THE COMMUTE: Joe Lhota announced last Wednesday that he would resign the MTA chairmanship at the end of this year. He still has not definitely stated that he will seek the Republican nomination for mayor, but is expected to do so. He assumed the chairmanship less than one year ago after having signed a six-year contract. The previous chairman, Jay Walder, left for Hong Kong three years into his six-year term after receiving a very lucrative offer there. By returning to the MTA for three years after a more than 20-year absence, he was able to significantly increase his pension, since it is based on your last three years of service. Now Lhota, who served as deputy mayor under former mayor, Rudolph Guiliani, is taking advantage of his popularity as a result of Hurricane Sandy to run for higher political office.
Why should anyone believe any promises made by the next permanent MTA chairman? Promises have already been made that there will be no more service cuts resulting from future budget deficits, and expenses as a result of Hurricane Sandy will not affect the fare. A new chairman is no longer bound to those promises and can always state that circumstances have changed and he didn’t make those promises. Also, riders will be skeptical of any new promises made by the next permanent chairman. After all, how long will he hold that position?
So what does the fact that the last two chairmen completed half their terms or less say about them? It says that while they cared somewhat about the MTA, their primary concern was their own self-interest, even if it meant harming the agency. My respect for Lhota, after giving him high marks for his handling of Hurricane Sandy and, later, learning that perhaps he received more credit than he deserved, has been severely diminished. He may have put in long days following the hurricane, but he is nothing more than a political opportunist.
The Need For Continuity
It is not in the MTA’s best interests to have a revolving door chairman. Of the 11 MTA chairmen, the one who stayed the longest was Robert Kiley, who headed the Authority for seven years from 1983-1991; William Ronan, the first chair, and Virgil Conway stayed for six years. Richard Ravitch and Peter Stangl each held the position for four. The median number of years for the position is under four, and, by the end of next month, there will have been three chairmen in a little over five years since September 2007.
Since the MTA chairman serves at the pleasure of the governor, often they are replaced after a new governor is elected. To prevent that from happening, the last two chairmen have been signed to six-year contracts instead of the usual three to give them more security. However, no such security is offered to the public by this increase in the contract term because there is no penalty if the MTA chairman decides to break his contract as the last two have done.
Not only does the public suffer by frequent changes in leadership, the MTA loses as well. Customers are less likely to believe promises that are made since they know the next person in charge does not have to keep those promises. Employees are also less likely to believe their leaders.
When I started with the MTA in 1981, a chief bus dispatcher who reported to me laughed when a new leader started making big promises, as well as threats if his policies are not followed. I asked what was so funny. He responded that, every few years someone new is put in charge with new ideas. They all talk big and make threats, but we don’t have to worry because we know in a few years they will be gone and we will still be here doing the same job we have always done.
Since the next chairman, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who also served on the MTA board for the past 18 months, has been named interim chairman, we can expect another change in the near future. Also, the position of executive director, which was abolished with the appointment of Jay Walder, has been resurrected, at least until a permanent chairman is chosen.
The MTA for much of its history has looked to bankers and those with close ties to the real estate industry for its chairmen. It has often been asked why not choose someone regarded as a transportation expert instead? Wouldn’t the agency function better? When Walder was chosen, everyone’s expectations were raised because his ties were to transportation and not to real estate or banking. Walder deserves credit in three areas. He was the first chairman to publicly admit that the MTA is not as efficient as it ought to be, and made significant administrative cuts after years of accusations of the MTA being “top heavy.” He also realized that there are some things the private sector can do better than the MTA, and allowed others access to the MTA’s databases to produce transit-related applications for mobile devices. The MTA had always been very paranoid in sharing any proprietary information prior to Walder.
When Lhota was chosen to succeed Walder, most were skeptical of someone with less than a stellar transportation background, but he surprised many, performing better than expected, though he could not avoid another fare increase. The question is: What now? The position of executive director has been given to Thomas Prendergast, the current capable head of New York City Transit, who will assume the day-to-day operations of the MTA, while Ferrer like, Dale Hemmedinger, will be more or less a figurehead. Eliot Sander, who also came from a transportation background, was the executive director under Hemmedinger.
Time will tell if Governor Cuomo, after completing the search for the next permanent chairman, will choose someone regarded as an expert in transportation, an expert in financing, or someone with close ties to the real estate or banking industries. A transportation expert is preferable. The real question is: Will the next permanent chairperson stay longer than the interim chairperson starting in January? Shouldn’t there be a penalty clause in the next chairman’s contract (other than for health reasons), so that the next chairperson does not, again, leave the moment a better opportunity arises, as the last two have done? Anyone who isn’t willing to accept a penalty clause would not have the proper dedication, in my opinion. When the term was raised from three to six years, the salary was also raised. It is only fair for everyone that the permanent chairman completes the term he contracted for. A penalty clause would help ensure that.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).
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