When, in June, Gov. Eliot Spitzer nominated his friend and donor H. Dale Hemmerdinger to the MTA chair position, the New York State GOP Chair questioned Hemmerdinger’s credentials. While at the time many assumed Joseph N. Mondello’s statements to be typical partisan blustering, Hemmerding’s appearance last week in front of the State Senat Transportation Committee did absolutely nothing to assuage those fears.
To put it bluntly, Hemmerdinger, a big Democratic donor, made a complete and utter fool out of himself in front of the committee. He remained non-committal on the fare hike — a position he has maintained since June — but worse still was his admission that the extent of his transportation knowledge, as William Neuman reported in The Times, “began and ended with what he had picked up by reading the newspaper.”
Neuman has more from this seemingly disastrous committee hearing:
Asked what the state would do to handle more riders if New York City imposed congestion pricing, Mr. Hemmerdinger replied: “I only know what I read in the papers at this point.”
On his familiarity with the authority’s proposals for a fare increase: “I’ve looked at it as I’ve read it in the paper.”
On whether he had any new ideas that could help avoid a raise in fares: “I’m only on the outside. I can only read the paper.”
On the authority’s efforts to sell development rights to the Hudson Yards in West Midtown: “I don’t know anything about it beyond what I read in the paper.”
That’s comforting, but it’s not the end of the world. Bear with me here.
Now, I could understand that Hemmerdinger was attempting to put forth something of a populist face. “I’m not the transit wonk,” he’s trying to say. “I’m the successful businessman here to put the MTA’s finances in order.” But he failed. He came out sounding like an uneducated Democratic crony who received the nomination because of his close ties to Gov. Spitzer. A few passes through the easily accessible Fare and Toll and Capital Construction sections of the MTA’s Website could have done wonders for Hemmerdinger’s introduction to the subway-riding public last week.
Of course, the subway literati are a bit dismayed by this development. SUBWAYblogger compared the situation to President George W. Bush’s disastrous appointment of Michael Brown to head FEMA; Gothamist notes how Hemmerdinger didn’t even display a limited understanding of the state’s ethics rules during his hearing; Streetsblog amusingly wondered which paper Hemmerdinger reads; and the good folks at Subchat noted that Peter Kalikow, the outgoing MTA chair, was another no-nothing candidate with political ties who wasn’t all that successful in his post.
Respectfully, I disagree with the concerned masses. Sure, it’s alarming to see a political appointee handle himself so poorly in front of a Senate committee. But in reality, it’s not Hemmerdinger’s role to set transportation policy at the MTA. His role — and it’s one for which he is aptly suited — is to pick up the financial pieces and make sure the money’s in order.
When Kalikow was in charge, he was the sole man at the top, serving as both CEO and Chair of the MTA. But Spitzer recognized the mistake in that arrangement, and Elliot “Lee” Sander, one of the nation’s leading transportation experts, has down a masterful job in his first few months at CEO of the MTA. He, along with New York City Transit President Howard Roberts, will set the transportation policy.
With these two exceptionally qualified men entrenched in their positions, the MTA doesn’t need yet another policy wonk in the upper echelons of management. Rather, as I said in June, they need a successful businessman with financial acumen to guide the Authority through what promises to be a few tumultuous fiscal years. We can cringe at his committee appearances this week, but he’s the right man for the guy, all things considered right now.