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MTA Chairman & CEO Tom Prendergast and Gov. Andrew Cuomo post after the inaugural New Year's Eve ride of the Second Ave. Subway. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

MTA Chairman & CEO Tom Prendergast and Gov. Andrew Cuomo post after the inaugural New Year’s Eve ride of the Second Ave. Subway. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

So anything big happen when I was gone?

After a New Year’s trip to Paris, I arrived back to a New York City with a brand new part of a subway as the Second Ave. Subway opened to the public on January 1. I was skeptical the agency would be able to hit its target date, but under extreme pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the four-stop extension of the Q train arrived with champagne and a party on New Year’s Eve. Already, Upper East Side residents who now live a ten-minute one-seat subway ride away from Times Square have been raving about the new service, and I’ll have more details, thoughts and photos from the Phase 1 subway stops later this week. But first the news.

As the first part of the Second Ave. Subway has opened, current MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast has said he will step down from his position and retire from public service within the next few weeks or months. Prendergast has been in charge of the MTA since June of 2013 when he was elevated from his job as President of New York City Transit when Joe Lhota stepped down to run for mayor, and Prendergast was recently confirmed to a term set to run through 2021.

“Opening the Second Avenue Subway [last] weekend was a crowning achievement for the MTA and I’m proud to have been a part of such a historic moment. It has not only changed the daily commute for hundreds of thousands of customers, it has helped change the face of the MTA – showing the public we can meet the deadlines we set for ourselves,” Prendergast said in a statement. “It’s never easy to leave an organization after 25 years of service, but I do so knowing that the MTA will continue to serve the public so well and that our Governor will ensure New York continues to have the most robust transportation system in the country.”

While Prendergast will serve just shy of four years as MTA head, his departure continues a recent trend in turnover atop the MTA. Not counting interim agency leaders, Prednergast’s eventually replacement will be the MTA’s fifth chairman since the end of Peter Kalikow’s term in late 2007. As a comparison, the agency had only five chairmen from its founding in 1968 until the end of Robert Riley’s term in 1991. The turnover has led to shifting priorities and, at times, a lack of direction, but with Prendergast at the helm, the agency had steadied its direction a bit (though the multi-billion-dollar elephant in the room that is the MTA’s capital costs has been largely ignored for years now).

In recent months, Gov. Cuomo had taken a keen interest in MTA goings-on, for better or worse, and with Prendergast’s departure, Cuomo will have an opportunity to further extend his hands-on approach to the MTA. Kenneth Lovett of the Daily News, who broke word of Prendergast’s departure, had an early list of potential replacements. This rogues gallery includes current Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, NYC Transit President Ronnie Hakim (who could be the first woman in the job), NYS DOT Commissioner Matt Driscoll, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, one-time U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari, Joe Lhota in a repeat performance, and Cuomo confidantes Rick Cotton or Larry Schwartz, the latter of whom currently sits on the MTA Board.

It’s too early to know for now who will take over for Prendergast or who is even a front-runner, but the list of challenges on hand for the MTA in the coming months and years is substantial. In the short-term, the current TWU contract expires on January 15, and the union is asking for raises and other benefits. Fare hikes are set to go into effect in March, and the agency is knee-deep in planning both Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and logistics for the upcoming L train shutdown. Meanwhile, the MTA’s cost problem should be front and center for any incoming CEO/Chair.

As Prendergast’s departure nears, I’ll assess his legacy. For now, the MTA heads into another period of change and uncertainty at the top just as work wraps on the agency’s signature project of the past decade. What comes next from Cuomo and from Prendergast’s successor is, for now, a bit of a mystery.

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Robert Kiley, shown here in his days as head of the MBTA, was the longest-tenured MTA Chair.

Robert Kiley, shown here in his days as head of the MBTA, was the longest-tenured MTA Chair.

