OTTY 2019 Honoree: Subway service

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Former MTA chairman Tom Prendergast has dedicated decades of his life to public transit


  • Tom Prendergast speaks at the grand opening of the Second Avenue subway, Dec. 31, 2016. Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

“To be able to be part of something that helped that neighborhood was invigorating.”

Former MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast

Tom Prendergast’s tenure as chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority culminated with the completion of a project of unparalleled significance for the Upper East Side: the Second Avenue subway.

The Jan. 2017 opening of the long-awaited line — the largest expansion of the subway system in 50 years, which was first proposed nearly a century earlier — was the talk of the town, drawing curious visitors from around the city. “When we had the station open-houses prior to starting service, people in the neighborhood would line up, hundreds of people, to come down and look at the stations,” Prendergast recalled.

Aside from the striking ambience of the gleaming new stops — brightly lit, spacious and filled with art — the commencement of Q train service had an immediate impact on the daily experience of transit users.

“It was a tremendous benefit to the Upper East Side because it offloaded the overcrowded and overused Lexington Avenue line,” Prendergast said. “I think it’s made a marked difference for the people on the Upper East Side who had to depend on only one line and now have two.”

“To be able to be part of something that helped that neighborhood was invigorating,” he said.

A New Chapter

Soon after the Second Avenue subway opened its turnstiles to passengers, Prendergast announced his retirement from the MTA after more than 25 years with the agency, during which he also served as president of New York City Transit and the Long Island Railroad.

Prendergast now works on transit-related projects as executive vice president and chief strategy officer for the consulting firm STV Incorporated. He enjoys the improved work-life balance of the private sector, but said the challenges, rewards and excitement of public service are impossible to replicate.

“It’s a tremendous esprit de corps in the MTA,” he said. “When you make the conscious decision to withdraw from that it’s a little bit of a letdown, because the adrenaline doesn’t flow and you miss the people you work with.”

The memories that stand out years later — snowstorms, power outages, and other crises — highlight the exhilaration of working as a team to meet the daunting responsibility of providing service to millions of New Yorkers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Ultimate Challenge

Prendergast was president of NYCT in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy flooded nine of the system’s 14 under-river tubes. “I can honestly say if I never go through another one of those I will be happy,” he said. “It was by far the most sobering, challenging and — on the back end — invigorating experience” as the agency worked around the clock to repair flood damage and restore service in a matter of days.

A native of Chicago, Prendergast started his career at the Chicago Transit Authority before joining the MTA in the early 1980s. Chicago’s system “was 24/7 and it carried a lot of people, but I came to New York and my head spun,” he said.

Prendergast maintains a sense of reverence for the scope and scale of public transit in New York to this day, and reminds New Yorkers at every opportunity how unique their system is. “There is no other system in the world that has 472 subway stations and can say that 75 percent of the population lives within half a mile of a station,” he said.

Looking Ahead

The challenge for today’s transportation planners, Prendergast said, is balancing the maintenance needs of such a vast transportation network, in which the oldest subways stations date to 1904, while also committing resources to expand the system’s size to accommodate a growing population. The Second Avenue subway will serve as a reminder of the enduring impact major transit investments can have.

“We’ve got to do a better job delivering projects faster and more cost-effectively,” he said. “But it’s a tremendous accomplishment and a benefit to the City of New York.”

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