At some point in the not-too-distant future — maybe next month, maybe in the fall — Gov. David Paterson will formally announce his selection for the newly combined top spot at the MTA. The new position will encompass the chair and CEO jobs, and it will eliminate the current bifurcated power structure atop the agency. Who it will be is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, yesterday marked Interim CEO and Executive Director Helena Williams’ first day and the job. She and current MTA Chair Dale Hemmerdinger, whose term expires in June, spoke about the MTA’s new few months and both, report the Daily News, want the top spot.
Both recognize, however, that Paterson will take his time and ultimately pick whomever he wants to pick. “The governor has a selection process in place, and it’s his prerogative,” Williams said. “Wherever it takes us, it takes us.”
Williams replaced the highly-respected and highly-respected Elliot Sander this week, and Sander’s departure was not without controversy. He is widely regarded as one of the city’s foremost transit policy experts, and Eliot Spitzer earned high marks for picking Sander. While Pete Donohue’s sources say that Hemmerdinger is angling for the top spot, Paterson should look for another transit expert who can guide the MTA through a tough time financially while continuing to grow the system to fill the top role. We do not need another real estate mogul in charge.
To that end, the Regional Plan Association feels that, given the chance, Williams could be the right person for the job. Neysa Pranger, the RPA’s public affairs director, wrote yesterday:
The agency needs a leader with both vision and bureaucratic skills to meet its various challenges…The good thing about Williams is that she has ample quantities of both. She is not a politician, or a political contributor. She is a transit executive. Previously she led Long Island Bus, and she has been president of LIRR since 2007.
How long she will stay as MTA chief executive is anyone’s guess. Even though her appointment is only interim, it is not a stretch to assume she could be in the seat for longer than expected. The governor has said a national and international search will be conducted for a permanent replacement, but it may be hard to find a professional appointee from another system for what could be only a year-long job since Governor Paterson is up for re-election in 2010.
Other factors that may discourage applicants are the circumstances under which Lee Sander exited and the fact that the governor will need to tightly manage the agency heading into an election year…This could leave the MTA in a terrible bind. If the economy and thus revenues continue to decline, the MTA may have it’s hands tied as it is legally bound to balance its budget. This could mean unpleasant decisions on the MTA’s capital (and in many ways less physically visible) side of its balance sheet. Exacerbating the problem is the MTA recently got only half a loaf in Albany with regards to the capital plan and still faces long challenges in funding maintenance and expansion plans.
Williams should handle these challenges as well as anyone. She has a keen sense of politics honed in the jungle of Long Island politics and has shown she has an excellent sense of the transit system’s needs.
A visionary, experienced leader who can navigate transportation policy and transit politics? Sounds good to me.