Governor Cuomo has tapped Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim to be the interim Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority following the retirement of Tom Prendergast from his post as CEO and Chairman. Ms. Hakim, 57, lives in New York City and has spent the bulk of her career at the MTA. She was selected to run New York City Transit in December 2015.
Over the arc of her 24-year career at the agency, she also served as the Executive Vice President and General Counsel overseeing the MTA’s multibillion-dollar capital- construction program. In that capacity, she was involved with the Second Avenue Subway line, the LIRR Eastside Access and the Number 7 Subway Extension.
First Female Head
Ms. Hakim, the first woman to lead the nation’s largest transportation system, has a degree in political science from the University of Rochester and is a graduate of Pace University’s Law School.
“Ronnie Hakim is ready to embrace the challenge of running the nation’s largest transportation network during this transition,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. “She is a true transportation professional who has dedicated her life to improving the commute for millions of New Yorkers, and I am confident that in this new role she will continue doing that as we reimagine and modernize the MTA for the 21st century.”
He also named Fernando Ferrer, the MTA vice-chair and former Bronx Borough President, to serve as interim chairman of the MTA board while a search for a permanent replacement is held. Mr. Ferrer is currently a co-chairman of Mercury, a national public-affairs and lobbying firm. He also is a director of Sterling Bancorp, and sits on the board of the Regional Plan Association. In 2013 he served as acting chair before Mr. Prendergast was appointed.
The transition comes on the heels of the MTA’s reaching a tentative contract deal with Transport Workers Union Local 100, and the successful completion of the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway last month. The agency continues to face fiscal strains as it tries to expand to meet the demands of a booming ridership that taxes its infrastructure. Historically, the agency has been reliant on financial support from Albany and Washington.
In a phone interview with this newspaper, Mr. Ferrer, who is also on the search committee, said that Ms. Hakim “was a woman of extraordinary talents and a proven transportation professional who understands how to connect” with both the system’s workforce and its customers.
In a 2014 profile in Metro Magazine, a transportation trade journal, Ms. Hakim said that she hadn’t anticipated making public transit her career, and that it presented itself as an option after she worked in Paris, graduated law school and embarked on a career as a lawyer in New York City.
“What ends up happening for, some of us, I think, is we fall into a position. In my case, I fell into a transit position and then realized how exciting it was,” she told Metro. “[If you] think about it from a young lawyer’s perspective, you’re working on something that absolutely has meaning. Providing transit service is truly the one resource millions of people rely on.”
Throughout her career at the MTA, she’s been involved with implementing breakthrough innovations, like the introduction of the MetroCard, as well as overseeing challenges like the MTA’s $100-million underground- storage-tank-replacement program.
In 2010, Ms. Hakim, a Queens native, was named executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority by Gov. Chris Christie. While at that agency, she was credited with identifying $100 million in cost savings while reducing the borrowing costs for the NJTA’s $7-billion capital-construction program.
While at the NJTA, she was a tough negotiator leveraging a threat by the Christie administration to sub-contract the work of the authority’s union toll collectors into major wage concessions. According to the Bergen Record, the agency reduced full-time toll collectors’ pay from $65,100 in 2011 to $49,500 in 2012. The workers were represented by the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers.
In March of 2014, Mr. Christie selected Ms. Hakim to lead NJ Transit, the nation’s largest statewide public-transit system and the third-busiest by passenger volume. It operates 12 commuter rail lines, three light rail lines, and 261 bus routes.
The system was still working to rebuild itself after a 14-foot storm surge from Hurricane Sandy decimated NJ Transit’s rolling stock in the fall of 2012, much of which had been left in low-lying, flood-prone rail yards. Reuters reported that close to a quarter of the transit system’s locomotives and passenger cars were damaged, costing in excess of $120 million to repair.
The loss of train capacity, combined with Sandy’s body blow to the system’s rail networks and power supply, prompted months of service cancellations and chronic delays. NJ Transit’s post-Sandy struggle contrasted dramatically with the MTA’s comparative resiliency, made possible by the New York agency’s foresight and preparation, which included getting its rolling stock to higher ground and close coordination with weather forecasters at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Good With Workers
A veteran New Jersey Transit Train Conductor, who is not authorized to speak to the media, gave Ms. Hakim high marks for getting the rail network back on track by bringing a sense of accountability systemwide. “When she came in, she had to clean up a real mess and some heads had to roll,” he said. “But she talked to us, the people out here doing the work, and we had never gotten that from our bosses before.”
“Ronnie gets it when it comes to the importance of the workforce,” said Joseph J. Lhota, who led the MTA in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, previously served as First Deputy Mayor under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and is currently the Vice Dean and Chief of Staff at NYU Langone Medical Center. “I saw it first-hand with the way we came back from Sandy,” he said in a phone interview.
“The reason why the subway system came back” as quickly as it did “was thanks to the fact that the transit workers were so motivated.”
Need ‘Fiscal Alchemist’
Mr. Lhota said that the agency’s chronic financial struggles would require Mr. Prendergast’s successor to be “a fiscal alchemist” who “just can’t be an engineer or a lawyer” and has to be able to “navigate the political world” that includes City Hall, Albany and Washington. Mr. Lhota has also been named to the search committee. The first meeting for the panel has yet to be scheduled.
Other members of the search committee include Mr. Prendergast; Kathryn Wylde, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Partnership for New York City; Scott Rechler, Chairman of the Regional Planning Association and former Vice Chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey; TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen and Rodney Slater, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation.