Home MTA William Ronan, first MTA Chairman, dies at 101

William Ronan, first MTA Chairman, dies at 101

by Benjamin Kabak

William J. Ronan, the MTA’s first chairman and one of the masterminds of the drive to push Robert Moses out of power, passed away last week at the age of 101. The one-time transit leader also headed up the Port Authority, and he oversaw a tumultuous time in New York City transit history. He died at his home in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“Bill Ronan was a legend in the field of public transportation and an inspiration for everyone who understands that mass transit is the engine that powers New York,” current MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “His vision of how an integrated transportation system can improve the region, and his skill in turning that vision into reality, have made life better for millions of our customers every day. We at the MTA send our deepest condolences to his family, and remember his service fondly.”

Ronan became the MTA Chair on the same day the MTA came into existence — March 1, 1968 — having served as head of the successor agency, the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority, for three years. Ronan led the effort to integrate the LIRR into the new entity and was instrumental in pushing for an expanded system after years of contraction following the destruction of the elevated lines. Ronan though did not meet with much success as he become persona non grata following two quick fare hikes, and the public eventually stopped voting in favor of transit bonds. His MTA had restarted construction on the Second Ave. Subway in the late 1960s and had to stop work in the early 1970s.

The Times had more in its obituary of Ronan:

Dr. Ronan presided over two tumultuous increases in the subway fare: to 30 cents from 20 cents in 1970, and to 35 cents in 1972 (about $2 in today’s money). After the first increase, he received death threats, and the police detailed detectives to protect him. “I was at one point probably the most hated man in New York,” he recalled in a 2005 interview for this obituary…

The next six years were hard ones for Dr. Ronan, who inherited the chronic problems — vandalism, declining ridership and disinvestment — that would plague the transit system until the 1990s. “We’re making up for 30 years of do-nothingism in mass transportation,” he said in a 1968 interview. He laid out an ambitious expansion agenda that called for a subway line under Second Avenue, a connection from the Long Island Rail Road to the East Side of Manhattan and the construction of a new subway tunnel under 63rd Street. The first two projects, long dormant, were revived in 2000 and are under construction; the third project was completed in 2001…

He laid the groundwork for the creation of the Metro-North Railroad by acquiring, from the Penn Central Railroad, the New Haven line in 1971 and the Harlem and Hudson lines in 1972. Metro-North went into operation in 1983. But far from expanding under Dr. Ronan, the subway system actually contracted: The Myrtle Avenue El in Brooklyn shut down in 1969, the Third Avenue El in the Bronx in 1973. When he stepped down in 1974 to become chairman of the Port Authority, The New York Times described him as “the quintessential civil servant” but also as “a transportation mendicant.”

Ronan, who eventually earned some bad press while at the Port Authority for a first-class travel scandal, was a public servant through and through and a friend of transit. I wonder though if he inadvertently created a monster. In an effort to unseat someone who was beyond the touch of many politicians, he created an agency that many politicians do not want to touch. The MTA kinda sorta unified Conrail/Metro-North, the LIRR and New York City Transit under one roof but without streamlining operations and agency-level management. Today, the MTA is manipulated by the elected officials who have to pass off tough decisions and otherwise ignored. If that’s Ronan’s real legacy, it’s one to which time and, more importantly, practice have been unkind.

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Walt Gekko October 19, 2014 - 11:18 pm

In all fairness, Dr. Ronan had inherited a lot of situations that were NOT of his doing and had to endure a LOT of blowback that was a result of a lot of previous “do nothings.” He also had to deal with the twin recessions of 1969-’70 and ’73-’75 that to that point were the worst (when combined) since the Great Depression. Were it not for the twin recessions and other corruption (much of which showed itself in the looting during the 1977 blackout), perhaps Dr. Ronan could have gotten much more done.

There also were a lot of other issues that were completely beyond his control and were more caused by problems in society as a whole that included many areas rapidly deteriorating during the second half of the 1960’s and early ’70s. That was heavily spearheaded by a drug culture that had become huge and would take until first the death of Len Bias in 1986 (which was the signal for many of my generation that “the party was over”) and then a real war on drugs spearheaded by the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980’s and finally the beginning of the cleanup of Times Square that actually started under David Dinkins in 1993 before Guliani was elected.

Rob October 20, 2014 - 2:40 pm

I tend to agree. Also keep in mind, which seems be omitted in these comments, is that he/mta did not have 5 yr multi tens-of billion $ capital budgets to work with, nor the associated political support of today, to address deferred maintenance in addition to desperate infrastructure and equipment needs.

And even making it to 101 impresses me.

PS – He was a Republican.

Nathanael October 20, 2014 - 9:54 pm

Ronan is best understood in the context of Nelson Rockefeller. It was Rockefeller who decided to break Robert Moses, and of course Rockefeller was quite capable of doing so.

