The job of running the MTA’s subways and buses was always important, but Andy Byford elevated it to celebrity status when he took on the role.
Nicknamed “Train Daddy” by transit enthusiasts, he swooped in with plans to get subways running in the short term, and to make major improvements in the long term. In the process he seemed to win the hearts of New Yorkers, was the subject of a New Yorker profile, a 60 minutes segment and countless local headlines.
The agency has since had two interim presidents of New York City Transit, until now.
Richard Davey was named last month as NYCT’s new president. He doesn’t come with a Byford-like resume of working at rail systems in London, Australia and Toronto. He’s spent his career in Boston, a much smaller transit system that doesn’t run 24 hours. And he was recently a consultant at Boston Consulting Group, where the MTA was one of his clients.
But Byford and Davey do have something in common: both started amid turmoil in the subways. Byford came as the agency was continuing to see abysmal service problems and breakdowns. Davey comes as ridership remains 2 million people below pre-pandemic levels and as commuting patterns have been altered, possibly forever. The he agency is also trying to address a homeless crisis in the system, along with several high profile crimes, including a fatal shoving in January, several slashings and shootings, and last week’s mass shooting on an R train in Sunset Park.
Byford used that period of uncertainty to push forward initiatives that sped up trains, improved service, and laid the blueprint for the MTA’s current capital plan. Davey hasn’t begun yet, but already there are visible fissures forming that will make his job more challenging.
Unlike Byford though, Davey arrives at the MTA as the city, state and MTA appear to be working in tandem. This comes after years of rancor between Cuomo and former Mayor Bill de Blasio over fixing and funding the subways. During the past few months, Governor Kathy Hochul, MTA Chairman Janno Lieber and Mayor Eric Adams have appeared together at various events, vowing to work together to solve problems at the MTA.
But conflicts over money are looming on the horizon, which will likely change that dynamic.
To start, Hochul — who is running for her first full term as governor — deferred the MTA’s biannual fare hikes this year. But it’s not clear if the MTA will have to raise costs by 4 or even 8 percent down the line, to cover expenses. Second, once the $16 billion in federal relief funds to cover operating expenses runs out, the agency could face a $2 billion shortfall. Lieber calls it a “fiscal cliff” he expects around 2026 and said the MTA needs to find new ways to bring in money, like a new tax, which would rely on the governor and Legislature’s approval. Over the next couple of years, the MTA will have to make the case to lawmakers, many of whom don’t live in regions served by the MTA, that more money is both needed and will be well spent. And, details about the congestion pricing program are expected to be released this summer, with different contingents of drivers already jockeying for exemptions to the fee.
Nicole Gelinas, senior researcher at the Manhattan Institute, said she’s worried the state is entering a “cycle of budget cuts,” and Davey will be caught between the MTA and lawmakers who hold the purse strings.
“We need a strong leader who is comfortable and confident enough politically to push back against political pressure for the MTA to just go along with service cuts,” she wrote. “The worst thing — and [I'm] not saying he'll be that guy — would be a by-the-numbers guy who says, 'OK, ridership is down X percent, so we'll cut service by X percent.'”
Davey does have some experience balancing the needs of the riding public with the needs of elected officials. He worked for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) from 2003 until 2011 before being appointed Transportation Secretary of Massachusetts where he served until 2014.
Jim Aloisi held the same title before Davey and has known him since 2003. He said Davey’s battle to raise the gas tax in the state by three cents is an example of how he operates, and succeeds, working with advocates and the business community. Aloisi said he tried himself to raise the gas tax by 6 cents in 2009.
“I ran into a stiff wall of opposition,” he said. “But Rich was able to guide, what was admittedly a modest increase, but a necessary one, through to completion.”
Aloisi said Davey worked with over a dozen unions in Massachusetts and was good at bringing groups together.
“He’s a very good step-by-step thinker and consensus builder, he never gets ahead of where he needs to be,” Aloisi said. “ He's very good at building the coalitions and consensus that he needs to support whatever initiative he’s going to be doing.”
Good government watchdog groups, like Reinvent Albany also expressed hope Davey will stick around longer than two years, which hasn’t happened since Thomas Prendergast served as transit president for three years from December 2009 until January 2013.
Accountability is easier when someone is there long enough to evaluate the progress that they have made.
“Part of seeing things through is not having political interference from Albany, which has improved under Governor Hochul, and part of that is having someone stay on long enough to be able to measure their success,” Rachael Fauss, Senior Research Analyst with Reinvent Albany, wrote in a statement. “Accountability is easier when someone is there long enough to evaluate the progress that they have made.”
Brian Kane is the Executive Director of the MBTA Advisory Board, but was just an advocate when Davey became the agency's general manager and recalls, shortly after he took office, Davey invited all the advocates to come to the operations control center to see how the subways and buses were run.
“He was very open, he had folks in all the time,” Kane said. “I wrote something once, a little critical of him, and he invited me over and we actually talked about it. I think he’s got an open style of management and leadership. I think the New York City transit advocacy community will find a willing listener and someone who does their homework and understands the issues.”
This month, in his first public appearance since being appointed in March, Davey fielded questions from the press for nearly an hour about his goals, priorities, and what type of leader he plans to be. If riders were hoping for any surprising, out-of-the-box ideas, Davey wasn’t delivering.
“Safety, security, reliability, and cleanliness,” he said were his goals. “I think it’s taking ideas that exist and accelerating the heck out of them.”
The arguments of how to make the subways safer have only gotten more heated after last week’s shooting. Adams, who has said he's flooding the subways with more police, is now calling for installing some sort of technology in the subways that can detect weapons. But with 472 stations, and more than twice as many entrances, if anything is installed, it would be extremely costly and would require millions of dollars to operate — money the MTA doesn’t have lying around.
During Davey’s discussion, he didn’t reveal too many personal details, but said he planned to live somewhere in Manhattan, and planned to spend a lot of time in the subway system.
“I generally don’t have a life so I expect to be out and about talking to folks and seeing how we’re performing, as I did in Boston,” he said.
Davey did say his wife Jane Willis, who’s a lawyer, would be relocating with him. Willis is known to have been a member of the MIT blackjack team which counted cards to beat casinos. Their story was written about in the book “Bringing Down The House” and turned into the movie “21”.
Mitchell Moss, director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, said despite recent comparisons to the 1970s, the subway system is nothing like that now. It runs comparably well, with fewer breakdowns, and the safety and cleanliness are nothing like what New York once faced. With that in mind, he says Davey is the right leader for this moment.
“He has enough experience to be able to come here and know how to work with other people. Basically this is a job where you have to persuade and lead by building ties to the workforce,” Moss said. ”We have to assume Lieber would pick somebody that would know how to do these things.”
Davey’s first day is May 2.