Interview with Tom Prendergast
Build resilient infrastructure "one bite" at a time

Tom Prendergast is chairman and chief executive officer of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). North America’s largest transportation network, the MTA serves more than 15 million transit passengers in New York and Connecticut. Prendergast’s extensive experience with the MTA –more than 20 years– was seen as crucial to its rapid recovery after Superstorm Sandy. Prendergast was appointed to his current position in 2013, a move lauded by area business, transportation, and labor groups.

Tom Prendergast

The MTA was lauded for the preparedness effort in place before Superstorm Sandy. What went into that effort?

The greatest contributor to success was a well thought-out, documented, and rehearsed hurricane plan.

Following Hurricane Katrina, somebody at the MTA said, “You know, if that happens here, it would be even worse because the metropolitan area is much larger.” So we put pen to paper, sat people in rooms, and said, “What do we need to do to define a hurricane plan that spells out in pretty explicit detail who does what to whom and when, in response to different conditions?”

We had the benefit of Hurricane Irene—which was more of a tropical storm—about a year before Sandy, when we took the plan from being a tabletop exercise to actually shutting the system down. We were able to see the strengths and weaknesses of the plan and then refine it.

You do not want to leave an issue open so that somebody’s got to agonize over making a decision. You don’t have time to do that. You have to implement the plan.

How do you prepare or “harden” the infrastructure to brace for the next storm?

You try to design to a stretch goal. What we already have as a data point is a 14-foot tidal surge on top of a relatively high tide for Hurricane Sandy. You look at what a Category 2 hurricane—well beyond Sandy—would present in the way of a storm surge on top of a high tide, and what the wind effects would be—and design to that level.

That’s where you combine the science of weather forecasting and prediction of storm events like hurricanes with the engineering of the infrastructure. For example, we’re going to have to rebuild part of the infrastructure in the subway tubes damaged by Sandy, including a duct bank, which carries all the communication, power, and signal cables and also serves as emergency evacuation bench wall.

It’s approaching 95 years in age so we’re going to have to replace it anyway. But what we’re going to do is replace it to a new standard: Instead of using conventional cables, with conventional insulation, we’re going to use submarine cables. Because we have strong reason to believe that tunnel’s going to be flooded in the next 100 years. At least once, if not a number of times. Are there ways we can actually waterproof some of those duct banks better? Yes, so we will do that.

Hardening our infrastructure is going to cost billions of dollars. Where do you begin?

Well, it’s like how you eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

We have a State of Good Repair program to renew infrastructure and keep it within its useful life. The cost difference between doing it the traditional way—with old design standards—versus designing to new standards, that include resilience, is truly an incremental step. It’s not a billion-dollar cost. Our current fiveyear capital program is in the order of magnitude of $30 billion dollars, so everything’s relative.

How can the private sector collaborate in the rebuilding effort?

First of all, in terms of manpower alone, we’re going to need private sector support to apply technical knowledge and provide resources to actually do the work. In a very compressed time frame, we’re going to have to find ways to spend $4 billion of recovery money and $4 billion of resilience money.

Second, we’ll need private sector support in areas that are not part of our core competency. We’re not a research-and-development entity. We don’t necessarily know the latest, best, state-of-the-art techniques in terms of enhanced design criteria to design to resilient levels, but others do.

Lastly, and this is an extension of the second role, it’s valuable to bring different perspectives to the rebuilding effort. Certain people—most likely professionals familiar with engineering and design issues—can get outside of our historical paradigm and outside of that “MTA box” and bring the discussion to another level.

How do you influence public opinion—and ultimately, convince the government—to acknowledge that spending now on resilient infrastructure is worth the investment for low-probability, high-impact events?

Ten years of my career were spent in system safety. Ideally, you’d like to be in a place where you could have hard data to show that the expenditure of this money will drive this future dollar benefit. But in some cases, you can’t get to that. So you start with a qualitative definition of what the severity and the likelihood of an occurrence is. We can do the same thing with resilience.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that there will be another hurricane and we do have to prepare for it. For now, I’ve seen no waning of that desire or that focus or that need to prepare. But if we were to be lucky enough and fortunate enough not to have a hurricane for four or five years, some of that focus would go away. We just can’t afford to let that happen.

In the news coverage following your appointment as CEO earlier this year, one description referred to your role as “one of the toughest jobs in the universe.” How would you respond to that characterization?

Early in my life I knew I wanted to be an engineer; don’t ask me why. And then there were points in time when I knew I wanted to be in urban transportation, to work at a transit system, and to run an agency.

But it probably wasn’t until the last five to seven years that I thought maybe I would like to be the chairman of the largest transportation system in the Western Hemisphere. I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited about the challenges. There’s a tremendous work ethic within all the agencies and its people and a tremendous resilience on the part of the residents, customers, and employees to handle any challenge that comes their way.

So when you put that all together, I‘ve got the best job in the world.

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