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Going Places

How Much Does It Suck to Be the President of the New York City Transit Authority?

Richard Davey, who oversees the MTA's subways and buses, looks to be heading for the exit right as congestion pricing goes online.

Richard Davey taps the subway conductor's window on a train.

MTA New York City Transit President Richard Davey is on-hand at the 21 St-Queensbridge station on the F line on Monday, April 1, 2024 as the 63 St corridor reopens after track rehabilitation (Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

After years of finagling and finessing and planning and pushing and studying and scoping—and don't forget the dozens of hours of public testimony and 25,628 written comments—the MTA is a month and a half away from implementing congestion pricing. If the agency can keep a group of bad-faith lawsuits at bay, on June 30, drivers entering Manhattan below 59th Street will pay $15 for the privilege, the MTA will raise $15 billion to repair our decrepit public transit system, the air will be cleaner, the streets less congested. All the MTA has to do is hang on another six weeks—though it appears they'll have to do so without the MTA official in charge of the subways and buses.

On Tuesday, Gothamist reported that New York City Transit Authority President Richard Davey is leaving the job he took in May of 2022 for a position at Massport, the agency that controls Massachusetts' largest airports and shipyards. The Gothamist story cited sources at Massport, the MTA, and the labor unions that represent their workers. Davey, who hails from Massachusetts and previously worked as the general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and as the Massachusetts state transportation secretary, was coy when asked about the report later that day.

"I do get calls from time to time because I got a great team that makes me look good," Davey said.

This was somewhat of an understatement: On Thursday, Massport's board announced in a press release that Davey was one of two finalists for the job, along with the head of Miami-Dade's transit system, Eulois Cleckley. A spokesperson for Massport, Benjamin Crawley, told Hell Gate that the Massport board will vote on whether to give Davey the job next week. As more news stories on Davey's likely departure started to crop up, the MTA released a statement on his behalf on Thursday morning.

I very much appreciate that I have been recommended to the MassPort board as a finalist to be their next CEO, an amazing opportunity in my hometown. However, serving as President of New York City Transit - working every day for our six million customers and 47,000 transit employees with critical and consistent support from Governor Hochul and MTA Chair Lieber - is a privilege and one of the best jobs in the transit world. I will continue to push forward to deliver faster, cleaner, and safer service for subway and bus customers every day I serve in this role.

Don't let the stray "however" fool you: These are three declaratory sentences that fail to answer the basic question of whether the head of NYCT is going to take an opportunity to leave his job—right as the MTA begins a highly controversial tolling program that will have a huge impact on the agency's future as well as life in New York City. 

So, what do these words mean? Will Davey take the job if it is offered to him? Did he apply for it or was he approached for the role? What will it mean for congestion pricing? The MTA hasn't responded to our emailed questions.

"I don't think it pushes us back in terms of congestion pricing," Rachael Fauss, a policy director and MTA researcher for the good government group Reinvent Albany said of Davey's potential departure. "A lot of the push for congestion pricing—and the public education and service increases—is being managed by MTA HQ. But I think keeping someone in that role in a permanent way, more than a year or so at a time, is an institutional problem."

Davey's two predecessors didn't last long at the job. Andy Byford, the "Train Daddy," left in early 2020, citing immense political pressure from then-governor Andrew Cuomo, who went out of his way to undermine Byford's "Fast Forward" plan to modernize the system's signals by diluting his authority. "It got to a point where it was obvious that even the dumbed-down role, the reduced role that I found myself in, even that I was not going to be allowed to get on with what needed to be done," Byford told CBS in an exit interview. (It's not like Byford doesn't have a high tolerance for mind-numbing bureaucracy: His current gig is at Amtrak.)

Byford's successor, Sarah Feinberg, had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic decimating subway ridership by 90 percent, and also appeared susceptible to extreme political pressure coming from the governor's office. During the 2021 mayoral primary, Feinberg essentially issued a rank-choice ballot favoring all the candidates who advocated for having more police on the subways—a rare and "inappropriate" instance of a government agency officially interfering with the political system.

Anyone taking the NYCTA president job post-Byford is also assuming his denuded role within the agency, perhaps making it a tougher position to fill, because you still have all the pressure of dealing with the MTA board, the MTA CEO, the governor, the mayor, the labor unions, and of course, the public, without the commensurate power to enact change. "That's just the reality of the governing structure now at the MTA," Fauss said. "There's always that tension between having an operations expert and someone who wants to be a figurehead. Finding the right person who is comfortable with the role and the public perception of it is tricky."

Lisa Daglian of the Permanent Citizens Advisory to the MTA, wasn't too concerned about Davey's possible departure for congestion pricing, because, as she put it, "the stage is set."

"He is not the only thing that's going to make this happen. It was in the works before him and it will continue after he's gone," Daglian said.

As for Davey's inability to level with riders on whether he'll take the gig or not, Daglian suggested that we should give the NYCTA president, who took home $360,000 in pay last year, some grace.

"I don't know if you've ever been on an interview where you're one of two candidates, which sucks. But you know that you are in really good company as being one of those two candidates, and it's really stressful."

If Davey does leave, we'll wish him well, but perhaps MTA CEO Janno Lieber and Governor Kathy Hochul should sit down and figure out how to keep a transit authority president for at least five years—which happens to be the same amount of time it took to implement congestion pricing.

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