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Tough Choices During Time of Transition for M.T.A. Director


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Tough Choices During Time of Transition for M.T.A. Director



October 27, 2008



Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Elliot G. Sander, executive director

of the Metropolitan Transportation

Authority.[/float]It is often said that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the sprawling agency that runs the city’s buses, subways and commuter railroads, was created to shield governors and mayors, allowing them to take credit in good times and dodge responsibility when times are bad.


Times are now very bad, and the authority’s executive director, Elliot G. Sander, might suddenly seem a very lonely man. Standing at the head of an agency with a ballooning deficit and rapidly shrinking tax revenue, Mr. Sander, 52, who goes by Lee, has only unpopular choices before him: to cut service, raise fares or, most likely, do both.


“Lee is forced to tread a very difficult and sometimes confusing line between the political realities of the day and the fiscal realities of the day, and that is a very difficult line to be straight on sometimes,” said Mitchell H. Pally, a member of the authority’s board.


The crisis comes at a time of transition for the authority and Mr. Sander’s office.


For decades, the power at the authority centered not on the executive director, but on the board chairman, a post held at times by civic lions like Richard Ravitch or politically connected businessmen like Peter S. Kalikow. But a 2005 law made the chairman’s job, which has a fixed six-year term, more advisory and shifted control over policy and day-to-day decisions to the executive director.


When Mr. Sander took over the authority in January 2007, he became the first executive director to take full advantage of the expanded powers. But Mr. Sander’s position is also something of an unwieldy hybrid: he has much of the power once held by the chairman, but not the broad sway and job security that comes with a fixed term and a vote on the board.


Though Mr. Sander is an employee of the board, he serves at the behest of the governor and can be removed at any time. And the governor he serves today is not the one who appointed him: his friend Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Though Mr. Sander says he has a strong relationship with Mr. Spitzer’s replacement, Gov. David A. Paterson, the two are clearly not as close.


Richard L. Brodsky, a Westchester assemblyman who helped lead the push for the 2005 change in the authority’s structure, now worries that it was a mistake. Having no fixed term, he says, might undercut Mr. Sander’s ability to make demands of the governor, who is struggling to close his own widening budget shortfall.


“Lee has been a very good C.E.O.-slash-executive director at a time when that was needed to get the M.T.A. functioning again,” Mr. Brodsky said. “But it also needed a 400-pound gorilla who didn’t need the job and could say ‘No’ to governors, and I don’t think Lee ever thought of himself as having that job.”


An intensely focused man who seldom strays far from his central policy themes, Mr. Sander has a long résumé of transportation experience. In the mid-1980s he was in charge of the authority’s Manhattan bus operations. He was city transportation commissioner from 1994 to 1996 and later built a coalition of business, labor and civic groups, the Empire State Transportation Alliance, to promote financing for transportation projects. He went on to work as an executive at the engineering firm DMJM Harris.


He still makes it a point of pride to ride the Long Island Rail Road to work most days from his home in Douglaston, Queens, the borough where he was born. He also travels the transit system widely to meet with workers.


He has won praise for improving relations with the authority’s unions and taking steps to improve communication with the public, including a program being developed to send riders text messages about service disruptions. He has also tried to make the management of the subway system more responsive to riders and has seen strong improvements in the punctuality of trains on the Long Island Rail Road.


“With Lee you get what you see, which is a transportation professional who is committed to providing the best service he can at a reasonable price,” said Gene Russianoff, the staff lawyer of the Straphangers Campaign, a transit advocacy group. “Those are core principles for him.”


But critics point to the times Mr. Sander has not managed to strike the right tone or not seemed to grasp the political effects of his actions. He also sometimes seems keenly aware of being the authority’s almost-chairman.


As part of his effort to establish himself as the public face of the authority, Mr. Sander has hung his photograph prominently on a wall outside the boardroom in the authority’s Madison Avenue headquarters, which previously held only the pictures of authority chairmen, past and present.


And last October, when the departing chairman, Mr. Kalikow, moved out of his large office suite at authority headquarters, Mr. Sander quickly moved into the space, which has a private bathroom and attached conference room, before the new chairman, H. Dale Hemmerdinger, could take possession.


Then in the spring, after the authority increased fares and tolls, Mr. Sander gave himself a $10,000 raise, bringing his total compensation to about $350,000, a move that drew criticism when it was reported. (Mr. Sander is scheduled for a raise, of 3 percent, again next year: “As to whether I will take it or accept it, that’s something that I haven’t decided upon,” he said in an interview this month. “It’s possible given our circumstances I might not.”)


Mr. Sander has also sometimes appeared to overreach, critics say. After fares went up in March, he announced that the authority’s finances were sound enough to allow it to go ahead with a broad program of service improvements. But three weeks later, he abruptly canceled the improvements when tax revenue from real estate transactions plummeted.


Such missteps may be part of the normal learning curve for someone running such a huge operation and, if so, their significance diminishes next to the monumental tasks presented by the fiscal crisis. In July, the authority predicted a deficit for next year of $900 million, prompting Mr. Sander to call for an 8 percent increase in fare and toll revenues and additional financing from the state and city. Since then, conditions have worsened, and Mr. Sander says he may have to raise fares and tolls even more at the same time that he cuts service.


Yet as the time of reckoning approaches, there are those, like Mr. Brodsky, who fear that consolidating power in the executive director’s office has weakened the authority. But Mr. Sander said that not being chairman had not been a hindrance.


Asked if he felt able to assert his independence from the governor’s office as some past chairmen have, Mr. Sander chose his words with evident care.


“In terms of my conscience,” he said, “I have always made decisions in my role as a public servant consistent with my values and principles.”


Mr. Sander said that his job was to convince the public of the urgency of the problem, a task that is more difficult because the transit system runs fairly well today, in contrast to its last major crisis, in the 1980s, when it was on the verge of collapse.


“It’s not easy to immediately grab the public’s attention, because fundamentally it’s not broken the way it was before,” he said.


Tim Gilchrist, Mr. Paterson’s deputy secretary for economic development and infrastructure, said that the governor showed his support for Mr. Sander by putting him on a special commission formed to recommend solutions to the authority’s chronic financial problems. The commission, which is headed by Mr. Ravitch, the former authority chairman, is due to submit a report in December, shortly before the authority must pass its 2009 budget.


“He’s in a very tough situation now, he’s understood it early on, he’s addressed it early on,” Mr. Gilchrist said of Mr. Sander. “He’s recognized difficult times are coming and he’s recognized that working cooperatively with people rather than challenging people is the way to get things done.”


Mr. Gilchrist added, “The true sign of a manager is in the face of a fiscal crisis, and Lee will show people that he can be a tough manager.”

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