Subways have arrived just a little faster over the last two years, and those trains have carried more passengers. New projects were developed, as was a different approach to getting people around, even if some — like the Bronx bus redesign — have met with mixed reactions from riders.
While many have tried to improve the city’s buses and trains for decades, Andy Byford spearheaded recent efforts. He’s the president of the New York City Transit Authority, the city transit-focused branch of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which also maintains some highways, bridges and tunnels.
Byford was hired in 2018 after successful stints in London and Toronto. But last month, Byford surprised the transit community by announcing his resignation, setting Feb. 21 as his last day on the job.
During his tenure, on-time rates for buses and trains jumped from being a coin flip to 80 percent. He also introduced the “Fast Forward” plan, which included introducing new payment systems — like the touch-less OMNY — bus redesigns, more accessible subway stops, and even modernizing near-century-old signaling on the L and 7 trains, dramatically increasing how often they’re on-time.
Byford has also been one of the most visible public leaders in the city, regularly spotted on trains — donning a tag with his name on it — attending meetings across the city, and taking part in events like the annual Transit Tour, which kicked off from Van Cortlandt Park-242nd Street in August.
“The outreach by Byford was really good, the communication, he was responsive,” said Councilman Andrew Cohen, who found himself in the middle of the debate late last year over proposed express bus service cuts between the Bronx and Manhattan.
“There really is no better example than I was extremely unhappy about the express bus service, and he heard our concerns, and he addressed them. That sort of relationship is very meaningful, so I’m sorry to see him go.”
Even when riders have something to complain about, many have found Byford to be quite approachable, even if he was responsible for getting more than 7 million passengers to their destinations each day. In fact, he told The Riverdale Press last August that he was “honored” to have been invited to the Transit Tour.
“It’s consistent with what I do every day,” Byford said. “It’s about talking to customers, which is the essence of my job.”
Byford’s fans even have a nickname for him — “Train Daddy” on social media.
While Byford’s loss is hard, Cohen says there’s too much to be focused on transit-wide to mourn for long.
“We can’t fail here, we need to get this right,” he said. “We need to get new capital projects, modernize the signal system, get our buses moving. It can’t be just about Andy Byford.”
Still, his projects are already in motion. Byford played a significant role in developing the most recent five-year capital project plan, which went into effect Jan. 1. That included a number of station improvements, including the construction of elevators at a number of stations, including some along the 1 train line in the Bronx.
While it runs almost entirely within city limits, the MTA is in fact a state agency, controlled mostly by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature. Byford and Cuomo’s relationship was strained, reportedly, and Byford even suggested in his resignation letter that reducing his role in the projects he helped design may have encouraged him to depart.
But Byford does appear to have put together at least some lasting legacy. Improving vital signals and purchasing new train cars will continue to improve performance, the MTA said in a statement, and three new executive positions — including a “chief innovation officer” and a “chief transformation officer” — are expected to shepherd projects forward.
In the Bronx, bus riders will see changes to bus lines by fall aimed at improving speed and efficiency. Four Bronx subway stations are also slated for refit, bringing them up to standards called for by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.
City council Speaker Corey Johnson has proposed moving the MTA completely under city control — a move some believe could have preserved Byford’s position. But even with Byford leaving, Cohen believes such a move should be considered.
“I don’t know exactly how every detail would work,” the councilman said, but “every time that the MTA has come looking to the City of New York for more money, I have felt that that should be in exchange for some control.”
While swiping MetroCards or using OMNY provide most of the funding for the system, the city still has very little control over what happens in the long run.
“Does it have to be full municipal control?” Cohen asked. “I think that’s a conversation to be had. I certainly don’t think the balance is right now.”
No one has been named to fill Byford’s position yet, although it is expected that announcement could come later this month.
“We have to find someone good,” Cohen said. “If they don’t find the right person, we need to call out the MTA, call out the governor, and say it’s not acceptable. We just have to get the right person.
“Failure is not an option.”