As New York’s subway system, the nation’s largest, emerges from the throes of a pandemic that has drained it of millions of riders and the fares they pay, it will have a new permanent boss for the first times in more than two years.
Richard A. Davey, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary who once ran Boston’s public transit system, was named next Wednesday president of New York City Transit, the agency that runs the city’s subways and buses and is a division of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. .
Mr Davey, 48, who currently advises transit systems around the world as a partner in the Boston Consulting Group, will take the reins at one of the toughest times in the subway’s 117-year history, as he faces an existential question: How many of his pre-pandemic runners will return, and when?
As New York continues to take cautious steps toward post-pandemic normality, top officials from the governor to the mayor to top business leaders agree that a robust subway is crucial to the region’s economy. and its recovery.
In an interview, Davey, who will take over the transit agency on May 2, acknowledged the challenges but said the central role the subway and buses play in the city is something that attracted him to this position.
“New York is a city that depends so much on its public transit system,” he said. “And if the public transit system doesn’t work, then New York doesn’t work.”
His first priority, he added, will be to increase ridership and bring back users whose fares are crucial to financing the operation of the métro.
Prior to March 2020, the New York City subway carried around 5.5 million people on an average weekday. When shutdown orders sent students and workers home, left others unemployed and kept tourists away, subway ridership dropped by more than 90%. The bus system, whose passengers are more likely to come from low-income neighborhoods, minorities or immigrants, has seen its ridership drop nearly 80%.
More than two years later, the system is still struggling. Last week, the metro hovered around 58% of pre-pandemic ridership, while bus ridership was around 62%. According to current projections, metro ridership is not expected to reach 86% of pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
New York State Subway
But with more and more companies embracing a hybrid work schedule, many riders who start filling up public transit again will no longer be typical five-day-a-week commuters.
Depressed ridership created a looming financial crisis for the transit agency. Before the pandemic, the MTA derived 38% of its revenue from fares, a relatively high percentage compared to other major U.S. transit systems.
Although federal pandemic aid has helped the transportation authority postpone fare increases and avoid drastic service cuts, its latest financial plan projects a $500 million shortfall in 2025 that will reach about $2 billion. dollars in 2026.
Janno Lieber, president and CEO of the MTA, said worsening system problems had led the agency to seek someone experienced in operating a complex transit system, resistance to political debates and solving financial problems.
“We face a new reality as we emerge from the pandemic,” Mr. Lieber said. “And it’s a good time to have someone who saw things broadly.”
The MTA cannot force a return to daily travel. But Mr Davey said he planned to focus on factors within his control: reliable service, boosting some of the slowest buses in the country and public safety.
“We can’t tell employers to bring employees back,” he said. “But on the other hand, if the employees don’t feel safe or if we don’t provide good service, they won’t want to come back.”
While overseeing Boston’s system, Davey was criticized for implementing fare hikes that some transit advocates say hurt the working class and the elderly and for failing to doing more to reduce delays. Working in the private sector for the past few years, Mr. Davey has focused on transportation issues, but he hasn’t managed the day-to-day operations of a transit agency in a decade.
Although he has spent most of his life in Massachusetts, Mr. Davey is not inexperienced with New York’s public transit system. He worked at a Manhattan law firm from 1999 to 2002 and commuted daily by subway from the Upper East Side.
In 2003, Mr. Davey began working for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company in Boston, which operated the Boston area commuter rail network. After becoming general manager there, he was hired in 2010 to lead the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the public transit system serving greater Boston.
New York’s transit system dwarfs Boston’s. When Mr. Davey was in charge, he oversaw about 6,000 employees, and Boston’s subways, buses and trains carried about 1.3 million passengers each weekday.
But Mr Davey said he believed the two systems were also similar.
“Boston and New York are the oldest systems in the United States,” he said. “So maintenance and lack of capital investment were some of the big issues there.”
Josh Ostroff, acting director of Transportation for Massachusetts, an advocacy group, said Mr Davey inherited a system riddled with debt and in a protracted state of disrepair.
“He was able to convey the urgency of this message to lawmakers, the public and local civic leaders,” Mr. Ostroff said. “And he helped mobilize support for legislation that ultimately helped.”
He has also built a reputation for talking to riders and listening to their complaints. Mr. Davey ditched his car more than a decade ago and relied on Boston’s public transit system to get around. “He’s come out more than any GM we’ve ever seen,” a watchdog group told Boston.com in 2011.
Mr. Davey is also no stranger to leading a transit organization caught in the political crossfire. By the time he led Boston’s system, elected officials had for years made financial decisions that reinforced their policy priorities but left the transit system without money for upgrades, Mr. Ostroff said.
New York City Transit faced similar headwinds. The agency has been without a permanent head since February 2020, when then-head Andy Byford resigned after repeated clashes with then-governor Andrew M. Cuomo.
Like Mr Davey, Mr Byford took charge of the Metro at a time of crisis in 2018, when years of political and financial neglect made the service unreliable and led Mr Cuomo to declare a state of emergency on the system. When Mr Byford left, he was widely praised for helping to reverse the decline.
Mr. Davey had a positive relationship with the mayor and governor of Boston; they both supported his eventual leadership of the city’s bid for the 2024 Olympics, which was ultimately withdrawn.
But at the transit agency and as Massachusetts transportation secretary from 2011 to 2014, he pushed for politically unpopular policies that were expected to garner support from skeptical lawmakers, Mr. Ostroff said.
Among them was an effort that led to a gas tax hike to help fund public transit and repair roads, and fare increases that Davey said were needed to make up for shortfalls. financial support from the MBTA while maintaining service.
“I can’t say all the runners liked him because he was bringing bad news,” Mr. Ostroff said. “But he managed to rally lawmakers and other leaders behind him.”
In New York, Mr Davey said he would try to minimize fare increases and potential service reductions. But it will be open to adjusting subway operations and bus routes to change travel patterns as the city emerges from the pandemic.
Mr. Davey will also approach the position from the perspective of someone who has studied international transit systems closely, including New York’s. In 2017, as a consultant, he worked on the Subway Action Plan, an $800 million bailout that helped stabilize the system.