Who Will Be the Next MTA Chief?

Helena Williams, Tom Prendergast, and Charles Monheim head the list of internal candidates to take over the MTA's top post.

Who’s up for the challenge of managing the nation’s biggest transit system at a time when state government has left it with a pile of debt and two already-scheduled fare hikes? The person who takes over the MTA from Jay Walder after his resignation takes effect October 21 will have the marquee transit job in the United States, but also perhaps the most difficult.

Governor Cuomo’s search process has barely started, but some names are already getting bandied around. Here are some of the names that have been mentioned either in news reports or by transit advocates. Advocates gave us their take on several candidates, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The governor might seek a steady hand at the MTA, hiring from within the agency. Three people are widely believed to be at the top of the list for any internal hire:

  • Thomas Prendergast, New York City Transit President: Prendergast ran the MTA when Walder was traveling and previously ran both the Long Island Railroad and Vancouver’s TransLink system, where he was responsible for ushering through a new capital plan. Said advocates: “He’s clearly got what it takes to know the operations.” “He’s more of a working stiff type of guy than Walder was.” “He’s continued the bus improvements, that’s a good sign.”
  • Helena Williams, Long Island Railroad President: Williams served as interim MTA chief between Lee Sander’s resignation and Walder’s appointment. “I’ve always liked her. She clearly cares about the MTA system,” said one advocate.
  • Charles Monheim, MTA Chief Operating Officer: Monheim also served as Chief Operating Officer under Walder at Transport for London, coming over with Walder. Whether he’ll follow him again to Hong Kong remains to be seen. Monheim has been a big force in implementing real-time arrival information for buses and trains and in moving the MTA away from the MetroCard.

Others think he could look to Washington, D.C. US DOT Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Polly Trottenberg and Federal Railroad Administration Deputy Administrator Karen Rae were both mentioned by Crain’s as possible options.

  • Rae has worked in a number of state DOTs, including New York State’s, where she focused on transit, rail, aviation, pedestrian and bicycle projects. She earned good reviews from advocates for her work there.
  • Trottenberg worked for Senators Barbara Boxer, Chuck Schumer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan before joining USDOT. “I think of her as a policy wonk,” said one advocate, who wasn’t sure about her experience as a manager of large bureaucracies.

No other American transit agency really comes close to the MTA in terms of size and complexity, but other cities provide an important pool of talent. It’s worth noting that Boston’s transit agency is also currently looking for a new manager.

  • Richard Sarles, WMATA General Manager: He runs the D.C. transit authority, which includes the country’s second largest rail transit system by ridership. Sarles’ experience is largely in the New York area, having run NJ Transit and worked for 20 years at the Port Authority. “He was a quiet, bureaucratic type who seemed to get things done in a not very flamboyant manner,” said one advocate. “That could be an asset to someone at the MTA at this time.” Sarles took over the D.C. system only last year, though, and might not be looking to leave so soon.
  • Nat Ford, former San Francisco MTA chief: Another experienced transit professional, Ford has been looking for a new job for years. His time in San Francisco ended in June and he’s on the market. Ford was also mentioned as a potential pick for the New York MTA in 2009. The San Francisco MTA is responsible not only for transit operations but also the city streets, parking, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The transit system is small, however, and includes no heavy rail at all.

Back in New York State, there’s a lot of transportation officials outside the MTA who might be able to take over.

  • Joan McDonald, NYS DOT Commissioner: “She certainly understands transportation policy.” She also has Cuomo’s trust, having been appointed by him at the beginning of this year. She worked for Metro-North in the 1990s, as well as for the city DOT.
  • Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC DOT Commissioner: “She’s done a lot of transit work,” said an advocate. “The unlikely side is that she’s a Bloomberg person, so the Cuomo people are not likely to warm to her.”
  • Lee Sander, former MTA CEO: “We could just bring him back.” Sander now works as a top executive at engineering giant AECOM. Sander earned good reviews from transit advocates while at the helm of the MTA, but was replaced by Gov. David Paterson in the wake of the 2009 MTA rescue package.
  • Another former MTA chief mentioned was Marc Shaw, now at real estate firm Extell. Shaw was also mentioned as a replacement for Sander in 2009, though Walder got the nod that time.

Picking someone from abroad has major advantages — the United States isn’t a world leader in transit — though with the MTA in crisis, Cuomo may want someone who can step into the messy world of New York politics and hit the ground running.

  • Tim O’Toole, the head of private transportation firm FirstGroup, might meet both those criteria. O’Toole ran Conrail, the federally-created freight rail operator, and then crossed the Atlantic to become managing director of the London Underground. According to the Daily News, his name is under consideration by the Cuomo team.
  • Edgar Sandoval would bring a very different set of experiences to the MTA. The first managing director of Bogotá’s pioneering TransMilenio bus rapid transit system, Sandoval now consults on transportation projects in South America, Africa, and Asia. One advocate called him “a genius.” This would be an outside-the-box pick, though, as New York’s century-old infrastructure faces a different set of challenges from newer and smaller systems, and there is no indication he is being considered by Cuomo.

Then there are the politicians. Everyone from the New York Times on down has called on Cuomo to pick another experienced transit professional, but the governor may opt for a political hand instead. The Daily News names Patrick Foye, Cuomo’s deputy secretary for economic development and an MTA board member, Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s secretary of state, and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer as possible picks.

As rumors, trial balloons and wishful thinking are replaced with a formal search process, we’ll continue to report on who’s really under consideration. In the meantime, Streetsblog readers, who would you like to see at the helm of the MTA?