Home MTA Searching for a Chair who will stick around

Searching for a Chair who will stick around

by Benjamin Kabak

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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Phantom December 19, 2012 - 12:57 am

Personally I see no need to replace the Metrocard , which I find to be better than London’s vaunted Oyster.

And while he has been a very good executive, that does not mean that he should be mayor.

SEAN December 19, 2012 - 7:28 am

The Metrocard is flawed in that it cant be used as a regional farecard unlike Smartrip or ORCA.

Phantom December 19, 2012 - 11:54 am

But that’s not a technology problem.

The PATH adopted MetroCard pretty easily. Let others do so too. No need to reinvent the technology wheel.

I like the fact that MetroCard allows you to pay for up to three additional passengers who travel with you, a flexibility that Oyster does not give you.

Epson45 December 19, 2012 - 12:27 pm

PATH had a similar to MetroCard which has been rename to SmartLink Gray, the same company who invented MetroCard, Cubic for almost 3 decades. It was very simple adaptation.

The MetroCard magnetic stripe technology is outdated and MetroCard serial numbers is are running out.

Bolwerk December 19, 2012 - 1:38 pm

That’s not a limitation of Oyster. That’s a limitation of London’s fare structure. After a few uses (3?), Oyster converts to a pass so the rest of your rides are free for the day. It can’t do that if people are sharing it.

It’d be nice if MetroCard did that, though the price would be a fare structure more like London’s.

Phantom December 19, 2012 - 7:15 pm

The price cap for the day – that’s pretty meaningless I think for most. It might benefit tourists, but they already benefit by a really cheap NY system.

Locals who want to ride the train all the time can get a weekly or monthly unlimited.

Has London ever seriously considered going to a one fare system? I like simplicity, and one fare is nothing if not simple. And London has a small army of fare people manning the fare gates to deal with problems that people have – there would be fewer problems if it was only one zone.

Bolwerk December 19, 2012 - 9:52 pm

I dunno. I don’t know a lot about London, but I don’t think it’s meaningless anywhere for inner city dwellers with variable/sporadic demand for the system – in NYC, those of us within subway spitting distance of Midtown – or lots of tourists.

Most people on this blog seem to regard NYC’s flat fare structure as a bug. I never heard of London considering it, but I don’t see any historical or operational reason why they would. They seem to have a pretty good grasp on the structure they have.

Phantom December 19, 2012 - 11:07 pm

I see flatness as the hugest of advantages…simple, no need to swipe at exit, no need to have swipe readers or extra staffat exit, no need for the tourist to hold onto a ticket- plenty of first time tourists in London dont know that they even should keep it and have to be assistaned.

Trying for a zone system in NY would start a war with the Bronx, Queens Staten Island and some of Brooklyn just like the stupid idea to tax street parking would do.

And if zone fares were implemented, it would depress ridership from people who dont’t always love transit in the first place.

Really really really bad ideas.

Bolwerk December 20, 2012 - 1:31 pm

I prefer to keep it flat myself.

I always see it as a moot debate though, since changing it just creates more problems, even if it’s nice in theory.

Henry December 20, 2012 - 1:42 am

Flat fares are standard in the older cities of the United States, because around the 1900s most cities had laws mandating flat fares. New York only got rid of its law in the 1940s, and even then they only hiked it to a dime from five cents.

I’d like to see New York keep its flat fare, because it’s less complex to implement, and paying the fare in coins would just become an absolute nightmare.

Alon Levy December 20, 2012 - 8:57 pm

The fare is already non-flat. The question is whether the region’s rail network’s innermost zone should consist of all of New York City (plus I guess the PATH shed) or only the inner portions of the city. I’m neutral on that question, but what I’m not neutral on is the need to think regionally and mode-neutrally. If New York wants to hike fares beyond Jamaica or wherever, fine. If it wants to keep a flat citywide fare, it’s also fine, as long as this applies to all modes, including in particular the LIRR and Metro-North.

Someone December 19, 2012 - 7:30 pm

Also note that Oyster forces you to pay your fare depending on how far away from London you go.

Alon Levy December 19, 2012 - 8:10 pm

Also not a technological issue…

Alon Levy December 19, 2012 - 8:09 pm

What Phantom said. Regional farecards can take any technology. All it takes is putting in charge people who have “Ein Ticket für Alles” tattooed on their forehead and are willing to ignore Andrew here. It can be done with smartcards, magnetic cards, or paper tickets.

