By Kismet Barksdale
January 17, 2011
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is widely considered the second most powerful politician in the City. Yet in her January 14 confrontation with New York City Transit President Thomas Prendergast and his management team, the power looked evenly balanced. Although Quinn used the strongest possible language to criticize MTA performance over the Christmas weekend blizzard, Prendergast easily held his ground. The MTA acknowledges failures in judgement and preparation in the lead-up to the blizzard, but it will decide – on its own – just how to fix what went wrong. Prendergast and his team admitted two major failures – the failure to declare a Plan 4 level emergency mobilization when the first blizzard forecasts came in on December 26, and failure to set up a Situation Room to monitor events as they were happened.
The likely reason for these failures – cost/benefit calculations – weren’t owned up to. Prendergast was quick to respond to a suggestion by Quinn that the MTA had curtailed staffing up storm response to save money, a point also made by TWU Local 100 and the ATU locals testifying at the hearing. “Not at all,” Prendergast said. “Never in the history of this agency has there been a decision to hold back resources to save money. It’s just contrary to the philosophy we have.”
That might have come as a surprise to observers who have noted MTA Chairman Jay Walder’s continual emphasis on cost-cutting as laid out in his “Making Every Dollar Count” handbook in January of 2010. “Making Every Dollar Count” says nothing about spending what’s required for adequate MTA response to serious weather emergencies or disaster situations. And two of the areas highlighted for reform in the booklet – the MTA’s website information display and giving more authority to managers – conspicuously failed during the storm. TWU Local 100’s White Paper on the blizzard, released at the Council oversight hearing, says high level managers recommended that a Plan 4 response be implemented, but that this was vetoed by Walder. “They rolled the dice on this one,” said Angelo Tanzi of ATU Local 726. “They lost.”
Other union officials, including TWU Local 100 Vice President for Rapid Transit Operations Kevin Harrington, and TA Surface Division Chair Willie Rivera, explained how lack of communications hampered bus service during the snow emergency and how the MTA did not call in the personnel necessary to lay up subway cars underground and avoid the freezing of switches and third rails. Outside, at a press conference held prior to the hearing, TWU Local 100 TA Surface Maintainance Chair Joe Sclafani told news reporters that maintainers and mechanics who could have been called in to put chains on buses were told to stay home.
MTA officials, who included Darryl Irick, the head of MTA Bus and Carmen Biano, head of Subways, said that they would give Quinn a complete set of records regarding the stalling of an A train with 500 passengers for seven hours at the Aqueduct Station. Prendergast promised a comprehensive review of the MTA’s actions “within weeks, not months,” and said he would be convening a review board to look at what went wrong. No word as to whether union representatives will be invited to join.