So, what to make of the forced resignation (by Gov. David Paterson) of Metropolitan Transportation Authority Executive Director Elliot (Lee) Sander, who leaves office May 22?
It probably had nothing to do with Atlantic Yards.
However, the widespread endorsement of Sander's integrity and performance that has surfaced, combined with reports that Sander refused to bow to a patronage-driven pol, may mean his successor will be more willing to compromise with the reported request by Forest City Ratner to restructure the $100 million it owes and the developer's reported effort to build a less elaborate railyard than promised.
Consider that, on May 8, just before his resignation, Reuters published an article with this tantalizing quote:
Asked whether the MTA's rail yards in Brooklyn would see a basketball arena next year, part of a residential-office complex planned by developer Forest City Ratner, Sander said only: "I'm not in the arena business."
However, the MTA's willingness to compromise with Ratner just might help the developer proceed in the arena business. So the Senate should ask the MTA about those payments and about the cheaper railyard.
Journalists and commentators suggested that Sander was less at fault than his boss. Crain's New York Business's Erik Engquist reported:
As he ousted Elliot Sander as chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Thursday, Gov. David Paterson promised “a widespread cleanout and cleanup of the MTA” and to start getting it “working in an effective way.”
But observers of the agency say Mr. Sander, despite some shortcomings, was doing exactly that and that Mr. Paterson's pledge to the New York Times was ironic since he has faced the same criticism as the MTA. "There's nothing in his track record to suggest he can pull it off," said Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College. "How has he managed the governor's office so far? Not well."
Praise came from Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who chairs the Assembly committee on authorities (and is generally a critic of them), as well as Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
New York Post columnist Nicole Gelinas, a fellow at the free-market Manhattan Institute, wrote:
Paterson spun the story, making it seem like getting rid of Sander was like getting rid of the pre-bailout head of AIG. But Sander -- who leaves his post in less than two weeks -- wasn't the problem.
No, he wasn't perfect. He didn't speak out about the unionized labor costs that are killing the authority. But he's a competent, seemingly honest manager who made a best-faith effort to turn around the unwieldy authority.
The New York Observer editorialized:
The M.T.A.’s outgoing chief executive, Lee Sander, did a remarkable job, constrained as he was by politicians who often put politics before smart transportation policy.
Two Regional Plan Association officials commented:
There is not the slightest indication that Sander, who has been on the job just over two years, had any responsibility for the MTA budget woes that are rooted in decisions made before his watch. In fact, he has been a leader in attempting to solve them. Under Lee Sander's capable leadership, ridership on the MTA's trains and buses grew to a six-decade high, while on-time performance improved. But apparently a sacrifice was needed, and Sander is walking the plank.
New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman wrote:
Like everyone else in this world, Mr. Sander has had his stumbles, but he is widely regarded as an honorable public servant who did a lot to make the authority’s operations more transparent and to improve its tattered labor relations.
Dealing with electeds
Crain's offered this tantalizing paragraph:
However, part of Mr. Sander’s job was to improve the MTA’s relationship with elected officials and the public, and he made little progress on those fronts. That made it difficult for the agency to persuade lawmakers to find it new funding sources when the economic downturn began to undermine its revenues.
So that dark probability is that Albany got rid of Sander because it wants someone less diligent and competent. How's that?
First, Albany may be salivating over patronage -- the MTA's white-collar jobs. Sander resisted playing this game, preferring a system run by people who once in a while think about what they're doing in between calculating their pensions.
That sounds like a reference to reports, in the New York Daily News but not elsewhere, that Sander's resignation is tied to a clash with Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who unsuccessfully demanded that Sander promote his son-in-law. (Lopez denied the claims; Sander wouldn't comment.)
The capital plan and FCR's obligation
Second, Albany may want someone who'll shut up about the fact that the MTA still doesn't have enough money for its capital plan.
What about that $100 million that Forest City Ratner's supposed to pay?
Remember, in April 2008, Sander said in a "webinar," as the Observer reported:
There was approximately a billion dollars associated with the sale of MTA real estate assets to support that program. There are some monies there that look like there may be challenges to proceed upon right now. There is money there--100 million dollars associated with the sale of Atlantic Yards, and I think many of you have read in the newspapers some of the difficulty Forest City is having with that development, so hopefully that will proceed, but we want to make sure that that happens—but we’re concerned about that.
In January, Sander was asked by Crain's Editoral Director Greg David if the MTA would be "flexible at Atlantic Yards if Forest City Ratner wins the court cases and tries to go out and finance the arena?"
"I think that we have been flexible and thoughtful in all these negotiations," Sander responded, speaking carefully and generally.
Later, Sander was asked if the MTA would accept a replacement yard with less value. "I'm not sure I really want to engage in negotiations with you about Atlantic Yards," Sander replied. "The MTA has a good track record of being thoughtful and prudent."
Sander's caution might have been interpreted as showing a willingness to compromise with Ratner. However, given what we've learned in the last few days, it might as likely reflected an effort to not compromise.
A dignified valedictory
Last night, Sander made his first and only public appearance since the announcement of his departure, speaking at a Transit Museum panel--held at Grand Central Station--on the regional impact of large-scale projects.
The megaprojects he stressed were the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, which will connect the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Station.
Also mentioned were the other three major MTA projects: the extension of the 7 subway line to serve Hudson Yards; the Fulton Street Transit Center; and the South Ferry Terminal.
Atlantic Yards went unmentioned. It's a megaproject, but it's not a transit megaproject. The construction of 17 buildings, including 16 towers and an arena, and the building of (an announced) 6430 housing units constitute a megaproject.