Home MTA Politics A ‘To Do List’ for Tom Prendergast

A ‘To Do List’ for Tom Prendergast

by Benjamin Kabak

It took until the wee hours of the night on Thursday, but the New York State Senate, with little fanfare, finally got around to confirming Tom Prendergast as the MTA CEO and Chairman. Prendergast, the former president of New York City Transit, had been nominated to the post by Gov. Cuomo in mid-April, and after the governor failed to make a nomination for over three months after Joe Lhota left to run for mayor, the Senate dragged its heels for nearly as long. But what’s done is done, and Prendergast inherits the job, problems and all.

Following Thursday’s vote, Gov. Cuomo issued a statement praising his new MTA head, the sixth in as many years. “Tom Prendergast has a proven track record of leadership and transportation expertise, especially when it comes to the managing the vast transportation network of the MTA,” Cuomo said. “As Interim Executive Director, Tom was vital to the recovery of the MTA after Superstorm Sandy and he will continue to play a crucial role in making the MTA more modern, efficient and storm ready. I look forward to Tom’s continued success in running the nation’s largest transportation system.”

So what’s on tap for the Brewster resident who comes to New York by way of a childhood in Chicago and experience in Vancouver as well as stints at Transit and the LIRR? With mayoral candidates clamoring for city control of the MTA and more and more and more bus service, it’s easy to forget that the MTA is a state agency with long-term goals and projects well under way. With that in mind, Prendergast has to confront a series of planning obstacles up front. Let’s run ’em down.

1. Rebuilding from Sandy and reinforcing for the next storm

While Lhota received a lot of credit for the MTA’s success in restoring service after Sandy, Prendergast probably deserves even more. He headed transit during Irene and was instrumental in implementing a storm-preparedness plan. That most of the subways were up and running a week after the storm surge swept through was an impressive feat, but the hard work is yet to come.

We’re two weeks into hurricane season and the MTA is no better prepared to harden the system now than they were in late October, and Prendergast will, for better or worse, have to focus on preventative measures. With the city’s new storm maps out, most of the Lower Manhattan subway stations are well within the flood zones, and the tunnels remain very vulnerable. Furthermore, with a 14-month R train shutdown on tap for August, L train riders have been subjected to mechanical problems due to the storm, and it’s only getting worse before it gets better. Prendergast must put forward a plan that shows how we can recovery and avoid another hurricane-related subway catastrophe. (And what’s happening with the new South Ferry station anyway?)

2. Labor relations

It’s been 17 months and counting since the TWU’s contract expired, and the union’s position has gained little traction in the press. They waited out Walder, never had a chance for serious negotiations with Lhota and now have to face Prendergast across the table. The MTA’s long-term budget forecast rests on the assumption of a net-zero labor increase, and achieving that goal will either involve stagnant wages, benefits givebacks or labor roll reductions. The riding public cannot afford another massive wage increase for unionized members just as we can’t afford to have subways enter stations at 10 miles per hour. At some point, the contract has been negotiated and finalized, and now that’s on Prendergast’s plate.

3. The future capital program

A few years ago, Jay Walder explained how the next five-year capital plan, set to cover 2015-2019, would focus not on megaprojects but rather on behind-the-scenes upgrades. Modernizing the signal system and installing CBTC is still on the table, but it would be a shame to see the era of megaprojects dry up. On Prendergast’s watch, the MTA will open the Fulton St. Transit Center, the 7 line extension and Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway. The next five-year plan should include at least a new phase of the Second Ave. line, the controversial Penn Station Access project and something more exciting than Select Bus Service Routes. On a similar note, Prendergast should work to constrain capital costs as well. Look for developments on this plan to surface within the next eight to 12 months.

4. Please swipe again

For nearly a decade, the MTA has engaged in pilot program after pilot program as it works to replace the Metrocard. The 20-year-old swipe system will soon become cost-prohibitive to maintain, but the MTA is no closer to identifying the next-generation fare payment system now than they were in 2006 when the first touch-and-go trial started. An effort to develop a system focused around contactless credit cards faltered as banks were slow to adopt the technology, and the MTA is again engaged in an internal analysis of the best steps forward. With steady leadership atop the MTA, hopefully this key project can move forward at a more rapid clip.

5. Playing politics, nicely

It nearly goes without saying that the MTA Chair must play the Albany game properly, and that’s certainly true in Prendergast’s case. State Senators are bemoaning the existence of bus lanes and flashing blue lights while still clamoring for an end to the payroll tax and whining about Metro-North’s eventual encroachment into Penn Station. It’s hard to believe that elected officials are such barriers to progress in a city built atop its transit network, but that’s where we are in 2013. As with his predecessors, Prendergast will have to learn to navigate and exploit that system on his own as Gov. Cuomo has turned out to be a passive supporter, rather than a vocal champion, of transit in the New York City region.

