Home MTA For Prendergast, was it a tough year or status quo?

For Prendergast, was it a tough year or status quo?

by Benjamin Kabak

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a bunch of transit-minded folk, and we were joking about Tom Prendergast’s tenure atop the MTA. He has been officially in charge for a year now, and based on recent history, that means it’s about time for him to step down, get booted out or decide to run for mayor. Of course, we were joking, and barring something out of left field, Prendergast will not be surrendering his CEO-ship any time soon. But that we could make light of the fact that the MTA has gone through nearly a chairman a year since late 2006 speaks volumes of the political upheaval affecting the agency.

Over the course of the year, Prendergast has presided over the good and the bad. The MTA’s budget remains fragile, and out-year projections will be altered by the fact that the net-zero goal ended up proving elusive. Fare hikes, though smaller, are still on the table every two years for the foreseeable future, but beginning yesterday with the M train and today with the G, subway service is being increased for the first time in years. Meanwhile, a new five-year capital plan looms with the immediate future for subsequent phases of the Second Ave. Subway in doubt, and safety problems abound for Metro-North and, to a lesser extent, the Long Island Rail Road. The latter railroad will face its own labor issues in the coming months.

As part of a big feature recognizing his first year on the job, Crain’s New York this week looks back on year one and looks forward to Prendergast’s year two. Andrew J. Hawkins summarizes:

It’s been a bumpy ride for Thomas Prendergast, head of the world’s largest transit system: three derailments, two labor negotiations, a power failure, employee and commuter fatalities, megaproject delays, a budget raid, and persistent aftereffects from Superstorm Sandy.

And Mr. Prendergast’s second year as chairman and chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority doesn’t look any easier. The MTA’s capital plan, which will outline the next five years of spending on the transit system’s massive infrastructure needs, is unfunded yet is due in September, around the same time that Long Island Rail Road workers plan to strike unless their contract is settled. Soon after, the federal government will render judgment on the MTA’s long list of resiliency needs post-Sandy. Fare increases are scheduled for 2015 and 2017, technology to replace the MetroCard is in the works, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered a long-term plan to harden and transform the entire system.

“I’ve been losing sleep for a while,” Mr. Prendergast admitted. “You realize you’re responsible for a function that carries millions of people a day.”

Prendergast talks about “transformational change,” and that could come in any area, from capital projects set to open to that elusive Metrocard replacement initiative to sustainable funding sources that need to be identified and realized. But as I think back on Prendergast’s last year in office, I think it’s not so much a busy year as it was the status quo. Although much of the focus has been on storm recovery of late, in the year two years prior, the MTA had to confront and fight off those storms. Before that, the agency’s finances tanked, and before that, capital projects were launched, delayed, overbudget and plagued with problems. If we go back a few more years, the TWU strike looms. It is never easy.

For his second year, Prendergast must seal the deal on a new $25-$30 billion capital plan that doesn’t include the same sexy projects as the past few. The MTA needs to perform a behind-the-scenes overhaul of nearly everything, but those don’t come with commemorative plaques and ribbon-cuttings. Preparing for another storm remains a priority as well.

So year one is in the books and year two will, finally, belong to the same MTA CEO and Chair. His term actually is set to expire in 2015, a legacy of the fact that so many people have come and gone since 2009 when the current six-year term began. How Prendergast does this year will determine if he gets another bite at the apple. The MTA sure could use that stability.

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Bolwerk June 9, 2014 - 11:22 am

Well, remember how the TWU treated, the last guy who tried to internally impose reforms on the MTA? Camping outside his apartment with a giant rat, harassing him, blah blah. Prendergast seems to be an able steward, but game-changer he is not.

I don’t see any way around the fact that we need a governor and legislature that are willing to collectively say no to some of the TWU’s excesses and, not only that, also to pass laws reforming NYCTA structurally. It’s galling when you realize most of the MTA’s current budget reforms could probably be solved with some rather simple reforms that aren’t even particularly controversial anywhere else.

Spendmor Wastemor June 9, 2014 - 11:39 am

This makes complete sense.

City government has effectively become a mafia, though that’s not exactly new. People keep voting for a government that steals someone else’s money, with the result being that it steals theirs.

Unless, of course, their paycheck comes from the government to begin with. Then you have progressive heaven permanent kleptocracy.

Frank June 9, 2014 - 10:34 pm

But how can you avoid this problem? Privatize, and you are left with contractors who curry favor, lavish gifts on politicians and distort priorities. In fact, this is why we are seeing the needless ferry explosion, which is being driven by private interests. Get government out of it, and the result is chaos, as can be seen in any third world city.

What’s needed, indeed, is a governor who will stand up to the entrenched interests. But that won’t happen until it’s forced by another economic collapse, if it even happens then.

Nathanael June 10, 2014 - 12:10 am

Instead, we have Governor 1%, who has pushed as hard as possible to cut taxes on the very, very, very rich, while cutting services for everyone else. He’s also collaborated with the so-called “opposition party” on gerrymandering, so that all the politicians can feather their own nests…

We need to knock out a hell of a lot of politicians in this state.

Because of Duverger’s Law, we can only have two major parties until we change the state Constitution to require proportional representation.

So for structural reasons, it’s important to eliminate the weaker of the two major parties first. This opens up a lot of political possibilities. Only once the Republicans are no longer relevant to NYS politics can we get started on changing things.

This is probably *why* Cuomo has been backing the Republican Party; he’s not entirely stupid and he may have figured out that the status quo (which is good for him) will end once the Republican Party is marginalized.

Anyway, it is quite possible to knock out the Republicans completely. They are extremely unpopular in every upstate city, as well as the rural areas in the North Country, and of course in most of New York City; their strongholds in the NY suburbs are weakening as well. Then we will have much better opportunities to actually run candidates against the corrupt and worthless Democrats.

Spendmor Wastemor June 9, 2014 - 11:42 am

My comment above was meant to be an inline reply to Bolwerk at 11:22 am. Probably I shouldda said “City Hall/Albany” as MTA is run by NY state. Anyway … B is spot on.


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