New York

Toronto transit chief tapped to run New York’s ailing subways

He will become agency’s 5th full-time leader in last 10 years
Andrew Byford, the chief executive of the Toronto Transit Commission, rides on a train in Toronto on Aug. 10, 2016.
Andrew Byford, the chief executive of the Toronto Transit Commission, rides on a train in Toronto on Aug. 10, 2016.

With New York’s century-old subway system engulfed in a crisis brought about by years of neglect and poor political decisions, a transit official from outside the United States was named on Tuesday to take over the management of the city’s subways and buses.

The decision to name Andrew Byford, the chief executive of the Toronto Transit Commission, the president of New York City Transit followed a series of recent changes in leadership at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the subway. The aim has been to restore accountability and change a culture that for years has left the system lacking adequate funding or support.

The subway has also been hampered by a high turnover rate — Byford will become the agency’s fifth full-time leader in the last 10 years.

While he earned wide praise for restoring Toronto’s once-troubled transit system, Byford may find himself hostage to forces that have in recent years proven beyond the control of any one official, with the political whims and calculations of elected officials, including governors and mayors, driving critical financial decisions that have resulted in today’s woeful state of affairs.

Joseph J. Lhota, the chairman of the authority, said Byford had been on the radar of transit officials for years — dating back to his participation in a 2014 commission appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to examine how the authority could be improved. But despite producing recommendations that are now considered essential, like investing in basic infrastructure, the commission’s findings were largely ignored. Still, when Cuomo put together a similar panel this summer, Byford was once again included.

From the outset of the search for a new leader three months ago, Byford was a top contender. He has been considered a rising star in the transportation world with a deep resume that includes stops in Sydney and London before he went to Toronto, where, Lhota said, his record of achievement convinced officials that he was up to the task.

“He knows how to change the culture of an organization,” he said. “We were looking for a certain level of transit expertise combined with the political skill and moxie.”

Cuomo met with Byford after he had received the backing of the Transportation Authority and was blunt about the challenges he would face, a conversation that Lhota said reinforced what Byford already knew.

“He is an astute student of what New York City has done and not done,” Lhota said.

Byford, in a brief telephone interview, said he was impressed by the passion both Lhota and the governor brought to the subway’s plight, but was under no illusions about the situation he is inheriting.

He was circumspect when asked about controversial topics, like congestion pricing — a plan to charge drivers in the most crowded parts of Manhattan as a way to increase subway financing — and said he wanted to avoid getting enmeshed in political feuds.

“I leave the politics to the politicians,” he said. He viewed his job as being an advocate for “sustained and sustainable” funding, but was “agnostic” about how that should be achieved.

Byford will take over an agency with a reputation for being intransigent and opaque and dominated by a political dynamic in which elected officials have used the Transportation Authority to serve their political priorities at the expense of focusing on the far less glamorous nuts and bolts needed to reliably operate an antiquated subway.

Those decisions have helped create a situation in which just 65 percent of weekday trains reach their final destination on time, the lowest rate since the transit crisis of the 1970s. Unlike the 1970s, when subways covered in graffiti became emblems of urban decay and the city faced a financial meltdown, the current problems are all the more galling to riders and advocates because they come at a time when the city is booming and flush with tax revenues.

Making solutions harder to reach is the sharp divide between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio over how to address both the short- and long-term financial needs of the subways — a conflict that Byford will likely have to learn to navigate quickly if he is to start making tangible progress.

He declined to weigh in on the matter Tuesday, and Lhota said he viewed it as his role to “insulate” Byford from such fights.

But during a news conference in Toronto, Byford acknowledged the challenges ahead, calling his new posting “arguably the toughest job in transit right now.”

Byford also acknowledged the subway’s role in the life of the city, saying that it “has driven New York City to become the bustling, successful metropolis that it is,’’ and added that it was his “responsibility to modernize the system and bring it to the high levels of performance and customer service that New Yorkers truly deserve.”

He said he first rode the New York City subway in 1994 when he was on his honeymoon and “marveled at its complexity.”

It dwarfs the system he currently oversees.

While Toronto’s transit system — the third largest in North America — carries about 1.7 million riders every weekday on its network of subways, streetcars and buses, New York City’s system serves nearly 6 million daily riders just on the subway.

In Canada, he oversaw 14,000 employees, while in New York he will manage about 50,000 workers.

Byford is a British-born alumnus of both London and Sydney’s transit networks, and this will not be his first time dealing with a system in turmoil. When he was named the head of the Toronto system, known as TTC, it was saddled with delays and overcrowding.

“There’s a recognition that the TTC, which was once an absolute jewel in the province’s crown, has lost its way through lack of investment and, I’d say, political influence over the last 30 years,” he said in an interview with Toronto Life in 2015.

Over the last several years, he has been credited with updating the system and paying more attention to addressing the needs of riders and being a transparent communicator, something Lhota has stressed is important to restoring the subway’s credibility.

One of the key innovations Byford oversaw in Toronto was the rollout of open “gangway” cars, which are separated by open, accordionlike passageways rather than doors. New York City is embracing the car design as way to create more room for subway riders and alleviate packed trains.

Byford’s plans for enhancing Toronto’s service culminated in an award this year from the American Public Transportation Association for Outstanding Transit System of the Year.

“Generally I have enjoyed Byford’s era at the TTC for bringing a view that was not part of ‘that’s how we do things here,’” said Steve Munro, a longtime transit advocate in Toronto. “He will definitely be missed as an articulate, trusted face of the TTC, especially as we are about to go through both municipal and provincial elections with the latter likely to bring in a less transit-friendly government.”

Nevertheless, Munro said that over the years, Byford had become somewhat less receptive to criticism, perhaps as a result of becoming entrenched in the bureaucracy he was brought in to change — a danger that could prove even harder to avoid in New York’s sprawling transit agency.

While giving him overall good marks, Munro said that the TTC has been working on a “ridership growth strategy” for about two years without producing anything concrete. Officials have explained the delay by saying they want to “get it right,” he said. But he suspected that “political considerations” might also be at work.

“On the political front, the CEO’s position has not been easy, but Byford has managed to hold his own against a critical audience,” he said. “Mind you, I think the Toronto media, pols and public activists are pussycats by comparison, and he may be in for a surprise.”

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