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Alex C June 25, 2013 - 12:19 am

1) SAS to 125 St. Get. It. Done.
2) MetroCard replacement? Just make sure we have one by 2019. I know a tap-and-go card would be nice, but the MetroCard gets the job done. If VISA, MasterCard, et al. can do the heavy lifting for development, let them, and then implement it across the entire MTA umbrella of services. ALL of them.

BBnet3000 June 25, 2013 - 6:11 am

My understanding is that SEPTA uses a standard RFID card for all services, based on the standard used for credit cards (not proprietary like ones used in London or the Bay Area). Is this true, and has the MTA heard of Philadelphia at all or is it just blank space outside of their service area in the minds eye?

Kai B June 25, 2013 - 7:07 am

All I know is that during my last trip to Philly this past December, my multi-ride card still had to be punched with a hole puncher by a station agent who had to manually buzz me in.

Bolwerk June 25, 2013 - 8:20 am

I am on my way to Philly now, with tokens in my pocket.

Tsuyoshi June 25, 2013 - 11:07 am

I’m living in Philadelphia right now (hope to be back in the civilized world soon…). It is pretty backward in terms of paying for transit, supposedly the only city in the US still using tokens. But there are many subtly annoying aspects.

Subways, trolleys, and buses require either tokens or magstripe weekly/monthly passes. Tokens can either be purchased from vending machines, which exist at some, but not all, stations. Some of the token machines take coins, but most take only bills, and none accept debit or credit cards. Transfers are $1 each (free transfers only exist at two points in the entire system), and can be purchased from either the station agent or the bus/trolley driver, as you enter.

Commuter trains require either tickets or passes. The tickets must either be purchased from a station agent (not all stations have one) or on board from the conductor. There are no ticket vending machines. A conductor goes through the train and checks the tickets manually, much like every other American commuter rail system.

Passes are valid only for a particular period, either from the first day of the given month, or from Monday of a given week. Passes have a male/female sticker that is placed on the pass when you buy it, to prevent you from sharing it. The same pass is used for all modes of transit, and commuter rail passes double as bus/trolley/subway passes. Passes are capped at a certain number of rides; I think at about 7 per day.

Passes and tokens can also be purchased from some newstands, payday loan places, and supermarkets, but there’s a markup on the tokens.

There’s supposedly a new fare payment system that has been imminent for years now.

And, of course, there’s also New Jersey Transit (one rail line that hardly anyone uses plus lots of buses) and PATCO (same thing as PATH), which use their own systems. I think you can get combination passes though.

Alex June 25, 2013 - 1:40 pm

NJ Transit is one rail line that hardly anyone uses? It’s the largest statewide system in the country, with ridership approaching one million per day.

Yes, there isn’t too much in Philadelphia, but notice the NJ in NJ Transit’s name.

Roy June 25, 2013 - 3:48 pm

I think he/she means the Atlantic City Line which is the only NJT line that runs into Philly and which is separate from the rest of the NJT Rail network.

John B June 25, 2013 - 4:32 pm

If only there existed a separate subway operating in New York that already had a contactless payment system that the MTA could adopt to better integrate the region…I hope any new MTA card can be made to operate with the PATH’s contactless system or perhaps a single card for both systems. Dreams.

David Brown June 25, 2013 - 6:22 am

I think a bit part of the concerns of Republican Senators is making sure Long Island is not forgotten about in the Transportation Budget (because if they do not fight for Long Island who will?). For example: Gov. Cuomo talked about the importance of the 110 Corridor, Expansion of LIRR tracks (and a Republic Station), and MacArthur Airport, now just the tracks (Going forward Mineola Station needs to be more than two tracks). If nothing happens for Long Island, the Democrats win, and the Republican Party in New York, becomes the Republican Party of California… Basically out of business. There will likely be some kind of deal where the Expansion of Metro North Service to The Bronx (and Columbia University) will go forward, but Post East Side Access Long Island will not be forgotten about. If the real goal is to grow New York, the most important projects are SAS and improved airport access: Not just MacArthur, but LaGuardia (Some kind of Direct Transit Access), the Kew Gardens Traffic Circle (particularly the Van Wyck, heading to and from JFK)and maybe an upgrade of Stewart Airport ( as they build new Tappan Zee and Kosciuszko Bridges those projects would work well with them). Of course, that is too much to hope for.

