Five Takeaways from Andy Byford’s WNYC Interview

Andy Byford and a friend. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit
Andy Byford and a friend. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

New York City Transit President Andy Byford dropped by for a session with WNYC’s Powerful Official Whisperer Brian Lehrer on Wednesday for a wide-ranging chat on transit service, fare hikes, Amazon and, of course, Gov. Cuomo (who chatted with Lehrer earlier in the week).

Here are the five things you need to know about Byford’s comments:

He will fight service cuts

Early in the interview, Lehrer mentioned reports that the MTA is not only preparing for a scheduled fare hike next year, but will undertake service cuts. Byford pushed back.

“You mentioned service cuts. That is anathema to me,” he said. “I did not come here to preside over that.”

Later, he went deeper.

“I have vetoed certain proposals to close this gap that I felt were Draconian in terms of service,” he said. “That [cutting service] is the worst thing to do as we are trying to get people back on transit. And it’s unreasonable to make a double whammy of fare hikes and service cuts.”

He should probably be running the U.N.

Byford is a great diplomat. Even when given constant opportunities to complain about the MTA board, Gov. Cuomo or others, he takes the high road. Lehrer, for his part, tried to draw Byford into the latest controversy unleashed earlier in the week by Cuomo, who said he opposes a fare hike and that the MTA is rife with inefficiencies and waste. Lehrer even played a tape of Cuomo basically blaming the Cuomo-controlled MTA for everything, including its very structure.
But Byford wasn’t biting.
“I’m not going to interpret what the governor says,” Byford stated. “The way I look at it, I have plenty to get on with in terms of sorting out New York City Transit. We are doing something about governance at the MTA. We have task forces about procurement and the base cost of capital projects because people have rightly asked about those costs. New Yorkers don’t want me to get involved in the politics, but to get on with the nitty gritty … of moving eight million people a day. And most people most days are not delayed. And I salute the 50,000 people of NYC Transit who make that happen.

“I’m surprised people talk about accountability. I am crystal clear who I report to: The MTA board,” he added. “Is it transparent? Yes. All our business is done in public. We have publicly available metrics. Huge numbers of data are available to the public.”
When asked about Cuomo’s complaint of waste, Byford again kept his cool.
“It’s easy to throw around comments like ‘waste’ and ‘inefficiency.’ I deal with data. We are continually looking to take out costs where we can. … My job is to run the place efficiently. … The MTA has delivered something like $2 billion in efficiencies in recent years. There undoubtedly is more to find [and] it is incumbent on us to do more.
“We should leave no stone unturned,” he added, when Lehrer specifically asked about allegedly high-paid transit executives. “We are recipients of public funding and we need to make sure we are spending those dollars wisely. I am impressed by the work ethic of my colleagues. There is a perception that we are time markers. I don’t see that at all. In any organization of 50K there are inefficiencies … but people work very hard.
“I am continually looking … to focus on what matters: The basics of providing safe, punctual and clean public transit,” he added.

He did not lobby Amazon to come here

Byford pushed back on a report on Tuesday by the Times that he told Amazon that Long Island City was a transit “wonderland.”
“I was asked to go and brief them on the existing transit network,” Byford said. “In and around, there are eight lines, buses and ferries. And I briefed them on what is coming. The new signaling system on the 7 line. Resignaling the Queens boulevard line. So we can add service. … My assignment was to go in and brief them in a matter-of-fact way. I was not involved in the negotiations.”
That said, he put a positive spin on Amazon’s plans to open a massive headquarters in Queens.
“It’s good news that Amazon has confidence in the existing service that they chose to come here,” he said.
The new signals on the 7 train will allow capacity to increase by two trains per hour, he said. And there will be similar improvements under Queens Boulevard, he added. “It’s all budgeted,” he said.

He thinks he’s doing a good job

Byford took over in January. Riders think the system is cursed. And ridership is down. Byford’s first course of action was stabilization and small improvements to show transit riders that things are moving in the right direction. He says he’s done that.
“The three things I’m most proud of: within 100 days of my arrival, we put together … a vision, a road map to what New York really needs: fundamentally overhauling the infrastructure and the culture,” he said.
Byford and a customer shortly after he took over the subways and buses in January, 2018. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Byford and a customer shortly after he took over the subways and buses in January, 2018. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

“Also, we have introduced a completely new way of running our stations to provide very visible, accountable management.”

He said the third thing was “an all-out, relentless focus on basics.”

“The thing that was missing was operational discipline, the nitty-gritty for getting it right,” he said, using a term he employed at least three times in a 20-minute interview. “In October, we delivered the best operating performance for three years on weekdays and four years on weekends. Track fires, down. The number of major incidents, down. For the second month in a row, the target I unilaterally imposed — 10,000 fewer delay incidents — was met.

“There is so much more to do,” he added. “And people see me on the trains every day and say it’s getting better, but the job is way incomplete.”

He admitted that most riders don’t see improvements yet.

“And I get that,” he said. “First off, there’s always a lag between what the data says and what customers feel. And the fact is we’re doing so much work to fix tracks, to fix drains, etc, there are so many personnel on the tracks and that delays trains. I genuinely feel we’re on the right track, but the view that counts is that of my customers.”

He has no use for Manhattan DA Cy Vance

When Byford was asked about fare evasion, he brought up Manhattan DA Cy Vance’s decision earlier this year to stop prosecuting fare evaders — not that the rail-riding diplomat mentioned Vance by name, opting for extremely passive voice for his criticism.

“The DA for Manhattan did announce that there would be a different approach taken to the prosecution of fare evasion. And that has had an impact,” Byford said. He declined to put a dollar figure on how badly NYCT is hurt by riders who don’t pay, saying he will make a full analysis available next month. But he did reiterate his commitment — and not just his personal commitment — to stopping fare evaders where Vance is failing to.

“Fare evasion is a crime,” he said, saying that an enforcement squad known as the Eagle team would soon be spreading out from Select Bus Service enforcement to “regular routes to make sure people have paid their fare.”

“It’s only fair to the great majority of New Yorkers who do pay their fare. … We are certainly not being passive to it,” he said.

 

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