In the popular history of New York City’s transit renaissance that stretches over the past 35 years, Richard Ravitch gets the lion’s share of the credit. He inherited a complete and total mess at the MTA and led the subways out of the depths of the dark ages and into the early 1980s. He left his job after securing a multi-billion-dollar capital commitment from the state legislature, and Robert Kiley stepped in as his replacement. Kiley served as the agency’s longest running chairman, setting in motion many of the improvements we know today. A veteran of three transit agencies and respected throughout the transit world, he passed away on Tuesday at the age of 80, due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Bob’s leadership helped the MTA focus on dramatically improving the safety and reliability of the network, led directly to the record ridership levels we see today and was central to the State’s increased growth and prosperity,” current MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast said in a statement. “He assembled a team and created a vision that brought the transit system back from the brink of disaster and under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo helped rebuild our region’s economy. We remember his service with fondness and gratitude and send our deepest condolences to his family in this difficult time.”

Kiley was a big of a giant in his field. He over Boston’s MBTA for four years in the 1970s, ushered in a variety of improvements in London (including the introduction of a congestion charge) and led New York’s subways into a new age. He brought in his fellow Massachusetts native Bill Bratton to oversee policing in our beleaguered transit system, erased graffiti from the city’s subway cars and launched the program that eventually led to the Metrocard.

The Times, in its obituary, told a bit more about Kiley’s accomplishments:

Inheriting a windfall $8.5 billion capital program wangled from the State Legislature by his predecessor at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Richard Ravitch, Mr. Kiley presided over the replacement of hundreds of decrepit subway cars and buses, modernized stations, and improved on-time performance in a system that had been woefully neglected. Annual subway ridership, which in 1982 had dipped below one billion for the first time since 1917, rebounded by 1994 to the highest weekday average in two decades, 1.08 billion.

Mr. Ravitch, a native New Yorker, had been a vigorous advocate for mass transit, equally adept at wooing labor leaders, legislators and opinion makers in a campaign to generate the billions of dollars required to begin reversing the system’s decline. Mr. Kiley, a Minnesota native who arrived in New York by way of Boston, was more of a nuts-and-bolts manager, and he took longer to acclimate himself to the idiosyncrasies of local politics. “It’s kind of like following after Lou Gehrig,” Ralph L. Stanley, the federal urban mass transit administrator, said of the transition.

Mr. Kiley managed to win another $8 billion infusion for the authority’s capital program, recruited competent managers, and wrought concessions from organized labor, which incongruously represented most transit supervisors as well as rank-and-file workers.

Kiley’s arrival in New York City was not a foregone conclusion. In the early 1980s, he was toying with a run for mayor of Boston when one of then-Gov. Mario Cuomo’s aides courted Kiley by taking him to a Red Sox game. It happened to be Yaz Day at Fenway, and as the Red Sox celebrated Carl Yastrzemski, Kiley heard the New York pitch. Once it became clear he wouldn’t be mayor, he and Cuomo engaged in intense negotiations, and Kiley landed in New York.

As WNYC related in a replay of a late 1980s interview, Kiley had to step on some toes to get to where he needed the MTA to be. The story is worth a read (and there is a corresponding audio interview with Kiley). It delves into the need for fare hikes and the need to improve management by “jettisoning civil service and collective bargaining rules.” These were controversial moves then and would be again today.

Kiley left in the 1991 and was replaced by Peter Stangl. He eventually landed in London where he opposed the disastrous public-private partnership for certain Tube line operations that Transport for London eventually had to unravel. Yet, Kiley largely had his way, and as a 2004 New Yorker article detailed, Kiley is credited with saving the Underground. With three successful tenures leading transit agencies, Kiley was a singular leader in the transit space with a long and lasting legacy.

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Late on Friday, the MTA sent out a press release announcing that Virgil Conway, the MTA Chairman from 1995-2001, passed away earlier this week at the age of 85. At some point soon, we should assess Conway’s tenure. He was a Pataki man through and through and ushered in an era of political pressure to cut costs in the wrong way. He was a big proponent of the early planning for the East Side Access project, and he played a big role in securing funding for the Second Ave. Subway. His legacy reverberates today.

“Virgil was a hugely influential and effective chairman, and many of the successes and accomplishments the MTA celebrates today are the result of his hard work and his heartfelt service to the region,” current MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast said. “He remains a beloved member of the MTA family, and he will be sorely missed.”

Thoughts are with his family right now.

* * *

Click through the jump for this weekend’s service changes. Read More→

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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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