Bolwerk June 25, 2013 - 8:19 am

The Republikan Party in New York is probably ideologically less influential than the Republikan Party in California, probably on account of being less nuts to begin with. OTOH, it’s probably more corrupt and entrenched. Milquetoast suburbanites can vote for someone like Skelkos, even if they have to hold their nose doing it, but the really batshit ones who play with their own poop like Paladino don’t get very far. Delusional teabagger politics just don’t fly in most of the northeast the way they do in the west.

Benjamin Kabak June 25, 2013 - 9:34 am

How can anyone forget about Long Island? We’re sinking $9 billion into a deep-cavern station underneath Grand Central simply because Long Island and Metro-North can’t get along. No one has forgotten about Long Island.

Bolwerk June 25, 2013 - 9:46 am

I thought the station was more like $1B or $2B. At least some of that overpriced cavern would have been built if they could get along.

Larry Littlefield June 25, 2013 - 9:50 am

“I think a bit part of the concerns of Republican Senators is making sure Long Island is not forgotten about.”

Are you kidding? Who is behind the people who deliver the poor performance of the LIRR, and who killed the third track? If the Republicans want to get behind some real change in those cases, good for them. But their MO has been the only good government spending is wasteful government spending.

SEAN June 25, 2013 - 11:26 am

Peter King, anyone? If it wasn’t for September 11th & outragious defence spending/ homeland security, noone would know or care who he is. It just so happens that he represents Long Island. You never here him championing the need for public transit because it’s just not sexy, but the power to destroy a PERCEIVED enemy is.

Epson45 June 25, 2013 - 12:21 pm

Floral Park NIMBYs

Alon Levy June 28, 2013 - 3:24 am

Who is behind the people who deliver the poor performance of the LIRR, and who killed the third track?

The initial budget crisis. Before then, the MTA was going to build the third track over Floral Park’s objections.

Bolwerk June 25, 2013 - 8:07 am

I was about to point out that we don’t even have many “mega-projects,” but I decided I think the term is misleading. We have three of these projects, and they’re all modest capacity improvements. The “mega” part is mainly the cost, and they all are overbuilt or built wrong for what they need to do.

Modest stuff can do wonders: extensions in the periphery of the system, surface rail, S-Bahn like operations for the suburbs, reactivating the Rockaway Line, doing Triborough RX. None of these things call for $2B/mile deep bores.

lawhawk June 25, 2013 - 8:50 am

I’m with you on wanting to see Triboro RX, reactivating older lines like the Rockaway, and doing transit expansion on Staten Island as well as periphery improvements for the LIRR and Metro North. Those can be done without the massive price tag we’ve seen for ESA and SAS (or PATH Transit or Fulton or South Ferry).

All that will be constrained by whatever labor deal gets cut, how to get the TWU to buy into a new working relationship with Transit, and looking to expand bus service as feeders to subways and transit hubs.

SEAN June 25, 2013 - 11:41 am


Aventually a new payment system will be needed to replace the Metrocard as noted, but it must be open sorced to allow for future upgrading as techknology advances. SEPTA is an example in what not to do.

pink l June 25, 2013 - 6:21 pm

The Triboro RX needs to be done. The London Overground is one of the most reliable service in all of London, and the Triboro RX could in a way replicate it.

Larry Littlefield June 25, 2013 - 8:54 am

I’s put the two main goals as these:

1) Make sure that if there is no funding for the 2015 to 2019 capital plan, even for ongoing normal replacement, people are allowed to know what this means for the future, rather than have the MTA cover up the problem by borrowing more than can be paid back.

2) Make those who work for the LIRR do their job, the way NYCT was forced to do its job starting 30-plus years ago. End all the scams there.

Bolwerk June 25, 2013 - 9:30 am

I know it’s a little off-topic, but isn’t there a more flattering stock picture of poor Mr. Prendergast?

Epson45 June 25, 2013 - 12:23 pm

Get NYC government to increase the subsidy of MTA in 2014 numbers.

Larry Littlefield June 25, 2013 - 3:27 pm

It should. But the problem is, if NYC puts in more, everyone else will just suck out more or put out less. The poisonous crap going on in our state means no one wants to be the sucker as the thing goes down.

Stewart Clamen June 25, 2013 - 4:35 pm

PATCO uses an RFID system. It also has no human ticket agents at most of its stations…


Abba June 25, 2013 - 11:17 pm

Get Bustime up in all 5 Boros already.Taking way too long.

llqbtt June 26, 2013 - 10:22 am

No brainers:

SAS Phase II
Triboro RX
Rockaway Branch Reactivation


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