K&A Assists the NYC MTA with the Recruitment of Former MBTA GM Richard Davey named president of New York City Transit

K&A Assists the NYC MTA with the Recruitment of Former MBTA GM Richard Davey named president of New York City Transit

As New York City’s subway system, the nation’s largest, lurches out of the throes of a pandemic that has drained it of millions of riders and the fares they pay, it will have a new permanent leader for the first time in more than two years.

Richard A. Davey, a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation who once led Boston’s transit system, was named on Wednesday as the next president of New York City Transit, the agency that runs 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 at one of the most difficult moments in the subway’s 117-year history, as it faces an existential question: How many of its prepandemic riders will return, and when?

With New York continuing to take cautious steps toward post-pandemic normalcy, top officials, from the governor to the mayor to major corporate leaders, agree that a robust subway is crucial to the region’s economy and its recovery.

Richard A. Davey is a former leader of Boston’s transit system. 

In an interview, Mr. Davey, who will take over the transit agency on May 2, acknowledged 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 relies so heavily on its transit system,” he said. “And if the transit system doesn’t work, then New York isn’t working.”

His first priority, he added, will be to grow ridership and lure back riders whose fares are crucial to financing the subway’s operation.

Before March 2020, New York’s subway carried about 5.5 million people on an average weekday. When shutdown orders sent students and workers home, left others unemployed and kept tourists away, the subway’s ridership plunged by more than 90 percent. The bus system, whose riders are more likely to come from predominantly low-income, minority or immigrant neighborhoods, saw ridership fall by close to 80 percent.

More than two years later, the system is still struggling. Last week, the subway hovered at around 58 percent of prepandemic ridership, while bus ridership stood at about 62 percent. Under current projections, subway ridership is not expected to reach 86 percent of prepandemic levels until 2024.

But with more companies adopting a hybrid work schedule, many of the riders who do start filling public transit again will no longer be typical five-day-a-week commuters.

The depressed ridership has created a looming financial crisis for the public transit agency. Before the pandemic, the M.T.A. raised 38 percent of its revenue from fares, a relatively high percentage compared with other major American transit systems.

Though federal pandemic aid has helped the transportation authority postpone fare increases and avoid drastic service cuts, its most recent financial plan forecasts a $500 million deficit in 2025 that will balloon to about $2 billion in 2026.

Janno Lieber, the M.T.A.’s chairman and chief executive, said the system’s deepening troubles led the agency to seek someone with experience dealing with operating a complex transit system, weathering policy debates and tackling financial issues.

“We’re facing a new reality as we come out of the pandemic,” Mr. Lieber said. “And it is the right time to have somebody who has looked at things broadly.”

The M.T.A. cannot compel a return to daily commuting. But Mr. Davey said he planned to focus on the factors within its control: reliable service, boosting some of the slowest buses in the country and public safety.

“We can’t tell employers to bring employees back,” he said. “But on the flip side, if the employees don’t feel safe or we’re not providing good service, they’re not going to want to come back.”

While overseeing the Boston system, Mr. Davey was criticized for implementing fare hikes that some transit advocates said burdened working-class and older people and for not doing more to reduce delays. Working in the private sector in recent years, Mr. Davey has focused on transportation issues, but he has not managed the daily operations of a public transit agency in a decade.

Though he has spent most of his life in Massachusetts, Mr. Davey is not inexperienced with New York’s 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 began working for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Company in Boston, which operated the Boston area’s commuter rail system. After becoming general manager there, he was tapped in 2010 to lead the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the transit system serving greater Boston.

New York City’s transit system dwarfs Boston’s. When Mr. Davey was in charge, he oversaw about 6,000 employees, and Boston’s subways, buses and rails carried about 1.3 million riders every weekday.

But Mr. Davey said that he believed the two systems were also similar.

“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 issues there.”

Josh Ostroff, the interim director of Transportation for Massachusetts, an advocacy group, said Mr. Davey inherited a system that was saddled with debt and had been in a prolonged state of disrepair.

“He was able to convey the urgency of that message to legislators, to the public and to local civic leaders,” Mr. Ostroff said. “And he helped to marshal support for legislation that ultimately helped.”

He also built a reputation for engaging with riders and listening to their complaints. Mr. Davey gave up his car more than a decade 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 financial decisions that bolstered their political priorities but left the transit system starved of 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 head, stepped down after repeated clashes with Andrew M. Cuomo, then governor.

Much like Mr. Davey, Mr. Byford took charge of the subway at a moment of crisis in 2018, when years of political and financial neglect had made service reliably unreliable and led Mr. Cuomo to declare a state of emergency on the system. When Mr. Byford left, he was widely praised for helping reverse the decline.

Mr. Davey had a positive relationship with Boston’s mayor and governor; they both supported his eventual leadership of the city’s 2024 Olympics bid, which was ultimately withdrawn.

But at the transit agency and as Massachusetts’ transportation secretary from 2011 to 2014, he pushed for politically unpopular policies that had to garner support from skeptical legislators, Mr. Ostroff said.

Among them were an effort that led to an increase in the gas tax to help fund transit and repair roads, and fare increases that Mr. Davey said were needed to close the M.B.T.A.’s financial deficits while maintaining service.

“I can’t say that every rider loved him, because he was bearing bad news,” Mr. Ostroff said. “But he was able to get legislators and the other leaders behind him.”

In New York, Mr. Davey said that he would try to minimize potential fare increases and service cuts. But he will be open to adjusting subway operations and bus routes for shifting 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’s. In 2017, as a consultant, he worked on the Subway Action Plan, an $800 million rescue plan that helped stabilize the system.