NEW YORK - Remember when many thought Andy Byford leaving the MTA was the toughest challenge facing the state agency this year? Well, a lot has changed in 2020.
After his last day as president of New York City Transit, Byford had planned to spend time in New York City as a civilian. He flew to London for what he had planned to be a short visit to sort out his visa. But before he could return, New York was in lockdown. And before long, so too was the United Kingdom.
Months later, Byford would start a new job as the commissioner of transport in London, which oversees the Underground, buses and trams, bridges and tunnels, as well as the equivalent of the Department of Transportation. As much as his attention is required in London these days, a big part of his heart remains in New York.
"It was heartbreaking. I stay very much in touch with what's going on in New York," Byford said speaking to Fox 5 from his flat in London. "It's a place I absolutely love and it's very dear to my heart."
Byford is known to wear his heart on his sleeve, which as NYC Transit president he would often roll up to solve systematic problems at the MTA epitomized by the so-called Summer of Hell. But once the British native joined the MTA, the agency underwent an unimaginable transformation. Service started running on time, breakdowns became noticeably less frequent, and the morale of tens of thousands of workers was lifted.
After serving two years in his role, Byford left, citing differences with the MTA's ultimate boss, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It was a sendoff the likes of which we had never witnessed. New Yorkers came out of the blue to thank him. Byford had clearly captured the heart of the toughest city to please.
"That was the most humbling, heart-wrenching day of my professional career," he said. "I was desperately sorry to leave."
Gone but remembered, with New York facing epically difficult choices with budget gaps in the billions, Byford sat down to go over some of our choices and opportunities. We asked about the MTA saying it would have to cut up to 40% of subway and bus service if the federal government refuses to send rescue funds.
"That's just unthinkable," he said. "To cut service is a slippery slope because once you cut service you're going into a downward spiral from which it takes a lot of time to recover."
Byford draws on his current role in London, and a conversation with a driver complaining about sharing the road with buses and bicycles where he replied, "If we can get more people riding mass transit because it's reliable and quick, then ultimately, it brings down congestion for [you] as a car driver as a cab driver." He said the point resonated with the driver.
Byford is also credited with the MTA's historic five-year capital plan, dubbed Fast Forward. Byford underscored the importance of replacing the century-old signal system, which is the cause of the majority of subway delays. Capital plans often budget for new subway trains to which Byford said, "Not re-signaling makes it the equivalent of getting a new car without an engine in it."
Another piece of advice from Byford is an acknowledgment New Yorkers are flocking to cars to avoid mass transit. The head of transportation in London warned against having a car-led recovery.
"Having a car-led recovery would lead to gridlock and you would end up with buses hopelessly mired in traffic," he said.
Byford suggested redesigning streets where appropriate.
"Push on with making the streets accessible to all the things like bike lanes and widening sidewalks where warranted," he said.
While major cities around the world have taken the disruption brought on by the pandemic as an opportunity to implement bold new ideas, City Hall and Mayor Bill de Blasio are being criticized for failing to act on the moment.
Byford made clear that he can't rate how the city is doing but offered up his approach in London with the hopes it can be useful to us.
"Keep pushing on with radical ideas. Now is the time to tackle long-standing challenges," he said. "It's a golden opportunity. There's opportunity in adversity, I'm certainly pushing that line here in London."
We saved two tough questions for last. Will he run for mayor of New York next year?
"I've had my fill of politics for a while," he said, smiling.
As for whether we may one day once again call Andy Byford a New Yorker, he replied, "You never know."