For more than three decades, Richard Ravitch has been typecast.
Governor after governor has unexpectedly—at least from Mr. Ravitch’s perspective—called on the wealthy developer, lawyer and investor to play the role of the public servant tasked with saving government organizations gone broke.
He chaired the Urban Development Corporation starting in 1975; was called to help resolve New York City’s fiscal crisis later that year; and became chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1979—all were sinking ships that Mr. Ravitch rescued, fixed or patched. Those who have worked with him say he is blunt, bright and well versed in methods of finance, and he has earned a reputation for being highly effective in pushing through reforms.
So the mere fact that Governor David Paterson called in none other than Mr. Ravitch to lead a commission on the M.T.A.’s five-year capital plan and operating budget suggests that the agency must be in dire straits.
And indeed it is.
The M.T.A. is expected to be somewhere around $17 billion short of a 2010-2014 capital plan of an expected $30 billion or so—a gap that, if unfilled, would stall numerous expansion projects, such as the Second Avenue Subway, and erode the “state of good repair” that the agency has worked so hard to meet since its nadir in the 1970’s. Without the constant investment in upkeep, transit advocates warn the deterioration of the system could be swift, inviting a return to the days of highly unreliable service.
Fueling the M.T.A.’s problems are construction costs, which have exploded at a time when the system is undergoing its first true expansion in decades. As a result, almost every single transportation infrastructure project in the city—including those outside of the M.T.A.’s purview, such as the PATH terminal downtown and Moynihan Station—is overbudget and underfunded, making the task of plugging the capital plan’s hole that much more of a daunting challenge.
On top of that are the woes of the operating budget, which is strained by plummeting tax revenues amid the rougher economy and a future jump in required debt payments from prior loans.
“Part of what we have to deal with is not just the hemorrhaging of revenues but also in 2010—that’s where we see the impact of all the borrowing,” said Elliot Sander, executive director of the M.T.A. “We inherited $6 billion of deficit from the operating budget over five years.”
So it is left to Mr. Ravitch and his commission, with members expected to be named in coming weeks, to sort through the mess and chart a viable course for the M.T.A. and State Legislature to follow.
Commissions such as these often follow a similar formula, as politicized members produce a report with a more or less predetermined outcome so as to give the commission’s creators a perceived mandate to proceed with whatever policy action they had intended, perhaps with a few tweaks.
But such a result is unlikely from Mr. Ravitch, those who know him say, as he has a well-known reputation for freely speaking his mind and fiercely defending his independence, an element considered key to his successful track record.
“He’s incredibly blunt about things, and may put some people off, but on the other hand you can depend on what Richard is saying as being what he really believes,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. “He is a remarkable man.”
AS CHAIRMAN OF the M.T.A., Mr. Ravitch, now 74, often sparred publicly with those who appointed him—Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo—relishing the independence of the authority’s board.
Such was the case in 1983, when he appeared at a press conference at Grand Central Terminal in which Mr. Cuomo announced a plan to expand the M.T.A.’s board and take gubernatorial control of the agency.
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