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William Wheeler, New York Mass Transit Visionary, Dies at 69

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William Wheeler, New York Mass Transit Visionary, Dies at 69

By Sam Roberts
Oct. 31, 2018

William M. Wheeler, who as a New York mass transit official oversaw the strategic planning that inaugurated the MetroCard, belatedly spawned the first phase of the Second Avenue subway and dared, by recommending countdown clocks, to introduce the presumption that subways and buses would arrive punctually, died on Saturday at his home in Tarrytown, N.Y. He was 69.

The cause was coronary artery disease, which had previously been undetected, his son, William Wheeler III, said

As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s deputy director of strategic planning from 1986 to 1992, director of planning and development for the next decade and, since 2002, director of special project development and planning, Mr. Wheeler did not have much of a public profile, but he was persuasive privately within the agency and before its board.

Long before sandhogs bored the tunnels he conceived or highway workers installed barriers to unclog the bus lanes he championed, Mr. Wheeler assembled the statistical nuts and bolts needed to assess the region’s future transportation needs.

“Since starting with the M.T.A. in 1986, Bill has been integral to the success of every aspect of change in mass transit in the New York metropolitan area,” Joseph J. Lhota, the authority’s chairman, said in an email.

Among the accomplishments for which Mr. Lhota credited Mr. Wheeler were helping to develop the MetroCard and its projected successor payment system; the elimination of two-fare subway zones; helping to secure federal financing for the Fulton Transit Center in Lower Manhattan; and assisting with plans to sell developers the rights to build over the Atlantic and Hudson train yards, to resume the long-delayed construction of the Second Avenue subway, and to extend the Flushing line, which stops at the stadiums where Met games and Unites States Open tennis matches are held, to the West Side of Manhattan.

While some of his colleagues worried about a signal outage or moving a stalled train during the morning rush hour, Mr. Wheeler was figuring out how much New York’s population would grow in the next 20 years, where those people would live and work, how and when they would get there, and what it would take for the M.T.A. to meet the projected demand.

He and his team determined that commuting was taking place beyond traditional rush hours; that members of the so-called millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, as well as aging baby boomers were becoming less dependent on cars and living closer to downtowns; and that more so-called reverse commuters were traveling between the boroughs and the suburbs.

“He understood that the M.T.A.’s mass transit and commuter rail systems had to adapt to new patterns of work and housing,” Prof. Mitchell L. Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, said in an email.

While focusing on long-range projects like the Long Island Rail Road’s access to the East Side of Manhattan, he also advocated quick fixes to squeeze more capacity from the region’s current resources, such as upgrading signals, speeding bus service, adding more transfer points and entrances to speed boarding, and posting waiting times for subways and buses to enable passengers to make travel decisions on the spot.

“People want things done in their commuting lifetime; we can’t simply identify corridors or new subway lines and expect that will solve a problem,” he told Progressive Railroading magazine in 2013. “We need to be more surgical with our existing network.”

His forecasts were usually correct — even if the board members he reported to didn’t always follow his advice, and even if the city and state officials who appointed the board failed to finance his recommendations.

Mr. Wheeler embraced farsighted solutions, among them linking transportation planning to retail, office and residential development and requiring the owners of property adjacent to new subway lines to pay for improvements. He questioned whether subsidizing most ferries was worth the cost considering the number of passengers they carried.

But he acknowledged that transportation planning was often determined by political expediency as much as by the practicalities of moving people from one place to another. As an example, Mr. Wheeler, who regularly commuted to work in Manhattan from Westchester on the Metro-North Railroad and the subway, cited the difficulty of reallocating city streets for bus lanes or other purposes.

“It’s hard,” he told streetsblognyc in 2013. “The only thing more important than owning a gun in the United States is having a parking spot.”

William Moyer Wheeler Jr. was born on Sept. 24, 1949, in Braintree, Mass. His father was an engineer for a manufacturing company. His mother, Betty Jane Reid, was a teacher.

After graduating from Haddon Heights High School in New Jersey, he received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Marietta College in Ohio, a master’s in public administration specializing in urban affairs from American University in Washington, and a master of science degree from Manhattan College School of Engineering in the Bronx.

Before joining the M.T.A., he was a transportation planner for the City of Yonkers and director of planning for the Westchester transportation department. Since 1983, he had also directed the central staff of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council.

In 1972, he married Diane Grisanti. She died in 2013. In addition to his son, he is survived by his daughter, Joanna Marie Wheeler; his mother; a brother, Jon Wheeler; and a sister, Wendy Wheeler.


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Thanks for posting. I had never heard of him. The only thing I had previously heard about him was MetroCard. Looks like he was involved in much more. 

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Sounds like he was very good at the big picture thinking, which is a shockingly rare skill nowadays. Very impressive 


They had a funny joke on SNL Weekend Update about him this week: "The inventor of the Metrocard died this week...waiting for the L train"

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