Usually, in politics and otherwise, the first 100 days are cause for celebration. For new presidents, those first 100 days provides a time to enjoy the good feelings of the office and a time to push through a legislative agenda. For others, the first 100 days offers up a time for a new leader to shape a company as he or she sees fit. But what happens when the first 100 days isn’t about a new permanent leader but a lack thereof?
Today marks a rather dubious milestone for the MTA for it has now been 100 days since Joe Lhota, the last MTA CEO and Chairman took leave of his office to attempt a run for mayor. For 100 days, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has remained silent on the issue of agency leadership, taking credit for the good while hoping nothing bad happens. For 100 days, Tom Prendergast and Fernando Ferrer have split the duties with the former serving as both New York City Transit president and interim MTA Executive Director and the latter as the MTA Board’s chairman. For 100 days, we’ve waited for signs of action, a task force, anything, from Albany, but we’ve received only silence.
As the days have gone by, a few readers have asked why the MTA needs a permanent — or at least permanent until they quit or are forced out — CEO/Chairman. After all, the trains and buses are running on time, and day-to-day transit services and capital construction projects are moving ahead. What’s the point really? It’s worth a few minutes of our time, though, to explore why one full-time person is better than two folks with other demands and desires.
The first real issue concerns the bifurcated leadership currently in place. Both Ferrer and Prendergast have done professional and thorough jobs leading the MTA over the past 100 days, but the two-headed beast has a history of failure in the annals of the MTA. Most recently, we need look only at the dual tenures of Lee Sander and Dale Hemmerdinger to find conflict and uncertainty amidst split duties. Gov. Eliot Spitzer combined the roles for a reason.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that Prendergast, as both the acting MTA operational head and the current president of Transit, faces a difficult push and pull. The head of the MTA often has to hold off the head of Transit and prioritize accordingly. Prendergast has not, by all accounts, run into any conflicts, but it’s a difficult and time-consuming balancing act. He’s essentially working two jobs while either one on its own is challenging enough.
Meanwhile, there is also the issue of Albany. While Cuomo hasn’t acted by choice, he has not given the MTA a central point person. The Governor’s man isn’t in charge, and Prendergast and Ferrer are essentially holding the course without rocking the boat. Sometimes, a little bit of boat-rockin’ is a good thing for large agencies.
Finally, there are long-term plans that aren’t being realized but need to be considered, and the MTA needs someone in charge with the mandate to see through these plans. The next five-year capital plan has to be developed, presented and defended to the various bodies in charge of approval and oversight. The forward-facing MetroCard replacement project needs a strong champion. The Sandy recovery work and future storm preparation efforts must become an ongoing priority as well. The TWU is still without a contract, 15 months after its last one expired. With interim heads, maintaining the status quo and readying for the next appointed leader takes precedence over any of this.
Maybe the next man in charge is already there. Maybe the low-level rumblings of a replacement will come true. Maybe Tom Prendergast will get the job and the ability to set his own course. But that’s all just speculation. For 100 days, nothing has happened, and the city’s transit network remains in a state of uncertainty.