Ronan, appointed in 1965, inherited a large number of disasters:
(1) The bankrupt LIRR, purchased by the state in 1966
(2) The NY Central and New Haven lines (now Metro-North), which were in nearly as bad shape, and which also had to be rescued by the state
(3) a City of New York which was not about to cover the costs of the subway which Mayor Hylan had made so much effort to take over,
(4) a subway system, and not really upgraded since Mayor Hylan’s takeover in 1940, with prices kept deliberately too low to cover costs…
(5) Mayor Wagner’s giveaways to the transit unions, done in order to create a power counterbalanced to Tammany Hall…
(6) a subway *strike* starting on the first day of Mayor Lindsay’s term, which shut down the system and ended up being reopened with much higher labor costs…
(7) leading to the state needing to rescue the subway TOO.

Remember, before the MTA the subway was strictly a city responsibility (thanks to Mayor Hylan).

Handed this complete and utter disaster, Ronan managed to preserve *almost* all service with only minor cuts.

He was doing this in the context of a country which was still highway-mad and car-crazy, to a degree which we can’t quite imagine. The tide was turning, but the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 — the first step in that change in tide — was only *one year old*.

This is on top of the general social problems and recession noted above!

His accomplishments are frankly miraculous in context. Remember, a few years before him:
– Penn Station was demolished (1963)
– The Third Avenue El in Manhattan was demolished (1955), with empty and unfunded promises for a Second Avenue Subway

Nathanael October 20, 2014 - 10:12 pm

Please do recall that there was a serious possibility of:
(1) the LIRR shutting down completely
(2) what is now Metro-North service shutting down completely
(3) Grand Central being demolished

Look at what happened in other major cities in the US. Only Boston, NY, Philly, Chicago, DC (Maryland side only) and San Francisco rescued their commuter services. LA lost *everything*.

Peter L October 19, 2014 - 11:28 pm

Conrail was made to give up it’s remaining passenger operations in 1983 so it’s not like the MTA had a choice in whether or not to take them over.

Larry Littlefield October 20, 2014 - 7:20 am

Ronan should be fondly remembered in the suburbs, where lots of money was spent even as the city was left with unfulfilled promises. But for the city it was far more “do nothingism.”

Subway deferred maintenance may have begun before Ronan and the MTA, but it intensified once the MTA was created. When the city owned it the signal systems were being steadily replaced at a 60-year rate. A few years after the MTA was formed subway signal replacement stopped for a few years, creating the hole we are in now (with very old signal systems on many lines).

Basically, Ronan ran up off the books debts with deterioration the way the current MTA board has run up on the books debts. With similar consequences in the long run.

As for new stuff before the MTA takeover the city had built the Chryste Street connection, took over and rebuilt the Rockaway Line, rebuilt DeKalb Avenue, and connected the Queens Boulevard Line to the 60th Street tunnel. It had promised the Second Avenue Subway, floated a bond, and not built it. But the MTA would do the same.

Ronan also failed to improve operations. The subway workers would eventually start doing their jobs, under Kiley and Gunn in the 1980s. The LIRR workers still aren’t. Since they didn’t do the maintenance they were paid to do, the M1 rail cars Ronan bought only lasted 30 years, and were deteriorated by the end. Subway and rail cars should last 40 or 50 years.

As for the fare increases, these were the consequences of “save the fare” politicking. That first increase was 50 percent! That is the equivalent of a $3.75 pay per ride fare today. Eventually, all that money would to to pay for the massive retroactive pension increase, with retirement at age 50 after 20 years worked. After that deal went through operations and maintenance completely went to hell.

Walt Gekko October 20, 2014 - 7:29 am

A lot of that may be true, however, a lot of the problems you described would have happened anyway regardless of who was in office at the MTA:

1969 marked the beginning of a severe downturn in the economy that, along with corruption unrelated to the MTA and other issues that Dr. Ronan had no control over (especially the drug culture) would have made it difficult at best for the MTA to continue as they had been. The twin recessions that happened between 1969 and ’75 were the worst to that point since the Great Depression and helped with NYC going bankrupt in 1975 and Ford’s infamous “Drop Dead” speech. It didn’t reach its low points until after Ronan left in ’74 only because of “The Nifty Fifty,” 50 stocks that basically held up the entire stock markets during much of that period. When those collapsed, so did the stock market and New York’s problems, already bad escalated. Throw in a drug culture that was thriving then and it created many of the problems New York had for much of the ’70s and ’80s.

Sure, Dr. Ronan may not have been perfect, however, a lot of what happened would have anyway because of other factors that had ZERO to do with him.

Larry Littlefield October 20, 2014 - 9:40 am

True, but he wasn’t exactly honest about the fact that things were going to hell, was he? Then again, that seems to be a requirement for the top job.

Not acknowledging the problems means you can’t play the cards you are dealt as well as possible.

