Home MTA Politics Meet the New Guy: Byford set to take on NYC’s impossible task as Transit Prez

Meet the New Guy: Byford set to take on NYC’s impossible task as Transit Prez

by Benjamin Kabak
Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Being the next head of New York City Transit may sound like a thankless, no-win situation. Between a public rightly demanding something resembling reliable and trustworthy transit service and a boss in Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanding whatever half-developed idea pops into his head on any given morning, the constituencies for this presidency are fickle and, in the case of commuters facing another morning of subway meltdowns, angry. But that doesn’t stop many people from taking on the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of running and fixing the subways, and last week, the MTA announced that Andy Byford, from London by way of Sydney and Toronto, will assume the role of New York City Transit President by the end of the year.

Byford replaces Ronnie Hakim atop Transit. When Joe Lhota took over the MTA, Hakim moved into the position of MTA Managing Director, splitting responsibilities with MTA President Patrick Foye and MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber. “We are thrilled that Andy is going to lead NYC Transit during this time of great change,” Lhota said in a statement last week. “Our transit system is the backbone of the world’s greatest city and having someone of Andy’s caliber to lead it will help immensely, particularly when it comes to implementing the Subway Action Plan that we launched this summer. In order to truly stabilize, modernize and improve our transit system, we needed a leader who has done this work at world-class systems and Andy’s successes in Toronto are evidence that he is up to this critically important task.”

The British native started out working for the London Underground in the late 1980s before working in leadership for both South Eastern Trains and London’s Southern Railway. He spent a few years in Australia with RailCorp before moving to Toronto where he has led the Toronto Transit Commission since 2012. APTA recently named the TTC, under Byford, as its Outstanding Transit System of the Year, but not all has been wine and roses for Byford in Toronto. Some Torontonians have grown weary of near-annual fare hikes, and Toronto transit voice Steve Munro told The Times that Byford has grown “somewhat less receptive to criticism” over the years.

Still, Byford brings an international perspective to an agency that has been mired in New York Exceptionalism for years. The MTA has been seemingly shy or afraid about implementing best practices not invented here for reasons that have been tough to explain. If Byford can bring his learnings from London, Australia and Toronto to New York City, perhaps Transit can fight its way out of this crisis with an approach more robust than Lhota’s pet Subway Action Plan.

But Byford’s approach in Toronto and the legacy he leaves behind is almost besides the point as the 800 pound gorilla in New York’s room looms large. That gorilla is of course Andrew Cuomo and the influence he exerts over, well, everything. Byford brings a unique perspective to the insular MTA, but the question is whether Cuomo will listen. So far, he hasn’t as Byford participated in the laughably sterile MTA Reinvention Commission a few years ago and on a panel this past summer as part of the MTA genius campaign. Both led to recommendations that were routinely ignored in Albany.

In The Times last week, Marc Santora explored the question of politics and the ways in which Byford should or shouldn’t play politics. (It’s the companion piece, in a way, to Jim Dwyer’s full-on assault on the poor politics of transportation in New York right now.) Santora’s thesis is that Byford should avoid political fights, specifically the feud between Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. But Byford shouldn’t be afraid of taking positions, and I worry already that he’s going to thread too fine a needle. Take a look at this excerpt from Santora’s piece (the emphasis is mine) :

Mr. Cuomo supports a congestion pricing plan that would charge drivers entering the most crowded parts of Manhattan and is expected to offer a detailed proposal early next year. Mr. de Blasio has been steadfast in his opposition to congestion pricing, saying it would burden low-income New Yorkers, and has instead pushed a plan to raise taxes on wealthy residents.

Mr. Byford said he was “agnostic” about how the money is raised, adding that his task was to show that he could win political support by building a management team capable of running the subway. Transit advocates said he must also win over riders by quickly showing concrete gains, especially by improving on-time performance.

I am willing to give Byford a pass because he’s the new guy, but being agnostic as to matters of transit, transportation equity and funding is a recipe for being a Cuomo pawn. We need a New York City Transit president who is willing to be a champion for New York City transit with a lower case t. He should fight for smart policies and intelligent funding that can help stabilize and modernize our old system. That will involve challenging Cuomo and taking sides that aren’t always popular in Albany. Will that play with the Governor? Will that help push Transit toward a future where delays and poor service aren’t the norms? It’s a tall task, and for now, it’s Byford’s.

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LordDeucey November 27, 2017 - 1:48 am

Can someone explain why Ronnie Hakim was “promoted” if she oversaw and/or implemented the decisions and operations that led to TA having the severe issues we’re experiencing now?

SEAN November 30, 2017 - 10:37 am

The same process infected the way Sears operates. It has been this way since the 1970’s & look were they are now & will be headed.

Larry Littlefield November 27, 2017 - 6:57 am

Are people who ride the subway considered serfs in London and Toronto? Because that is the case in New York. There is the executive/financial class, the political/union class, and the serfs. Byford’s future riders are the people who don’t matter.


