New MTA boss faces many post-Sandy challenges
The MTA's new chief sure has a heavy lift ahead of him.
Newly approved CEO Tom Prendergast is filling a position that was vacant for six months, taking the reins of an agency still reeling from Superstorm Sandy and dealing with questions about how it's going to pay for system improvements.
"Making sure the resources are there to do the necessary work is a big part of what Tom's facing now," said Bill Henderson, executive director of the MTA's citizens advisory committee. "There's not a lot of identified funding for capital spending for the next program, and that's a big concern of all the advocates."
As MTA CEO and chair, Prendergast must prepare for the agency's 2015-19 spending plan for capital improvements, which will include federal aid for post-Sandy rehabilitation.
For a program that can be as high as $28 billion, there will be an estimated shortfall of around $10 billion, according to transit advocates. Meanwhile, the MTA's day-to-day operations funding plan for the next few years projects a $550 million cash deficit in 2016 prior to adjustments. Part of those everyday costs will be affected by whether the MTA can negotiate a contract for union workers that will keep labor costs flat.
For riders, capital spending doesn't just include megaprojects like the Second Avenue subway and the extension of the No. 7 on the West Side. It also includes financing for repairs throughout the system, including replacing equipment in tunnels, like signals and cables, that are being eaten away by the salt water dumped by Sandy.
The MTA estimates that returning the transit system to its state before Sandy will cost nearly $4.8 billion. Then, there are the repairs to strengthen the system against future storms.
"People love the big sexy projects," said Adam Lisberg, communications director for the MTA. "But we also need to do really unglamorous things."
To get enough money for MTA capital projects, Prendergast must meet with Albany lawmakers who make funding decisions and can devise a revenue-generating plan, whether through additional taxes or tolls.
"Tom brings a lot of credibility and legitimacy to Albany. That's needed to work with elected officials to fill this gap," said Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
Rich Barone of the Regional Plan Association said that without lawmakers devising a way to generate money or increasing transit funding, system improvements could be a lesser priority in the capital budget.
"We want to keep the infrastructure, the core stuff, the really important stuff, on track and not slip backward," Barone said.
But, he added, "If we don't get money from Albany ... other things we want to do, like improving service and adding capacity, would likely take a second lower level priority."
Prendergast, 60, will take over the MTA after nearly 40 years in transportation. He ran NYC Transit, which controls the city's buses and subways, through Hurricane Irene and Sandy, and the LIRR before that. In addition to his managerial experience, Prendergast, an engineer, brings technical expertise to the job. He is a former chief electrical officer for the MTA and director of system safety.
"Tom is coming in with a stunningly thorough knowledge of the MTA and all of its operations, which is going to be a tremendous asset as he sets about figuring out how to make the agency run better, cut costs, prepare for a future of increasingly severe weather and do it all while facing a ridership that continuingly expects more from the MTA," Lisberg said.