Walt Gekko October 20, 2014 - 10:03 am

Again, true. Dr. Ronan was not perfect, however, there were MANY other issues at play and he might not have been allowed to be completely honest for reasons that could have created unintended consequences had he been.

John-2 October 20, 2014 - 9:25 am

Ronan most positive aspects for the subway was probably just the idea of tying TBTA funding to mass transit operations, and getting it out from under Robert Moses’ fiefdom, even if he was more concerned about getting those funds for the LIRR.

Overall, Ronan was more about style and branding that substance, where the MTA attempted to convince the riders that it was on top of things simply with cosmetic efforts such as the painting of the older cars (including the by-then 35-year-old R-7/R-9s) in the agency’s silver-and-blue corporate colors. He probably would have allowed the soda, gum and candy vending machines to stay in the subway, if only he could have figured out a way to put it all in silver-and-blue cups and wrappers.

In a way the graffiti artists who hit the system just after the massive painting effort began did a bit of a service in exposing the fact that there was nothing of substance being done to upgrade the system, other than simply buying tons more paint and superficially trying to cover over the problems. The spray-painted cars combined with declining reliability and things like the fatal roof collapse in the Steinway tunnel too away Ronan’s ability to claim the system was working because all the old cars looked bright and shiny. You’d have to wait a decade after his departure, to the Kiley-Gunn reforms which began after the state of the subways became a major issue in the 1982 gubernatorial election, before anything meaningful would be done.

Walt Gekko October 20, 2014 - 10:13 am

Yes, but you have to remember what the culture was in 1969:

The LIRR needed a severe upgrade to its equipment (mainly older cars that would in many cases continue to be used into the early ’80s) and bringing it up to date, especially during a time when there was massive flight for the suburbs as crime in NYC had increased sharply from the mid-1960’s on, fueled in part by a rapidly increasing drug culture. Had that not happened, the area could have seen a lot of people leaving entirely and headed for other cities as would have from NYC potentially many companies as people in many cases didn’t want to actually live in NYC any longer by then.

Say Ronan had instead put that money into the subways and NOT the LIRR so much. That likely would not have flown as well with many and could have created many unintended consequences and unintended blowback. Sure, the subways could have been maintained better and Ronan been more honest, but that might have come at a steep price that today people would not realize so easily.

Larry Littlefield October 20, 2014 - 11:12 am

Still, the stated goal of making the LIRR the “finest commuter railroad in the country” remained unfulfilled. Money was added but the organization remained a kleptocracy.

When the MTA sought to turn the subway around, in contrast, workers and managers were made to do their jobs. MetroNorth, starting from scratch, has also been better run. I wonder who has had the LIRR’s back politically, because evidently they still have it.

Bolwerk October 20, 2014 - 11:57 am

Pretty much the universal theme in NYC/NYS politics is that obstruction usually works. Start something from scatch and it can be done at least as well as prevailing norms allow. Try to change something already in existence, and some stakeholder (in the LIRR’s case, unions) can block it.

I don’t know about Walt Gekko’s claims about unintended consequences. Well, at least, I don’t see how they’d be different than the ones we ended up with. The spending/borrowing splurge that initially fixed things seems to have made pols think everything can be borrowed for without giving the MTA a stable revenue stream. Most of the other changes that made things better for the system and the city, like crime dropping and urban revival, appear to have happened in spite of policies rather than because of them. If anything, policies haven’t changed very meaningfully since at least Koch was mayor.

Larry Littlefield October 20, 2014 - 12:26 pm

I wouldn’t say that nothing has gotten better. The subways have been better run as well as better funded. The parks are cleaner, the garbage gets picked up, etc.

But some things continue to lag, notably the schools, and debts and pensions may cause a reversal if the stock market corrects to normal levels. (The current bubble is far beyond the nifty fifty).

Bolwerk October 20, 2014 - 1:22 pm

A ton of things have gotten better, but I’m not so sure many of those things happened because of policy changes. Politics of the 1980s is more fashionable than hipster 1980s fashion revival. Economic development is still about malls and retail, which “creates jobs” (of the low wage variety). Transportation is still about cars. Ever dropping crime requires ever more police funding. Neoliberals are still gnashing their teeth about high taxes.

Hell, that era might have been the last time any deliberate change was entertained, though it was more about laying off the bludgeoning than actually proactively fixing anything. The city finally dropped its obsession with reindustrialization. Mixed use housing and sensible density kind of started being allowable again. Superblocks, which may have been instrumental in the crime increase, finally went out of vogue. I suppose the last transit decimation was in the 1980s.

Nathanael October 20, 2014 - 10:04 pm

I actually think policies have gotten a lot more sensible in recent decades.

As for the crime wave, it’s pretty firmly linked to lead poisoning from gasoline. See the Mother Jones articles about this.

