Theodore Kheel, lawyer and labor negotiator once called "the most influential peacemaker in New York City in the last half-century," passed away last Friday at age 96. The NY Times' obituary explains, "Mr. Kheel, who played a pivotal role in ending newspaper, teacher and subway strikes in New York, was the go-to guy for mayors, labor leaders and business executives during the post-World War II era, when unions were far more powerful than they are now and a savvy, respected ringmaster was often needed to pressure and cajole all sides to reach a settlement." And, in recent years, the Brooklyn-born Kheel advocated that subways and buses be free.

The Times looked at Kheel's negotiating savvy:

Mr. Kheel had well-honed techniques. Upon entering a negotiation, he first asked each party to tell him what was on its mind, what it hoped to achieve and what it thought of the other side’s proposals. He would often have the two sides negotiate across a table until they got so loud and angry that he felt the need to separate them — at which point he often engaged in shuttle diplomacy.

“The essence of mediation is getting information,” Mr. Kheel once told The New Yorker. “The dirtiest question you can ask in bargaining is ‘What will you settle for?’ If you ask that question, you ought to resign, but that’s the question you must have an answer to. You get it by asking every question except that. What’s left over is the answer.”


Kheel also represented the artists Christo and Jeanne Claude (he helped them on their odyssey to get The Gates mounted) and made millions as a businessman—he was the main investor in a Punta Cana resort in the Dominican Republic.

Gothamist interviewed Kheel in 2008, to discuss his group's study on making NYC subways and buses free—thanks to a kind of congestion pricing fee. He said, "We found that if you eliminate subway and bus fares completely, and offset the lost income through a combination of measures that make automobile trips into the Central Business District [CBD] more costly, those trips would drop by one-third, and traffic—both inside the CBD and in the entire city—would go down significantly. The same measure would also save a staggering $4 billion worth of working time, by eliminating more than 100 million hours of vehicle time that would otherwise be spent sitting in traffic. The plan would also generate about $2 billion in benefits from reduced pollution and various other types of savings."

Kheel also had more thoughts about the relationship between NYC and NY State on mass transit issues "When I first became involved in transit issues in this city, in the 1940s, subway and bus fares were under the control of the Board of Estimate and its members would never vote for raising the fare, because they had to stand for reelection. That was later changed, and today, decisions on the mass transit fare, as well decisions about many of the tolls charged on our bridges and tunnels, are made by the MTA, and the city can only recommend appointment of four of the seventeen voting members of the MTA’s board are appointed by the state. I believe that the city should be given greater control over transportation issues that are vital to the well-being of those who live and work there."