Elliot Sander is the unfortunate victim of circumstance, and we the subway-riding public are worse off for it.
Up until around around 10 days ago, Elliot Sander was the CEO and Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. At a time when the agency was suffering through a crippling financial crisis, his was a thankless job, but Sander was the right man for it. A run through his faculty profile at NYU Wagner School of Public Service shows a highly qualified and extremely experienced transit expert.
When the MTA had to turn, cap in hand, to Albany this year, politicians trotted out the old tired tropes in an effort to portray the MTA as a less than scrupulous organization. Some claimed the MTA keeps two sets of books, a charge found to be untrue in a court of law. Others called the agency heads “untrustworthy and corrupt,” as Sander puts it an Op-Ed in The Times today. In the end, the MTA, a transit agency entrusted with making the trains on time, were no match for a bunch of politicians whose specialties all seem to be making themselves look good even when approving poorly-constructed funding fixes.
In the end, despite his qualifications and despite his clear success — major projects moving forward, modernization efforts, on-time performance — Sander became the sacrificial lamb. He was ousted from a position most suited to his talents after less than 29 months on the job, and transit advocates all over the city lost a very important ally in the fight for better service in the city. Today, in a piece in The Times, Sander fights back. He writes:
The M.T.A.’s shortcomings are well known: crowded subway cars (ridership has increased by 50 percent in the past decade), outdated signal technology that limits the number of trains that can run per hour, decaying subway stations, buses stuck in traffic, the still incomplete Second Avenue line…
The M.T.A. has long been burdened by convoluted and overlapping operating charters, work rules and politically dictated mandates. But during my two years as chief executive we made significant progress in consolidating the back office functions of seven regional agencies — those in charge of trains and buses as well as bridges and tunnels. We arranged for the two commuter railroads, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, to save money by jointly purchasing equipment and supplies. And we merged what had been three bus companies into one.
Only with genuine support from our elected officials can the next chief executive keep improving the transit system. With enough financing, for example, the M.T.A. could form a single regional bus authority to provide seamless service from Suffolk County to Westchester County. And with the Legislature’s political support for labor negotiations, the agency would be better positioned to conduct serious and respectful conversations with its nearly 60 unions about modernizing work rules to increase productivity and embrace new operating technologies…
With an adequate budget, the M.T.A. could not only maintain but also expand the transportation system. Rather than just finish projects under way — the first phase of the Second Avenue line, the extension of the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal and of the 7 train to Manhattan’s far West Side — we could extend the Second Avenue line into Brooklyn and the Bronx, have Metro-North service at Penn Station, modernize the subway signal system and provide high-speed buses to underserved city neighborhoods as well as Long Island and the Hudson Valley.
Sander saves his attacks against the state legislature for the end of his piece, and even then, they are tame by Op-Ed standards. “All of us should wish that whoever takes the helm gets the backing of all of New York’s elected leaders. As the people who call the shots on M.T.A. financing, they really are the agency’s shadow board of directors,” he writes. “If, on the other hand, politicians continue to run against the M.T.A., their rhetoric may become self-fulfilling prophecy, and the system may devolve into the state of dysfunction they denounce.”
While Sander’s departure leaves the MTA worse off than it was a few weeks ago, maybe Sander can become a rallying point for transit experts in New York City. We have long been out-maneuvered by politicians in Albany who protect their own interests but not those of the transit-riding public. We live in a city in which people don’t really believe the subways can be better than they are, and we are held hostage by automobile interests in the most densely populated city in the country. Transit should thrive here, and it does not.
Sander’s Op-Ed is just a start. We all should push Albany for a fully-funded five-year capital plan and a true commitment to public transit. We have to convince the public and the people that matter to dream big. In the end, the subways and New York City will be better off far it. The fight goes ever on.