Bolwerk December 19, 2012 - 1:36 pm

Problems: high maintenance costs, expensive fare media, limited flexibility, little incentive for other agencies to use it. I could probably go on.

Smart cards have a lot of potential, both to improve service across agencies and to cut costs internally.

Phantom December 19, 2012 - 7:19 pm

An awful lot of us pay for commutes with pre tax wages.

If it goes to a smart card system, it’ll still have to be one that is dedicated to commuting in some way to keep this feature.

Bolwerk December 19, 2012 - 9:57 pm

Is there a law about that? Near as I can tell, it only needs to be some kind of payment from your company to the TA – it could be satisfied with a check payable to the TA.

Phantom December 20, 2012 - 12:43 am

No law or policy that could not be changed

We used to pay for MetroCards ourselves and then submit receipts by cash for pretax reimbursement

Later they switched to a system where they mail Metrocards to us also paid with pretax money. This can be a problem, since the USPS does misdeliver or lose mail often enough.

Neither seems efficient to me

Phantom December 20, 2012 - 12:44 am

– submit by fax-

Matthias December 20, 2012 - 3:26 pm

Not really. MetroCards can already be used for any trip, any day or time. The advantages with a smart card would be having the money loaded automatically each month, with no need to go to a TVM or get a new card in the mail.

Someone December 19, 2012 - 1:05 am

Personally, I think they should rebuild the signalling system of the Rockaway line entirely. The A train is going to get new CBTC equipped R211s in five years, anyway.

Alon Levy December 19, 2012 - 8:11 pm

Why do the lowest-frequency, lowest-ridership branches need CBTC, anyway, as opposed to the lowest-cost usable signaling system that can be found?

Bolwerk December 19, 2012 - 10:08 pm

Which is? They may want to get rid of the current wayside signals because they’re expensive to maintain and aging fast, and the most expensive places to keep them around might be the miles of low-usage, exposed subway expanse around the Rockaways (~5 miles from Beach 116 to Mott) and Broad Channel.

Not sure CBTC is the best bang for the buck on that, but it might not be the worst – especially right now.

Nathanael December 19, 2012 - 10:22 pm

“CBTC” seems to be a really vague umbrella term.

The fact is that the lowest-cost usable signalling system, if you’re buying new, is going to be some sort of system based on track circuits for train detection, but with everything else done by computers and radio signals. That falls under the loose umbrella of “CBTC”.

The trouble really is that the people buying the signal system treat the whole thing as a bit of a black art. And safety critical systems *are* hard. And you *do* have to pay a lot to hire really experienced people to design and install them. But that doesn’t mean you need to get overcharged for them; but it seems that, for whatever reason, the MTA does get overcharged by its contractors quite often.

Henry December 20, 2012 - 1:47 am

Any signalling system is bound to be cheaper than the MTA’s current signals, because those aren’t even manufactured anymore.

I can imagine that part of the high cost of Sandy repairs was attempting to find compatible signals.

Someone December 20, 2012 - 10:02 am

Actually, the wayside signals in use in the rest of NYCS is not manufactured anymore. The high cost of renovating the signaling system on the line is derived from the fact that the MTA has signal parts custom-made for them. The CBTC installation costs just a bit less than the wayside signal system.

Alon Levy December 20, 2012 - 9:03 pm

Sure, but the MTA should also be looking at a modern off-the-shelf fixed block signaling system, which could be much cheaper than both. Moving-block signaling, or as the MTA calls it CBTC, is expensive to the point that cities with brownfield fixed-block systems only upgrade if they’re in an absolute crunch. For example, new RER lines are fixed-block, and the moving-block system SACEM is only installed on the central segments of the RER A, which see substantially more traffic than the busiest segments of the 4/5 in New York.

Henry December 21, 2012 - 9:41 pm

Doesn’t the RER also use double-deck cars to mitigate the crush?

