Word from Albany on Friday that, pending State Senate approval, Tom Prendergast would become the next MTA CEO and Chairman came as little surprise. Prendergast had been a runner-up during the previous search for an agency head, and he has the experience and respect within New York City to lead the MTA. He is unlikely to leave on his own before his term runs out but faces a number of looming challenges.
Sitting atop the list is the status of the contract with the TWU. The MTA’s largest union has been without an agreement for nearly a year and a half, and the MTA budget currently assumes a net-zero wage increase. Still, on Friday, John Samuelsen’s team issued kind words for Prendergast. “It’s a good move by Governor Cuomo. Prendergast has vast knowledge of the system, and that’s really what the MTA needs – not a bean counter like Walder or a person with big financial and political connections like Lhota,” union spokesman Jim Gannon said. “We’ve always had a good working relationship with Prendergast, despite a few flare-ups here and there. But on the whole, everyone on this side of the table respects him.”
Despite the TWU’s conciliatory tone, Prendergast will not easily bend or break for the MTA simply cannot afford him to. In today’s Daily News, the newly-appointed MTA CEO and Chair spoke at length with Pete Donohue about a variety of issues facing the MTA, and labor issues took up a chunk of the discussion. In a nod to a long-standing issue, Prendergast spoke about one-person train operations or OPTO.
“There are some lines that are more conducive to one person train operation than others,” he said to the News. “There are some that are more conducive to OPTO only at certain times of the day, and there are some lines where you may never use OPTO. It’s not always about savings. It may be the savings are reinvested in other parts of the system. So, if for argument’s sake, you save (a certain number of conductor positions) and put them on platforms that are extremely crowded, and you have fewer people falling to the tracks, that’s a better utility of resources.”
Interestingly enough, Prendergast has also called for a rapid expansion of automatic train operations in order to boost line capacity. The TWU has pushed back on this issue over concerns that it could lead to zero-person train operations. All of this, furthermore, is a lot more than recent MTA heads have said on this hot-button issue and provides a glimpse into the MTA’s labor future. Prendergast, according to the article, will try to get OPTO on lines with lower ridership totals at first. The overnight R shuttle service into Bay Ridge could be a prime spot for such a test.
Meanwhile, in a nod to the union, Prendergast spoke about the need to reallocate employees and encourage worker flexibility. Prendergast wants to restore customer service agents as many of those red-vested employees lost their jobs during the 2010 service cuts. Prendergast noted that moving to OPTO could give the MTA the ability to restore some of these positions. He also discussed the concept of platform conductors — MTA employees tasked with crowd control at some of the more popular stations. It’s a nascent idea at best.
That’s the good stuff with regards to labor, but Prendergast hit upon some other issues in the interview as well. We’re in for a lot of service changes as the agency copes with Sandy damage. Vital equipment will have to be replaced sooner rather than later due to saltwater corrosion, and Prendergast warned of the system “be[ing] out of service at a more impactful level.” That fare hike scheduled for 2015 is still firmly on the table, and Prendergast is skeptical of recent calls for mayoral control of the MTA. “If you’re going to take the responsibility,” he said, “you have to have the funding to go along with it.”