cuomo’s leadership and commitment in recognizing the critical importance of funding mass transit, and in particular fully funding our current Capital Program,” the agency said in a statement. “The MTA Capital Program not only provides for continued investment in our network, but also creates tens of thousands of jobs and generates economic activity across the entire state. With this funding, the MTA will continue to enhance our riders’ experience by investing in the future of our transportation network, as well as bringing our assets up to a state of good repair.”

I’ll have more on the capital plan later, but I do wonder what carrot Cuomo dangled for the Senate to secure these funds.

BusTime heading to 34th St.

Hot on the heels of a successful Staten Island adaptation, the MTA’s BusTime program is making its debut in Manhattan. The in-house option will replace Clever Devices’ expensive pilot in place along 34th St. effective April 8, 2012.

“We’re bringing Bus Time to 34th Street to replace the original pilot developed by technology firm Clever Devices,” Darryl Irick, President of MTA Bus and Senior Vice President NYC Transit’s Department of Buses, said. “However, unlike the previous pilot, the new system was developed in-house by the MTA at a fraction of the cost and allows us to expand Bus Time to more routes more quickly.”

The only drawback to the technology which allows riders with any phone to access bus location information concerns countdown clocks. When the Clever Devices’ system is shut off, the countdown clocks in place at bus shelters along the M34 and M34A SBS routes will no longer be in use.

Over 1100 buses to get security cameras

In an effort to better protect bus drivers, Transit announced today that it is exercising an option for the purchase and installation of cameras for 1150 buses in the fleet. The original contract with UTC Fire and Security called for installation of cameras in 426 buses, and the current option will include hardware and software for monitoring in 12 additional depots. Per Transit, the surveillance system features cameras for the interiors of 40- and 60-foot buses.

“Video surveillance is a vital element of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s ongoing effort to maintain a transit network that is as safe and secure as possible,” NYC Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement. “Bus cameras offer a visible crime deterrent, while also providing a state-of-the-art electronic tool that will aid in the investigation and prosecution of criminal activity aboard the vehicle.”

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On Friday, Jeremy Soffin served his final day as Director of Media Relations for the MTA, and today, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota named Adam Lisberg as the new Director of External Communications. Lisberg, currently the editor of City & State and once the City Hall bureau chief of The Daily News’, will head up press office while setting the “communications agenda” for the MTA. He will serve as Lhota’s chief spokesperson as well.

“Adam is an award-winning journalist who is joining us at an exciting time as we attempt to change both the operation and the image of the MTA. His talents and experience will be instrumental in shaping our message as we move forward,” Lhota said in a statement.

Lisberg, a current Brooklynite with Chicago roots, has covered mass transit and the MTA for a good portion of his career. After all, state and city politics and our massive transit agency are often intertwined, not always for the better. With, as Politicker NY notes, a salary of $150,000 coming his way, Lisberg is saying all the right things.

“I’m excited to join an agency that plays such a crucial role in the New York City region, and to help the MTA deliver its message to the millions of people it serves across a wide range of media,” he said. “Mass transit is the lifeblood of New York City and the surrounding counties. As the MTA tackles enormous construction projects at a time of financial strain, I’m looking forward to helping the agency explain its challenges and its achievements to the millions of people who rely on it.”

Lisberg’s immediate challenge is to overcome both a skeptical public and media prone to superficial transit coverage as he shapes and reshapes the MTA’s image. He should also serve as a set of ears for the agency with his pulse to the ground. It can’t just be about telling about change; it must be about showing a response as well.

“The MTA has a good story to tell and I see my role there as telling it,” he said to Capital New York. “I know that I’m now going to be representing the views of an organization as opposed to purely being a critic from the outside, but I’m doing it for a cause and an organization I believe in, which makes it a lot easier.”

Lisberg begins in his role on March 30, and I’m sure you’ll see his name often on these pages. In the meantime, get acquainted with him via his Twitter account.

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