My assumption is that the MTA is using CBTC to upgrade capacity just in case; look at how L line ridership exploded unexpectedly in the 2000s. As for the Rockaways, I don’t think that’s actually happening – the MTA has only specified CBTC for Queens Blvd and Flushing, and there’s no point in installing Rockaway CBTC when the line currently has no compatible cars, and won’t for the next couple of years.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines December 19, 2012 - 8:59 am

[…] 2nd Ave Sagas: All This Turnover at the Top Is Bad for the MTA […]

LLQBTT December 19, 2012 - 9:10 am

Gov. Cuomo should not have been so eager to run Walder out of Dodge. He certainly would not have run for Mayor.

Instead of hand-picking the next Chair & CEO, perhaps they should issue a civil service exam and appoint off a list.

R2 December 19, 2012 - 9:57 am

Would really be more efficient to install a revolving door to the entrance of that office.

SAS: Searching for a Chair Who Will Stick Around « kevworld86 December 19, 2012 - 11:00 am

[…] morning I was actually thinking about this Second Avenue Sagas article talks about. I asked my father if anyone over at the MTA actually sticks around for a full term and […]

John-2 December 19, 2012 - 11:21 am

Part of the problem is an effective MTA chair almost has to be a politician in all but elected office, or at least be savvy in navigating the hidden political rocks and shoals that is New York City and New York State politics. Lhotta had that coming into the job more than any transit experience, but that, combined with his management skills, made him at least for the year he was in office an effective MTA leader.

Putting a transit expert into the position who either doesn’t know the vagueries of local politics or doesn’t think he or she really has to learn them as long as they’re doing their job probably means a repeat of the Jay Walder situation, where the MTA chair becomes the lightning rod for anyone wanting to bash the transit system in general, while a wholly political appointee without the management skills Lhotta brought to the table is an even worse choice. That’s because he or she would only be looking, short-term, to make themselves and the guy in Albany who hired them look good, with no concerns about long-term outlooks for the agency.

Cuomo can probably find a ton of candidates who’ll do that, in the tradition of William “Keep painting the cars and forget about maintenance” Ronan for Nelson Rockefeller. Hopefully the governor will find someone that actually cares about improving the agency and has sharp enough elbows to fight their own battles in the political arena.

Eric F December 19, 2012 - 1:06 pm

The skill set required to be a good MTA chief would seem to have a large amount of overlap with the skill set required to be a good mayor. Do any of the other people gunning for the mayoralty have any managerial experience?

Henry December 20, 2012 - 1:51 am

Scott Stringer seemed pretty competent, but he dropped out a while back.

There are a few self-made businessmen running, but with very few exceptions, that almost never translates into an effective politician.

The post-Bloomberg era is going to be interesting – it’ll probably be a less dramatic version of the transition to the post-Daley era that happened a few years back.

Alon Levy December 20, 2012 - 9:05 pm

Well, New York doesn’t yet have any high-profile candidate like Emanuel, unless Bloomberg gets his wish and Hillary Clinton runs.

Quinn Raymond December 19, 2012 - 2:27 pm

I’ve been thinking on this some more.

I guess my biggest concern is that his candidacy will encourage other candidates to scapegoat the MTA when the blame lies with them and Albany.

I’m worried that the public will continue to misunderstand our mass transit challenges. On the other hand, maybe his candidacy will be an opportunity to set the record straight?

anon December 19, 2012 - 5:59 pm

What, no SAS exit interview with Lhota?
Did he at least friend/follow you on Twitter yet?

Benjamin Kabak December 19, 2012 - 6:00 pm

He has responded to me and retweeted me. He never followed me.

No exit interview yet. I had a face-to-face lined up for early January but that was canceled today.

Andrew Smith December 20, 2012 - 1:47 pm

You might create some stability in the office if you spun the MTA off from the state and made it an independent agency, run by someone elected by people w/i the MTA service area every four years.

The only real problem I see with independence is that the MTA depends on money from the state for a decent chunk of its operating budget and the state would have incentive (even more incentive) to skimp on that if the ties were severed.

That said, I think it’s a clear enough issue that the MTA chairman could rally voters on that issue and, thus, the incentives for legislators would be the same.

The other solution would be to give the MTA taxing powers w/i its service area as well as control over fares.

If the MTA had complete autonomy from the state, I think it would not only create more stability at the top but also attract a better quality of person interested in running the thing. (Also, I’d throw open the election to anyone and hope that it would attract people who had been high up in successful systems abroad rather than people from NYC politics. Perhaps 10 years working in an executive capacity for a mass transit agency could be made into a prerequisite for candidacy.)


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