I can optimistically suggest that the banning of leaded gasoline is also causing better policies. Some of the policies which were popular among the people who grew up in the lead-poisoned era just seem *crazy*.

The policies proposed by younger politicians, even if wrong, often have some sort of loose connection to reality. 1980s politics really is dead; even if people revere Reagan as a plaster saint, if you describe his actual behavior nowadays (“magic asterisks”, Iran-Contra, “We begin bombing in five minutes”), a lot more people’s eyes bug out than did in the 1980s.

Bolwerk October 21, 2014 - 11:05 am

I was talking more about NYC than nationally. Even de Blasio is nothing more than a resurrection of the pre-Bloomberg policy status quo.

National politics is more a mixed bag, though some of the youngest politicians right now are the Ted Cruzes and Paul Ryans.

Nathanael November 4, 2014 - 10:57 pm

They’re still a little too old; old enough to inhale a lot of fumes unless they grew up in one of the really progressive states.

The political change point is around the 1976 birth year; that’s when the voters start getting less Republican, the trend accelerates with the 1980 birth year, and it continues right on to the present day.

The lead phaseout in the US started in 1975 with the introduction of unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters; mandated lead reductions in gasoline only started in 1980. The ambient lead exposure in the US started crashing down in 1980-1981. (It dropped fast, by almost 80% in the next couple of years.) There was a continued phaseout, with most lead eliminated by 1988, with the final ban only in 1996. Some states phased it out earlier.

Brain damage from lead affects mostly early childhood. So you’re still going to get a whole lot of severely lead-damaged kids born in 1970, but few born in 1981 or later.

Cruz and Ryan are both too old. And Cruz grew up in high-lead-exposure areas.

Nathanael October 20, 2014 - 10:06 pm

“I wonder who has had the LIRR’s back politically, because evidently they still have it.”

Long Island politicians. Long Island money. Long Island culture of corruption.

I’m not sure who *exactly*, but the places to look are Nassau and Suffolk. Which have deeply corrupt politics to this day; there’s various reports about abuses at other Long Island “authorities” every few months, and nothing ever changes.

Nathanael October 20, 2014 - 10:06 pm

…also probably relevant in this regard, LILCO and LIPA.

adirondacker12800 October 20, 2014 - 10:41 pm

the 6 billion dollar power plant LILCO built and never used had something to do with the demise of LILCO. Importing power with undersea cables can be pricey.

Larry Littlefield October 21, 2014 - 9:38 am

Cuomo really should have had the guts to take on that culture of corruption at the LIRR. And call it what it is.

John-2 October 20, 2014 - 12:02 pm

The subways couldn’t be detached from the overall quality-of-life declines in New York in the late 1960s and 1970s. But under Ronan there was a steadfast effort to, if not deny the decline, at the very least to try and hide it superficially with things like paint jobs, as opposed to focusing on preventive maintenance strategies which already were needed even before the MTA took over operations in May of 1968. The MTA had access to the TBTA funds, and knew the older railcars in the system already were failing by 1968 due to deferred maintenance, but the answer to the problem was blue and silver exterior paint jobs, and pistachio green and gray interiors.

Ronan and his immediate successors took the attitude that there was nothing more they could do than what they already were doing to deal with the condition of the system, and the decline left the MTA open for even more criticism after the problems with the R-46 Rockwell trucks and the Flexble buses at the end of the decade. You can’t blame Ronan for that, but those and the failure to deal with past problems gave the public the idea that not only couldn’t the MTA keep their old equipment and physical plant in working order, they couldn’t even order new equipment that worked.

Nathanael October 20, 2014 - 10:00 pm

You have to remember that the city was grossly underfunding the subway system, deliberately kept the fares way too low, *and* had just decided to massively overpay the transit unions!

Mayor Wagner made a deal to give lots of goodies to the TWU in exchange for their support breaking Tammany Hall. When Lindsay came into office, since he seemed inclined to be a somewhat harder negotiator (not much harder!), the TWU *preemptively* went on strike in order to demand more goodies. And they got away with it.

This all happened basically before the MTA took over. Under Ronan, the MTA didn’t roll back the previous gains of the TWU, but at least the MTA didn’t give away *more*. Ronan also finally increased the fares to what they should have been decades earlier.

I really have to be positive towards Ronan. Mayors Wagner and Lindsay do NOT come off looking good in the context of transit — they look terrible.

paulb October 20, 2014 - 2:25 pm

If its origin goes back to the late 60s, it seems unfair to call east side access just a D’Amato vanity project, as some have. Though I don’t see how any person loyal to the notion of NYC as the country’s one big world class capital city, even though we’re not an actual capital, can avoid feeling extremely disheartened at progress, I mean, “progress,” on this and the other improvements. I have a lot more sympathy for the businesses along Second Avenue than I did 10 years ago. We’re not properly in the First World here, I think.


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