Aftershocks ripple from Byford's resignation from New York's MTA
Though no surprise, Andy Byford’s resignation as president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s New York City Transit unit still triggered aftershocks.
Byford’s announcement Thursday, about three months after he threatened to quit only to rescind his resignation letter, has rekindled questions about governance at one of the world’s largest mass transit agencies and one of the largest U.S. municipal bond issuers with $43 billion of core-credit debt.
His last day will be Feb 21.
During his two-year run at NYC Transit’s subway and bus operations after overseeing the Toronto Transit Commission and before that, systems in his native London and Sydney, Byford earned the moniker "Train Daddy." He amassed a sort of rock-star status as a transit frontman, a fresh face at a long-stagnant authority as he pitched his Fast Forward modernization plan.
Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, credited Byford with improving on-time subway performance, working to secure capital funds and redesigning the bus network.
“Mr. Byford is a true champion for millions of New Yorkers and his departure is a huge loss for New York City,” Sifuentes said.
Byford found himself balancing his vision with crisis management.
His popularity seemingly rankled Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who hired Byford but later superseded him on transit matters — notably the L-train tunnel repair — triggering accusations of micromanaging and questions from media about whether Byford was being sidelined.
“Byford's resignation was sadly predictable,” said Rachel Fauss, a senior analyst at the group Reinvent Albany, who focuses on MTA matters.
Cuomo’s reaction Thursday was terse. “He stays, he leaves, nothing changes,” the governor said.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson — both critics of the state-run MTA — said they were sorry to see Byford go.
“This is a real loss for New York City’s subway and bus riders," de Blasio said. "The MTA needs people like Andy Byford — now more than ever."
Johnson, who is lobbying for city control of NYC Transit, issued a one-word tweet: “DEVASTATED.”
Veronica Vanterpool, a former de Blasio appointee to the MTA board and now the chief innovation officer at Delaware Transit Corp., called Byford "one of the most effective and transformative leaders" the MTA has ever had.
"He is the reason so many people have been inspired to work at [New York City subway and bus] despite the negativity," she said. "So much talent has already left MTA, especially in the past year. We know why."
Uncertainty hovers at the authority about the effects of a transformation plan that consultant AlixPartners crafted and the MTA’s board approved last July. The centralizing of capital project coordination, leaving agency presidents solely charged with the day-to-day running of service, was a key trigger point for Byford, who cited the plan in his resignation letter to MTA chief operating officer Mario Peloquin,
“I have built an excellent team and there are many capable individuals within Transit and others within the MTA family who could perform this important but reduced service delivery role,” Byford said. “I am confident that you have the tools to succeed.”
Montreal businessman Anthony McCord became chief transformation officer in July, the linchpin hiring in a planned expansion of the MTA's C-suite. Authority officials say the transformation plan could save $1.6 billion overall, and $530 million alone by reducing up to 2,700 jobs — possibly through attrition and vacancies — largely through eliminating redundancies such as legal and human resources alone across the MTA's seven agencies.
The MTA late last month received state-panel approval for its $51.5 billion capital program from 2020 through 2024. The package includes dedicated revenue streams through Manhattan congestion pricing and a variety of state taxes; authority officials at last Monday’s finance committee meeting said its debt load over the next few years could spike to nearly $50 billion.
Political wrangling has long surround the triangle of conflict among the state, the MTA and the city it serves since Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 created the authority to consolidate public ownership and operation of its systems. Feuding between current officeholders Cuomo and de Blasio marks the latest iteration.
The MTA also operates Long Island and Metro-North commuter railroads and several intraborough bridges and tunnels.
Richard Ravitch, a longtime public finance power broker who helped shepherd the city out of its 1970s financial crisis and was later lieutenant governor, was MTA chairman from 1980 to 1983 and crafted the authority’s initial five-year capital program.
In his book, “So Much to Do,” Ravitch called his four years at the MTA “the most exhilarating of my life,” but admitted to exhaustion at the end, largely from friction with Gov. Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father.
“There was no doubt that the fun quotient of the job had been diminished by the governor’s inexplicable hostility,” Ravitch wrote.
Byford was NYC Transit's fifth president since 2007.
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the watchdog Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, hopes the authority will promote from Byford’s stable.
“The MTA has huge shoes to fill and must commit to continuing the tremendous strides that have been made under Andy Byford's tutelage,” Daglian said. “We hope to see a continuation of his successes with his successor, who we hope will come from the strong team he's built.”