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.