Home MTA Robert Kiley, 80, led NYC transit renaissance

Robert Kiley, 80, led NYC transit renaissance

by Benjamin Kabak
Robert Kiley, shown here in his days as head of the MBTA, was the longest-tenured MTA Chair.

Robert Kiley, shown here in his days as head of the MBTA, was the longest-tenured MTA Chair.

In the popular history of New York City’s transit renaissance that stretches over the past 35 years, Richard Ravitch gets the lion’s share of the credit. He inherited a complete and total mess at the MTA and led the subways out of the depths of the dark ages and into the early 1980s. He left his job after securing a multi-billion-dollar capital commitment from the state legislature, and Robert Kiley stepped in as his replacement. Kiley served as the agency’s longest running chairman, setting in motion many of the improvements we know today. A veteran of three transit agencies and respected throughout the transit world, he passed away on Tuesday at the age of 80, due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Bob’s leadership helped the MTA focus on dramatically improving the safety and reliability of the network, led directly to the record ridership levels we see today and was central to the State’s increased growth and prosperity,” current MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast said in a statement. “He assembled a team and created a vision that brought the transit system back from the brink of disaster and under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo helped rebuild our region’s economy. We remember his service with fondness and gratitude and send our deepest condolences to his family in this difficult time.”

Kiley was a big of a giant in his field. He over Boston’s MBTA for four years in the 1970s, ushered in a variety of improvements in London (including the introduction of a congestion charge) and led New York’s subways into a new age. He brought in his fellow Massachusetts native Bill Bratton to oversee policing in our beleaguered transit system, erased graffiti from the city’s subway cars and launched the program that eventually led to the Metrocard.

The Times, in its obituary, told a bit more about Kiley’s accomplishments:

Inheriting a windfall $8.5 billion capital program wangled from the State Legislature by his predecessor at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Richard Ravitch, Mr. Kiley presided over the replacement of hundreds of decrepit subway cars and buses, modernized stations, and improved on-time performance in a system that had been woefully neglected. Annual subway ridership, which in 1982 had dipped below one billion for the first time since 1917, rebounded by 1994 to the highest weekday average in two decades, 1.08 billion.

Mr. Ravitch, a native New Yorker, had been a vigorous advocate for mass transit, equally adept at wooing labor leaders, legislators and opinion makers in a campaign to generate the billions of dollars required to begin reversing the system’s decline. Mr. Kiley, a Minnesota native who arrived in New York by way of Boston, was more of a nuts-and-bolts manager, and he took longer to acclimate himself to the idiosyncrasies of local politics. “It’s kind of like following after Lou Gehrig,” Ralph L. Stanley, the federal urban mass transit administrator, said of the transition.

Mr. Kiley managed to win another $8 billion infusion for the authority’s capital program, recruited competent managers, and wrought concessions from organized labor, which incongruously represented most transit supervisors as well as rank-and-file workers.

Kiley’s arrival in New York City was not a foregone conclusion. In the early 1980s, he was toying with a run for mayor of Boston when one of then-Gov. Mario Cuomo’s aides courted Kiley by taking him to a Red Sox game. It happened to be Yaz Day at Fenway, and as the Red Sox celebrated Carl Yastrzemski, Kiley heard the New York pitch. Once it became clear he wouldn’t be mayor, he and Cuomo engaged in intense negotiations, and Kiley landed in New York.

As WNYC related in a replay of a late 1980s interview, Kiley had to step on some toes to get to where he needed the MTA to be. The story is worth a read (and there is a corresponding audio interview with Kiley). It delves into the need for fare hikes and the need to improve management by “jettisoning civil service and collective bargaining rules.” These were controversial moves then and would be again today.

Kiley left in the 1991 and was replaced by Peter Stangl. He eventually landed in London where he opposed the disastrous public-private partnership for certain Tube line operations that Transport for London eventually had to unravel. Yet, Kiley largely had his way, and as a 2004 New Yorker article detailed, Kiley is credited with saving the Underground. With three successful tenures leading transit agencies, Kiley was a singular leader in the transit space with a long and lasting legacy.

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Larry Greenfield August 10, 2016 - 2:14 am

Leaving out any mention of David Gunn in discussing the rebuilding of the subways under Bob Kiley is an unforgivable oversight.

Larry Littlefield August 10, 2016 - 8:45 am

Kiley, Gunn, and Mario Cuomo were the heroes of the turnaround in mass transit, public finance and the NY metro area economy from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

And then the torch was passed to a new generation.

Subutay Musluoglu August 11, 2016 - 6:52 am

Governor Hugh Carey started the ball rolling with his appointment (arm-twisting some would say) of Richard Ravitch to be MTA Chairman in November 1979.

James Scully August 14, 2016 - 9:48 am

He looks so much like Gregory Peck in this photo.

Peter February 21, 2023 - 3:05 am

I think We will always be grateful for his service and extend his family our sincere condolences during this trying time.
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