As New York City’s subway system, the nation’s largest, winds its way out of a pandemic that has drained it of millions of riders and the prices they pay, it will have a new permanent manager for the first time in more than two years.
Richard A. Davey, a former Massachusetts transportation minister who once headed Boston’s transit system, was named the next president of the New York City Transit, the agency that operates the city’s subway and buses and is a division of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Mr. Davey, 48, who currently advises transit systems around the world as a partner at Boston Consulting Group, will take the reins in one of the most difficult moments in the metro’s 117-year history, as it faces an existential question: How many of its pre-pandemic riders return, and when?
As New York continues to take cautious steps toward post-pandemic normality, top officials, from the governor to the mayor to big business leaders, agree that a robust subway is crucial to the region’s economy and its recovery.
In an interview, Mr. Davey, who takes over the transit agency on May 2, the challenges, but said the central role that the subway and buses played in the city was something that drew him to the job.
“New York is a city that is so heavily dependent on its transit system,” he said. “And if the transit system does not work, then New York will not work.”
His first priority, he added, will be to increase the number of riders and lure riders back whose fares are crucial to the financing of the metro’s operation.
Before March 2020, New York’s subway carried about 5.5 million people on an average weekday. As decommissioning orders sent students and workers home, leaving other unemployed and keeping tourists away, the metro’s passenger numbers fell by more than 90 percent. The bus system, whose riders are more likely to come from predominantly low-income, minority or immigrant neighborhoods, saw a drop in the number of passengers by close to 80 percent.
More than two years later, the system is still struggling. Last week, the metro hovered at about 58 percent of the pre-pandemic passenger number, while the bus rider number stood at about 62 percent. Under current projections, metro equestrianism is not expected to reach 86 percent of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
New York City Subway
But with more companies adopting a hybrid work schedule, many of the riders starting to refill public transportation will no longer be typical commuters five days a week.
The depressed number of riders has created a looming financial crisis for the public transport agency. Prior to the pandemic, the MTA raised 38 percent of its revenue from fares, a relatively high percentage compared to other major U.S. transit systems.
Although federal pandemic aid has helped the transportation authority postpone price increases and avoid drastic service cuts, its latest financial plan predicts a $ 500 million deficit by 2025 that will rise to about $ 2 billion by 2026.
Janno Lieber, MTA’s chairman and CEO, said the system’s growing problems led the agency to seek someone with experience in operating a complex transit system, clear political debates and tackle financial problems.
“We are facing a new reality when we come out of the pandemic,” said Mr. Lieber. “And it’s the right time to have someone who’s looked at things broadly.”
MTA can not force back to daily commuting. But Mr. Davey said he planned to focus on the factors within its control: reliable service, public safety and trust in the system.
“We can not ask employers to bring employees back,” he said. “But on the flip side, if employees do not feel safe or we do not provide good service, they do not want to return.”
While monitoring the Boston system, Mr. Davey criticized for implementing tariff increases that some proponents of transit said burdened the working class and older people and for not doing more to reduce delays. Davey has worked in the private sector in recent years, and he has focused on transportation issues, but he has not managed the day-to-day running of a public transportation agency for a decade.
Although he has spent most of his life in Massachusetts, Mr. Davey is not inexperienced with the New York transit system. He worked at a law firm in Manhattan from 1999 to 2002 and commuted daily by subway from the Upper East Side.
In 2003, Mr. Davey to work for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company in Boston, which operated the Boston area commuter rail system. After becoming general manager there, in 2010 he was hired to head the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the transit system that serves greater Boston.
New York City’s transit system dwarfs Boston. Da Mr. Davey was in charge, overseeing about 6,000 employees, and Boston’s subways, buses, and railroads carried about 1.3 million riders every weekday.
But Mr. Davey said he believed the two systems were similar as well.
“Boston and New York are the oldest systems in the United States,” he said. “So maintenance and lack of capital investment were some of the big problems there.”
Josh Ostroff, the interim director of Transportation for Massachusetts, an advocacy group, said Mr. Davey inherited a system that was fraught with debt and had been in a prolonged state of decay.
“He was able to convey the urgent message to legislators, to the public and to local bourgeois leaders,” Mr Ostroff said. “And he helped gather support for legislation that ultimately helped.”
He also built a reputation for engaging with riders and listening to their complaints. Mr. Davey abandoned his car more than ten years ago and relied on Boston’s transit system to commute. “He’s gotten out there more than any general manager we’ve ever seen,” a watchdog group told Boston.com in 2011.
Mr. Davey is also no stranger to leading a transit organization caught in political crossfire. By the time he led Boston’s system, elected officials had for years made economic decisions that strengthened their political priorities, but left the transit system starving for money for upgrades, Mr Ostroff said.
New York City Transit has faced similar headwinds. The agency has been without a permanent chief since February 2020, when Andy Byford, then the leader, resigned after repeated clashes with Andrew M. Cuomo, then governor.
Like Mr. Davey took Mr. Byford the responsibility for the subway in a moment of crisis in 2018, where many years of political and financial neglect had made the service reliably unreliable and got Mr. Cuomo to declare a state of emergency in the system. Da Mr. Byford traveled, he received high praise for helping reverse the decline.
Mr. Davey had a positive relationship with Boston Mayor and Governor; they both supported his final management of the city’s failed 2024 Olympics.
But at the transit agency and as Massachusetts’ secretary of transportation from 2011 to 2014, he pushed for politically unpopular policies to seek support from skeptical lawmakers, Mr. Ostroff said.
Among them was an effort that led to an increase in the gas tax to help fund transit and repair of roads, and tariff increases that Mr. Davey said were needed to close MBTA’s financial deficit while maintaining service.
“I can not say that all riders loved him because he had bad news,” Mr Ostroff said. “But he was able to get lawmakers and the other leaders behind him.”
In New York, Mr. Davey that he would try to minimize potential price increases and service cuts. But he will be open to adjusting metro operations and bus routes to change travel patterns as the city emerges from the pandemic.
Mr. Davey will also approach the job with the perspective of someone who has studied international transit systems closely, including New York. In 2017, he worked as a consultant on the Subway Action Plan, a $ 800 million rescue plan that helped stabilize the system.