Ravitch in his New York office last week.
Derailments, track fires and frozen subway doors. Deferred maintenance, financial distress and federal safety investigations. Public doubt about the future of a once-proud transit system.
That description fits the Metro of 2015, but it also was the ordeal facing the New York City subways in the early 1980s — a situation so dire the very survival of the system was at stake.
But the subways were saved. It took the extraordinary work of a devoted public servant. His name is Richard Ravitch, and he approached the problem with a strong will, a skill for talking to politicians, a deep concern for ordinary riders and desire to learn the nuts and bolts of the system.
And when New York Gov. Hugh Carey appointed him as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 1979, Ravitch had never run a transit system.
That fact might have particular resonance for Metro, given that the D.C. region’s transit authority is expected to have a new general manager in place soon. And as the board of directors narrows down the field of finalists with the aim of hiring someone by mid-November, there’s suspense over whether the next general manager will be a traditional transit specialist or a turnaround expert — or some combination of the two traits.
So while it might seem bizarre to some observers for Metro to hire someone with no mass-transit experience, it would not be without precedent.
“I never pretended to have any skill about operating a system. I was a businessman,” said Ravitch, 82, in an interview with WAMU 88.5 at his office on Manhattan’s East Side.
He had helped New York avoid bankruptcy in the 1970s, and then rescued the financially troubled New York State Urban Development Corporation, a post to which Carey also had appointed him.
“I had the fascinating opportunity to have been involved with Governor Carey during the fiscal crisis in 1975,” Ravitch recalled. “I’d been very fortunate in my business life and could afford to spend time in public service without being compensated.”
A rider first
All Ravitch knew about trains was from riding them, which turned out to be more than could be said of others whose leadership was necessary to fix things.
“I grew up in New York and started taking the subway to school in 1940. I’ve taken the subway practically every day of my life since then,” Ravitch said.
Boarding a subway train was one thing. Rescuing a failing transit system was another.
In his 2014 autobiography, Ravitch said after receiving encouragement from Mayor Ed Koch, “I agreed to take the MTA job on the same terms on which I had served at the Urban Development Corporation: I would work without salary and be free to pick my subordinates and counselors. I did not know much about the MTA. The learning curve was going to be steep.”
A persuasive leader
Ravitch suspected other key figures had not been on the subway for a while. Therefore, they were unaware just how dire the situation was.
At 5 a.m. the MTA chief took Chase Manhattan Bank’s David Rockefeller, Metropolitan Life’s Dick Shinn, and AT&T’s Bill Ellinghaus on a tour of the decrepit facilities and dangerous work conditions.
“I showed them the empty inventory shelves and how antiquated the systems were,” Ravitch said.
“I don’t know exactly what they said, but they called the upstate Republicans, who were reluctant to impose any new taxes, and said the business community needs the revenue that Ravitch was proposing, so please enact the taxes.”
The state legislature enacted five separate transit taxes before it recessed in July 1981, providing the MTA with funding to begin bringing the New York’s transit system back to a state of good repair.
That episode was emblematic of the persuasive leadership Ravitch exercised during his more than four years leading the MTA. He cajoled politicians, convinced editorial page writers, and reached out to the public. He cultivated support for fare and tax increases, persuading stakeholders the city could not survive without its subway system.
And when he left the MTA in 1983, the agency was well on its way to overcoming its darkest chapter.
‘It was a disaster’
Mort Downey, currently the chairman of Metro’s board of directors, was recruited to work for Ravitch at the MTA. Their problems make Metro’s present troubles seem minor.
“In the cold weather in the winter of 1980-81, there was a morning when less than half the trains got out of the yards because they had all frozen up,” said Downey. “In addition, the cars that were running were derailing. There were fires. Stations were in terrible shape. Graffiti covered every wall and every car. It was a disaster.”
Gene Russianoff, who started working at the Straphangers Campaign, a non-profit watchdog group, in 1979, also remembers the desperate situation.
“Ridership had dipped to its lowest level since 1917. There were track fires and record derailments. We were investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board,” Russianoff, who still heads the group today, said in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
During a 13-month period in 1979-1980, eight subway train fires forcing passenger evacuations occurred in New York. The fires caused 53 injuries and severely damaged the subway cars, according to an NTSB report filed in January 1981.
“People shunned the system,” Russianoff said. “There was a macabre sense of humor about the subways. I had a friend who had a rule that he never got onto a subway car that had a chalk outline of a body on the floor.”
Ravitch knew he needed to collect comprehensive data if he were to make a convincing political and public case for more revenue – in the forms of higher fares and taxes.
“The first thing I did was to gather all the engineers, get them in the room, and said I want to know what every component of your system would cost to replace. So after that study was done I was able to go public with the fact that we needed tens of billions of dollars more and a renewal plan to invest that money to restore the system,” Ravitch said.
On Nov. 25 1980 the MTA released its new capital plan, a 200-page assessment that said the replacement costs of all the MTA’s assets, which included the city’s subway and bus lines and Long Island Rail Road, was $55 billion.
Ravitch estimated their upkeep would require spending $1 billion per year, but at the time only $200 million was spent annually.
“If you run a system, you have to be honest with the public about the needs,” he said.
Ravitch also wanted the public to know he cared about their daily aggravations. Russianoff remembers when the MTA chairman sat before an audience of about 1,000 subway riders to hear them out.
“He sat at a table in the front of the room and for an hour people berated him. They said, you are fiddling while the subways burn,” Russianoff recalled. “The next day we were on the front page of the Daily News: irate riders rip the city, state, and MTA!”
Ravitch carried the newspaper around with him for months, showing the headlines to all concerned that the region’s transportation system needed immediate help.
“I don’t use this loosely, but he’s a great man,” Russianoff said.
By contrast, Metro’s interim general manager Jack Requa repeatedly has turned down requests to appear on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, where he would take calls from riders frustrated by daily breakdowns and delays as well as recent safety lapses.
‘Good political sense’
Another Richard Ravitch is probably not about to walk through the doors at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, but the life-long New Yorker said Metro should be able to find the right person to replace Richard Sarles — who retired on Jan. 16 — and his interim successor, Jack Requa.
“I can't believe there aren't tons of talented, civic-minded people with a good political sense who couldn't come in and straighten this out, and bring in the resources and talent that you need. It's not a shortage of technical expertise. It's a leadership issue,” Ravitch said.
Metro’s next general manager must work with the board of directors and local political leadership to present a compelling case for the transit authority’s future, he said.
When the MTA was teetering, Ravitch engaged not only elected officials but the news media, too, to make his case for billions in funding as laid out in the capital plan of 1980.
“At first, the papers ran the capital plan on their back pages as just another MTA plea for handouts,” Ravitch wrote in his autobiography.
“And if the newspapers didn’t treat the report seriously, it was unlikely that the politicians would. I explained the problem to Max Frankel of the Times and Mike O’Neil of The Daily News. They responded with strong editorials that got Albany’s attention.”
Today, Ravitch is widely credited with saving New York’s subway system against remarkable odds.
“It would not be even operating today if he hadn't stepped in,” Downey said.
“My proudest accomplishment in life was to have been able to get the resources and put a rational system into place to try to maintain and improve the physical infrastructure of the public transportation system,” Ravitch said.