William J. Ronan, one of greatest power brokers in the history of New York City transportation, died this week.
Ronan, who was 101 years old, was an architect, professor, and most notably, the first chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the corporation that runs the city’s public transportation network (including buses, subways, and commuter rail), and later the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. As the brains behind the consolidation of the city’s various commuter rails, subways, buses, and bridges, he essentially masterminded the design of New York City’s transportation network, which has become the biggest and most effective public transportation system in the country.
This was the man who wrested control from the notoriously car-loving (and powerful) city planner Robert Moses to negotiate the state’s takeover and consolidation of the Long Island Railroad, the Triborough Bridge, the Tunnel Authority, and the New York City Transit Authority, which in 1968 became the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA’s unified system funneled money from highway tolls to public transportation, a revenue stream that continues to be a major part of how transit is financed today. This move is also the reason New York City buses, subways, and bridges came under the control of lawmakers in 150 miles away in upstate Albany (a setup local lawmakers are still bristling over).
Ronan was “articulate, flamboyant, and frequently abrasive,” as he’s described in transit historian Brian Cudahy’s book Under the Sidewalks of New York: The Story of the Greatest Subway System in the World, and made plenty of enemies. In 1977, he was at the center of a scandal over city officials using public money to fund their lavish travel expenses.
Yet he also spearheaded several major projects, including the still-in-the-works Second Avenue subway line and the acquisition of several Penn Central Railroad-owned lines that would later become the Metro-North system.
“I was at one point probably the most hated man in New York,” he told The New York Times in a 2005 interview for his obituary. Undeniably, he was also one of the people most responsible for how people move around and through New York City today.
[H/T The New York Times]