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In Pursuit of a Better, if Costlier, Subway Ride


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In Pursuit of a Better, if Costlier, Subway Ride

Elliot G. Sander



Published: September 28, 2007



Elliot Sander[/float]FROM one straphanger to another, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s executive director, Elliot G. Sander, consciously straddling the fence between polished bureaucrat (his upwardly mobile career) and put-upon proletarian (his roots in Jamaica, Queens), confides that the pending — read inevitable — bus and subway fare increase to $2.25 from $2 a trip is not his preference. But.


“I would prefer not to have a fare increase, and I want to keep the cost of transportation as far down as I can, but I am calling on our customers to basically keep up with the cost of living,” he said. “My objective is for the M.T.A. not to go into a death spiral, go where it was in the ’70s and ’80s when you had derailments, breakdowns, graffiti, track fires, you name it. This authority has been a high-wire act for the last 20 years.” Without a safety net.


Note: He’s a commuter. He rides the Long Island Rail Road from his home in Douglaston, Queens, switching to the No. 7 subway for peak efficiency, most weekdays. He gets to work early to beat the rush and might qualify for the off-peak fare that has been proposed as an à la carte option.


And yes, raising the rates is his priority, despite a difficult debut in the job. In his nine months at the authority, he has had to finesse away a potential strike at the Metro-North Railroad; respond to the deaths of two transit workers, traced in part to internal negligence and inadequate supervision; and deal with the systemwide breakdown because of flooding during a freakish rainstorm on Aug. 8.


It is his duty to guarantee the network’s 2.4 billion annual users continuing mobility, and to guarantee $580 million in added revenue to the distress-prone 66,000-worker agency that hired him in January, at the urging of his fellow infrastructure wonk Gov. Eliot Spitzer.


Mr. Sander, who has been called Lee since kindergarten, was raking in private-sector dollars as a senior vice president and director of strategic development for DMJM Harris, a prominent engineering firm, when he was recruited to run the transportation agency. He says he would have sprinted away from the post, a controversy magnet, had Mr. Spitzer not weighed in quite persuasively.


So persuasively, in fact, that Mr. Sander is confident of receiving what he calls “a boatload” of financial assistance from Albany lawmakers — separate infusions of $400 million and $600 million over the next couple of years. Like the fare increase, he said, the money is essential to his vision for rejuvenating the transit authority from a decrepit early-20th-century artifact with an equally frayed internal culture to a transit showpiece on par with the systems of London and Shanghai.


MEANWHILE, Mr. Sander, 51, senses he is perceived by some people as the biggest jerk “on the face of the earth for proposing the fare increase,” he said this week in the privacy of his carefully decorated office — the plants complement the artsy transit posters that complement the maroon furniture that complements his tie — at 347 Madison Avenue in Midtown.


“But we’ve got a $6 billion deficit staring us right in the eyes in 2008,” he continued. “Sure, it’s never popular with the paying public to raise fares and tolls, but I think it would be more unpopular in the long run to be known as the guy who ran the M.T.A. into the ground. I refuse to be that guy. If there’s been one theme that runs through my career, it’s been taking on interesting assignments that basically involve turnarounds.”


The most obvious example was his decision, in 1994, to leave his 20-acre 19th-century farm outside Albany, where he worked for Gov. Mario M. Cuomo as a director of transit for the State Department of Transportation, for New York City to be the commissioner of transportation for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. “The city was in a bad place, and it was a challenge to be asked to help turn it around,” said Mr. Sander, a Democrat. “Plus, it was a promotion.”


He and his wife, Lisa Lempel Sander, a psychoanalyst (“No jokes about needing free advice, please,” he joked), moved to Peter Cooper Village with their infant daughter. “We went straight from coyotes to First Avenue,” he said. For this he blames a gene for public service inherited from his father, Kurt, a German Jew who won a Bronze Star as an Army captain at Normandy in World War II.


The fraught history of his mother, Dorrit Frank, who escaped Germany for the Netherlands much like a certain famous teenage diarist, is chronicled in a book, “The Frank Family That Survived.” It was written by his brother, Gordon, and holds a place of honor on his office bookcase.


Mr. Sander, who attended Georgetown University’s foreign policy school intending to become an ambassador or State Department operative, is insistent, relentless and well rehearsed with his transit reformation spiel. Now settle back on the sofa and surrender to his enthusiastic monologue on the transit agency’s problem areas.


He lists seven: people (this means internal morale and union rapport), institutional reform (Mr. Sander says the authority operates as seven separate fiefs and needs a common umbrella), customer service (more to the point, a lack thereof), projects and planning (the Second Avenue subway; links to Jets and Giants games; floodproof stations), security (he meets weekly with the Police Department), and last but not least, sustainability. Mr. Sander is a sustainability wonk, too.


“We are well on the way to making our carbon footprint less repugnant,” he said. So it’s repugnant? “No, that’s the wrong word; let me take back that word.”


No way. Straphanger’s revenge.

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