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William Ronan, first MTA chairman, dies

William J. Ronan, the architect and first chairman

William J. Ronan, the architect and first chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and one of the most powerful officials in the modern history of New York State, died on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014 at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 101. Credit: Karsh

William Ronan, the first chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whom many credit with dethroning Robert Moses as New York's most influential transportation planner in the late 1960s, died Wednesday.

He was 101 and had been living in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Ronan's vision for a regional transportation network included the Long Island Rail Road as its cornerstone.

"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," MTA chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast said Friday.

The Buffalo native, who earned a doctorate at New York University, worked for years in the academic field, including as a dean at New York University and founder of the school's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, according to the MTA.

Ronan befriended Nelson Rockefeller when the two were helping plan a constitutional convention. When Rockefeller became governor in 1959, he brought Ronan on as his personal secretary.

Ronan quickly became Rockefeller's top adviser on transportation issues. And when Rockefeller moved in 1965 to have the state acquire the privately held Long Island Rail Road, he put Ronan in charge as the chairman of the newly established Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority.

In that position Ronan later led New York in consolidating the state's various transportation operations, including the LIRR and the New York City Transit subway system, under one agency that would be primarily subsidized through toll revenue from the state's Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which was headed by Moses.

In 1968 the MTA was created, and Ronan became its first chairman.

"It was novel and taboo, and also highly criticized, because he was bucking none other than Robert Moses, who fought it bitterly," said Andrew Sparberg, author of "From a Nickel to a Token: The Journey from Board of Transportation to MTA."

Moses, then chairman of the bridge authority, and others resisted Ronan's belief that trains, not cars, would become increasingly important in moving people around New York City.

"It has become clear that, for the journey to work, the private automobile is better suited to the outer reaches of the city and its suburbs," Ronan told Newsday in 1967. "To achieve a more balanced approach, and to move large numbers of people into more densely developed central urban areas, we must look to mass transit for our answer."

Under Ronan's watch the MTA in the late 1960s dug a tunnel under the East River at 63rd Street -- the passageway through which LIRR trains will eventually connect to Grand Central Terminal as part of East Side Access.

Lee Koppelman, director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University, said Ronan's vision was "absolutely right."

"Mass transit in a metropolitan area was absolutely essential," said Koppelman, who called Ronan a "very complex and accomplished individual."

Ronan left the MTA in 1974 and later that year headed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as its chairman -- a post he held until 1977.

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