Whether you’re a commuter who takes the train to work, or drives a car over a bridge to leave Long Island or New York City, or the owner of a business whose employees rely on the subway, you’re dependent on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
And you likely could write a specific job description for the person who becomes the next head of the MTA, the hulking state agency responsible for the nation’s largest transportation system.
For most Long Islanders, the next MTA chair must make sure the trains run on time and bridges are well-maintained, prioritize communication, listen to complaints and keep fares low. But that’s the easy part. Navigating the unforgiving politics and finances is the challenge. It’s an organization beholden to many interests, from unions and riders to a very demanding governor. It has an operating budget of $15 billion, nearly 70,000 employees, and a network of trains and buses that provides 2.7 billion rides a year.
While former MTA head Thomas Prendergast was largely credited with a solid four-year stint, he was seen as too wedded to the MTA’s usual way of doing business and sometimes too focused on everyday operations and not enough on the big picture.
That’s why the next head of the MTA should be someone who can position the authority for the future. Someone who has the personality and experience to walk into a place and shake it up. The MTA is a creature of its own institutional bureaucracy, and its chief too often follows suit. This is the time to draw outside the lines, even while running the trains on time.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should consider someone who understands public transportation, yet can think like an outsider, who understands New York politics but won’t be cowed by it. Even someone who can tell the governor no. Someone who can navigate the MTA’s bureaucracy but not get sucked into its vortex, and who can complete East Side Access, the effort to connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal.
Most important, the right leader will have vision and empower those who want to change the narrative of what can and can’t be done. This includes rethinking the way revenue is generated and the system’s technology. Are we catching up to the last century or preparing for the next one? The next chair should be someone who would have demanded e-ticketing be available to LIRR riders in the last decade, instead of last year.
That person will have to juggle the prioritization of capital projects, maintenance, and customer service, and change the culture to one of accountability. But the next chair also must convince the many MTA unions that such change isn’t a losing proposition.
The to-do list can be drilled down to several key ideas.
- The MTA has many idiosyncratic parts. Reforms to one unit should apply to others. If a new methodology works at the LIRR, consider it for Metro-North. When there’s a crash or derailment, use findings to improve the entire system. If rules can be simplified, do it system-wide. The system has to work seamlessly.
- Find new revenue sources and new savings. The MTA’s sprawling bureaucracy can be tamed. Control of the procurement process shouldn’t be elusive. And look for new advertising dollarsor profitable uses for MTA assets.
- Think about real estate. With its involvement in Penn Station’s redevelopment, and connections between East Side Access and Midtown East zoning, the agency’s leader has to manage development opportunities around public transit. As the Port Authority is doing with renovations at New York’s airports, the MTA should use public-private partnerships for big projects. The agency should consider design-build strategies that can save time and money by using one contract for both design and construction. And it should work with the city and state to encourage development efforts that, for instance, give developers the OK to build in exchange for funding public transit improvements, or direct a new development’s tax dollars to MTA needs.
- Communicate. Many of the MTA’s stubborn problems come down to a basic failure to communicate, internally and externally. The LIRR, NYC Transit and Metro-North should be freed from the micromanagement of their public relations by Albany.
- Never forget what riders care about: getting from Point A to Point B safely and on time. The MTA has to focus on the basic maintenance of signals, switches and tracks.
- Get the big projects done. East Side Access, first proposed in the 1990s, is still years away. Delays and cost overruns must end. Same for the Second Avenue Subway’s next phase, the LIRR’s third track, and other projects, such as the Republic station’s reopening, Hicksville station’s renovation, Oyster Bay line service upgrades, and electrification from Huntington to Port Jefferson. And can someone, please, finally solve the chronic delays and switch problems at Jamaica?
An effective, visionary leader driving the trains could make the difference.