National News

Nearly 6 Months on the Job, the Subway Chief Finally Meets the Mayor

Posted July 10, 2018 6:48 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — For nearly six months, the mayor of New York City did not meet with the man responsible for fixing his city’s failing subway. In fact, Mayor Bill de Blasio had not even spoken with Andy Byford, the subway’s leader, since Byford arrived in New York in January.

Tuesday, the two finally met at City Hall.

It might seem odd that de Blasio did not call Byford the first time the subway melted down on his watch or the dozens of times since then that the system unraveled, leaving many of its nearly 6 million daily riders stranded.

But this is New York, and the politics surrounding the subway are almost as dysfunctional as the system itself.

The fact that Byford had not heard from the mayor — revealed in a recent article in The New Yorker — was shocking to some subway riders and even to Byford himself. “Bit weird,” he said. “I should ring him up.”

“The mayor should be rooting for Byford along with the rest of us,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, adding that a meeting would be a “gesture of good will.”

Shortly before 3 p.m. Tuesday, Byford climbed the steps to City Hall trailed by a phalanx of cameras. Byford said the hourlong meeting went well and they discussed Byford’s ambitious plan to overhaul the subway.

“I pushed him very hard on the need for funding over the next 10 years and the need for there to be substantial contributions from the city,” Byford told reporters after the meeting, noting that he and de Blasio agreed to regular meetings — at least four times a year.

The radio silence from de Blasio before Tuesday had prompted another familiar round of finger-pointing between de Blasio and his inescapable foe Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The mayor’s office said that members of de Blasio’s administration had spoken with Byford and that it was Cuomo’s duty to fix the subway because he controls the system.

“If the suggestion is that the mayor and Mr. Byford splitting a croissant at some point would have a governor-run system fixed, I’m skeptical of that logic,” the mayor’s spokesman, Eric Phillips, said in a statement before the meeting.

There were no croissants at Tuesday’s meeting, but there was a bowl of Hershey’s chocolates and discussion over the World Cup, the mayor’s office said. The mayor reiterated his support for a tax on wealthy New Yorkers to pay for subway improvements.

“The Mayor pledged his support for Mr. Byford” and his subway overhaul plan, the mayor’s office said, and wished him “success in his challenging mission.”

Still, Cuomo had criticized de Blasio for not caring about the “lifeblood of the city.”

Cuomo told reporters last week, “The fact that he hasn’t met with Mr. Byford is consistent with his total removal from the New York City subway system.”

Even James S. Oddo, the Staten Island borough president, said he had met with Byford, who also oversees buses and paratransit operations, though Oddo represents the only borough without a subway stop.

“I have had numerous conversations with Andy Byford, in person and on the phone,” Oddo said on Twitter. “And we (Staten Island) don’t even have a subway.”

It is true that Cuomo, a Democrat who might be considering a presidential run in 2020, controls the subway. It is also true that de Blasio, who is also a Democrat, has been happy to let him take the heat for the subway crisis.

But subway leaders and mayors have often worked together, especially during moments of crisis or on critical projects. During the system’s nadir in the 1980s, Richard Ravitch, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s chairman, met regularly with then-mayor Edward Koch. Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered to pay for the 7 line extension to Hudson Yards on the Far West Side of Manhattan and joined transit officials for an inaugural ride before he left office.

For New Yorkers who rely on the subway, the constant delays are maddening. Nearly a year after the authority began work on an emergency “Subway Action Plan” to make immediate fixes to the system, there is no clear evidence that service is improving. Cuomo is now trying to drag de Blasio into paying for a significant piece of Byford’s ambitious overhaul plan, which he unveiled in May, that could cost $19 billion over its first five years.

Stuck in the middle is Byford, an affable Brit who is widely respected among rail experts and won praise in his previous job running Toronto’s transit network. One MTA board member joked that Byford was Superman — hellbent on saving the subway — and his kryptonite was New York’s thorny politics.

The mayor’s office said it had reached out to Byford on May 9 to schedule a meeting — before the publication of The New Yorker article — but it had taken a while to set up a meeting. Last week, Byford had to reiterate his support from the governor after the article mentioned that Byford also recently had trouble getting a meeting with Cuomo.

“The governor interviewed me and hired me,” Byford said. “I meet with the governor often; I speak with him regularly. The governor fully supports the Fast Forward plan, which we are extremely happy about.”

Byford’s puzzlement over the mayor’s response makes sense. In Toronto and London — the two other major cities where he has worked — the mayors essentially run the subway.

In New York, the governor has controlled the transportation authority since the 1960s. Cuomo, however, has taken an unusually hands-on role at the agency, becoming closely involved in its operations and capital projects.

The mayor’s detachment is a bit unusual, especially given the subway’s dismal state. Ravitch, who helped turn the subway around, said he regularly had dinner with Koch. The men were friendly, even if they criticized each other in public.

“That was a totally different relationship,” Ravitch said. “It was collegial.” Ravitch, who later served as lieutenant governor and has consulted with transit leaders in the past, said Byford had made no efforts to meet with him — an invite he would happily accept. The system needs more money, but elected leaders are loathe to approve a new funding stream, Ravitch said.

“No politician likes to enact taxes,” Ravitch said.

Transit groups have repeatedly tried to increase the pressure on Cuomo, who has said he wants to pay for Byford’s plan by persuading state lawmakers to approve congestion pricing — a proposal to toll drivers entering the busiest corridors of Manhattan.

John Raskin, the executive director of the Riders Alliance, an advocacy group, said subway riders do not really care when Byford meets with de Blasio.

“There’s symbolic value to the mayor meeting with the guy who runs the subway,” he said. “But the mayor can’t actually fix the subway. The governor can.”