The current level of subway funding is actually a boom-time level in the “new normal.” An over-inflated stock market, the product of a decade of zero percent interest rates intended to inflate asset prices to bail out the rich, has temporarily covered up just how underfunded the NYC pension funds are. But still there will be demands for more money. And if interest rates rise, so will the cost of the MTA’s floating rate debt. The level of NYC commercial real estate transactions has already plunged.

Byford will face a fiscal crisis, probably soon. And things will be cut FROM THESE LEVELS. When they first started selling the future, things were OK in a boom but bad in a bust. But they sold it so long and to such an extent that things are bad in a boom, with a bust coming.

Peter November 27, 2017 - 4:31 pm

Aren’t the unfunded pensions the simple result of the absolute greed of the transport workers union? 300k subway manager salaries make my eyes water. Let’s not pretend only the rich are capable of greed.

We have to take a good long look at the ticket prices too: I’m fairly sure there would be a lot of people who would be willing to pay a higher price for tickets if!!! We could be assured that this would lead to better service, some sort of tangible improvement that’s garuanteed as part of the price rise with metrics that must be met or the price would be reset to its original value.

Ofcourse to be honest that’s a bit of a dream. In reality they would just raise prices and services would still be rubbish not an outcome anyone wants

Nathanael December 4, 2017 - 2:34 pm

Well, yes, greed from TWU Local 100. (The other TWU locals around the country are *sane* — local 100 is not.)

But worse, greed from the LIRR and Metro-North unions which are frankly criminal.

Nathanael December 4, 2017 - 2:35 pm

I should be fair and say *some of which* are frankly criminal. Rather than one union, LIRR and Metro-North have a whole lot of tiny fractionalized unions.

cp November 27, 2017 - 10:55 am

I think that was a politically astute response to congestion pricing. He doesn’t know the puts and takes yet. In the end, Byford has to manage a system that is WORTHY of funds from congestion pricing.

If he reduces delays and breakdowns, comes up with legitimate rapid bus plans from the outer boroughs, then he will be a success.

SEAN November 30, 2017 - 10:59 am

The TTC has made strides in it’s systems including new accessible streetcars & finally implementing Presto http://www.prestocard.ca. So I’m hopeful that he works out.

Peter Dougherty November 30, 2017 - 7:50 pm

Toronto’s transit is abysmally mired in politics. Between the war on cars, NIMBYs, and a dysfunctional city council, nothing substantial has been built to relieve some of the worst traffic congestion in N.A.

This isn’t Byford’s fault, but the structure of the provincial and municipal governments that just want to kick the infrastructure can down the road while giving developers free reign to build even more condos in North America’s hottest housing market. You can’t get anywhere in that city. AM rush hour ends at 10:30, and PM rush hour starts at 2:30 (and ends after 8pm). The subway system has been over-capacity in the downtown core for 30 years.

What Byford did accomplish was bringing in open gangway trains, the Presto card system and converting the Yonge-University-Spadina line to CBTC, while tacking on 7 more stations at the far end, which open in a few days from now.

What he wasn’t able to do was make the Shepard stubway useful, get a full heavy rail crosstown subway line across Eglinton Avenue (that’s now going to be light rail, and will be past capacity on opening day), fix the beast that is the Scarborough Rat Trap, and get an urgently needed downtown relief line.

While we transit buffs love our streetcars, they are no substitute for a cohesive heavy rail system, which is fully integrated into the bus and streetcar network. Having one single commuter railway station for the entire city is also foolish (how many does London have now?), yet that’s the way of things. NYC will continue to be a different version of Toronto’s woes, and Byford will realize this in short order. I hope he succeeds, but the politics here are worse than the city he just left (and that’s saying something).

Fool November 27, 2017 - 11:03 am

It is curious if the machine will chew him up and spit him out just like it did to Walder.

I believe the first test is whether or not he goes after the conductor position. As I understand he implemented OPTO in Toronto, someone interested in running an efficient transit organization in NYC would do the same here.

Also, New York Exceptionalism might be the term in the lexicon, but provincialism always seemed more accurately demeaning.

Larry Littlefield November 27, 2017 - 11:19 am

How about New York rationalization?

Nathanael December 4, 2017 - 2:36 pm

Perhaps the better long-term move is to go after the motorman rather than the conductor. Implement an automated system on the trains, and then start sacking motormen who sabotage it.

Canadian australian November 28, 2017 - 7:01 am

Byford worked for Rob Ford in Toronto. He can handle political crazy guys just fine.

He has had to walk a fine political line on the Scarborough subway expansion, a proposed new line into the least white part of Toronto that transit experts hate (they want LRT), but the public loves

If you want an advocate of tough political issues, like transit pricing or someone to fight with the political bosses, Byford will disappoint you.

But if you want a good transit leader who can make an organization efficient and have the freakin trains run on time, you will love Byford.

In Toronto, he is considered the best transit leader since David Gunn. I think you will feel the same in NyC.

But don’t love him too much — he is a Brit and his dream job is running London transit. He will leave you as soon as he succeeds in whipping you into shape.

SEAN November 30, 2017 - 10:51 am

Byford worked for Rob Ford in Toronto. He can handle political crazy guys just fine.

I forgot about that – good point, but the proof is in the Big Smoke Burger. I hope you & others get that Canadian reference.


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