bye-ford

Subway and Bus Boss Andy Byford’s Transit Triumphs and Unfinished Business

Andy Byford attends a 2019 MTA board meeting.
Andy Byford attends a 2019 MTA board meeting. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Andy Byford headed for the exits of the MTA Thursday, resigning after a two-year tenure in which he got a subway turnaround chugging while struggling to navigate New York’s political minefield.

The British transit veteran arrived from Toronto in January 2018, saying he was “pinching himself” over being named president of New York City Transit — an agency coming out of the so-called “Summer of Hell” amid declining subway and bus ridership and commuter rage.

“What I would hope is that I am allowed the time and the space to do what I need to do,” Byford said at the time.

As Byford gets set to leave next month, THE CITY examined some of the gains made during his term, whose ending went public via a Politico article while MTA officials were behind closed doors at their monthly board meeting.

Byford’s sudden resignation — his second and, likely, last from the MTA — also signals the challenges ahead for his yet-be-named successor, who will become the seventh boss of New York City Transit in 13 years and have to deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Here’s a look at some of Byford’s transit triumphs and the unfinished business facing his replacement:

Train Performance Back on Track

Byford’s first month on the job, January 2018, marked a low point for the subway, with just 58% of trains running on time, a performance partly pinned on brutal weather.

But after pulling off some short-term fixes  — including boosting subway car maintenance and signal repairs —  Byford will depart with the system on an upswing: Weekday on-time performance has topped 80% for seven straight months, while weekday delays have fallen 40%.

A W train sits at the Whitehall station in Manhattan, Feb. 27, 2019.
A W train sits at the Whitehall station in Manhattan, Feb. 27, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Subway ridership, meanwhile, has reversed with six straight months of increases following several years of declines.

Making the Sale on Signals

From the start, Byford prioritized pricey and time-consuming signal upgrades that would allow trains to run more frequently. Only the L and No. 7 lines have modern signal systems.

“You can’t have gain without the pain” of temporary service disruptions that accompany signal upgrades, he repeatedly told New Yorkers.

An example of the MTA's antiquated signal system.
An example of the MTA’s antiquated signal system. Photo: Lenny Wiggins/MTA New York City Transit

Cuomo was openly skeptical of Byford’s plans to modernize signals. Still, the transit chief secured a $7.1 billion commitment in the MTA’s new record five-year $51 billion Capital Program to install new signal systems along sections of six subway lines.

In the interim, Byford pushed to accelerate trains in dozens of sections of the subway by raising speed limits where faulty signal timers had been slowing service.

Subway Elevators on the Rise

Byford pledged to install elevators at 50 subway stops as part of his 2018 “Fast Forward” plan to modernize a system where about 75% of the 472 stations are inaccessible to riders with disabilities.

Commuters utilize an elevator on a platform at the Times Square-42nd Street station, July 19, 2019.
Commuters utilize an elevator on a platform at the Times Square-42nd Street station, July 19, 2019. Photo: Jose Martinez /THE CITY

He departs after the elevators plan was upped to 70 stations under the MTA’s new $51 billion capital plan.

“He put that on the front-burner, he got the complexity of it,”said Ellyn Shannon, of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.

A Matter of Trust

Arriving at a low point, with the system in a “state of emergency” declared by Cuomo, Byford set out  to restore riders’ faith.

He attended town hall meetings in each borough, rode the subway daily while wearing an MTA nametag and improved social media communications with disgruntled riders. He even recently earned the nickname “Train Daddy.”

“Byford’s priorities aligned with riders’ priorities,” said David Bragdon, executive director of TransitCenter, an advocacy organization.

“When was the last time an average New Yorker on the street knew the name of the head of a transit agency?” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.

A Big Job Ahead

The MTA is in the midst of a so-called “Transformation Plan” that could ultimately cut 2,700 jobs, while eroding the power of agency heads like Byford in favor of consolidation.

Multiple sources told THE CITY he had balked at losing control of some of the priorities outlined in the Fast Forward plan, including signal and engineering projects.

Byford’s successor also will have contend with a more immediate yet eternal MTA problem: having the necessary funds to keep maintenance and service at existing levels.

“So with all this capital investment, they’re going to have a brand-new shiny system and not enough money to maintain it,” said John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union. “If they don’t fix that problem, this implosion that we witnessed two years ago, it’s going to occur again and it will just continue with this cycle.”

Clashing With Cuomo

After Feb. 21 — Byford’s last day on the job — his successor will have to steer around the political pitfalls at an MTA largely controlled by Cuomo.

The two were often at odds, as evidenced by Byford’s brief resignation in October.

Last year, the MTA sidelined Byford on plans to shut the L line’s East River tunnel for a massive rebuilding after Cuomo pushed for a repair plan that would keep the trains running.

The governor scoffed at Byford’s call for $40 billion and repeatedly criticized the MTA.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks about his transit initiatives during an Association for a Better New York luncheon, Jan. 6, 2020.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks about his transit initiatives during an Association for a Better New York luncheon, Jan. 6, 2020. Photo: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Office

Byford also found himself in the line of fire after he decided to pull nearly 300 of the system’s newest subway cars after doors opened on one moving train.

“This is an unfortunate and predictable outcome for someone who has been undermined by a politicized agency,” said Rachael Fauss, a senior analyst with the watchdog group Reinvent Albany. “He was not allowed to do his job as a professional without micromanaging from the governor’s office.”

Cuomo, for his part, said he was “fine” with Byford, noting that he does most of his mass transit talking with MTA Chair Patrick Foye.

“I’ve dealt with all sorts of situations in my life,” Cuomo told reporters Thursday. “They don’t get a rise out of me anymore.”

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