Wanted: A Miracle Worker.
The MTA’s financial picture is a disastrous mix of declining revenue from lower ridership and enormous looming expenses. Complaints about the subways and commuter rail service are endless. Amid all this misery, the MTA is also looking for a new leader.
It’s been a week since Joseph Lhota resigned as chairman, a departure that left a big hole. At Thursday’s MTA board meeting, officials unveiled a dismal budget picture and the potential for big fare and toll hikes, underscoring how critical the appointment of his successor will be.
Stopping the bleeding
Lhota came to the MTA in June 2017, at a low point for the agency. Just days after Lhota’s appointment, a subway train derailed, injuring dozens of people. That summer, he successfully handled the creation of an emergency subway action plan, and the so-called “summer of hell” at Penn Station. He didn’t make magic, but he did stop some bleeding. Perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment is bringing in solid leaders to oversee each of the MTA’s arms — the Long Island Rail Road, Metro North and New York City Transit. Phil Eng, Cathy Rinaldi and Andy Byford have shown they can make tough decisions and plan for the future.
But ultimately, the new chair, appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and confirmed by the State Senate, will have to steer the MTA through the dark, twisting tunnels ahead.
It’ll help if the MTA’s next leader takes on a combined chair/chief executive role as a full-time job with a salary. That would open the gig up to a far wider pool of talent, and would allow whoever’s chosen to devote the time required to the enormous job at hand.
The next chief will have the unenviable task of digging the authority out of its financial mess and finding significant new funding streams, while overseeing plans to upgrade service, modernize the subway system and finish bigger capital projects. Then there’s the broader need to overhaul the Byzantine bureaucracy’s expensive and inefficient way of doing business, from contracts to construction to the organization’s culture. The job requires a deft political touch and the willingness to take responsibility, and make sure others do, too.
The chair has to act as both advocate for and critic of the organization and have a willingness to change anything and everything. Partnering with Amtrak on Penn Station’s redevelopment and East River tunnel repairs is key. While transit experience is prefered, even more important is the ability to manage a huge organization, and its finances.
Why not a worldwide search for an innovator in how to move people? After all, some of the best transit systems aren’t in the United States.
Once a new MTA chair is chosen, he — or she — must be given the latitude to transform the authority into an organization that delivers world-class service, while providing new funding other than the farebox. We need a vision for a flexible, modern transit system that can respond to its riders, and get them moving.