Behind the scenes, M.T.A. engineer-in-chief Mike Horodniceanu builds a new transit system, as long as Joe Lhota can bring in the money

Michael Horodniceanu wih Jay Walder. (The Launch Box)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Follow: feed

For Jay Walder, the former commissioner of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Sept. 23 was a big day. It was that day he stood among a group of engineers and M.T.A. officials to cut the ribbon on a breakthrough, or at least the Second Avenue Subway's hookup to an existing tunnel at 63rd Street, marking the completion of an important phase of a capital project that has been decades in the making.

But the name of the boring machine that broke through bedrock deep in the subway tunnel was Adi. The engineers always give a name to the machine that cuts through bedrock to create a tunnel for a big project; Adi was named for the granddaughter of Michael Horodniceanu, the head of capital construction for the M.T.A., who has more breakthroughs to reach if this and other projects are to be significantly advanced on his watch at the state agency.

Horodniceanu is possibly the least well-known and most respected high-level M.T.A. official. You don't know about him in part because he's not in charge of making trains run on time, or rerouting lines, or determining your MetroCard prices. His job is much bigger: He is in charge of every major construction project the authority is undertaking, including but not limited to complex undertakings like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, a plan that would make it possible for commuter rail from Long Island to reach Grand Central Station.

(Ask anyone who makes that commute, or any employer deciding where to locate their company in Manhattan, and they will tell you what a difference that will make to the city.)

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

The biggest problem that faces Horodniceanu is that the M.T.A. is currently underfunded, fairly severely. There is finally a five-year capital plan, but the funding has been provisioned for only two years, which, according to Robert Passwell, a professor at The City College of New York, and its federally supported University Transportation Research Center, is why the Second Avenue Subway is being built in four phases.

“In July, I think, we came to the [M.T.A.] board, understanding that there is no appetite for people to raise taxes,” Horodniceanu said in an interview with Capital. But, he said, “our money comes from either taxes, the fare box, and some grants—the state, feds. So today no one from any place [provides funding]. So we ended up—right now—looking creatively to see how we can. Again, it’s always tough to borrow money.”

Jay Walder's resignation was unexpected; he's moving to Hong Kong to run the transit system there, which is actually profitable. He is almost universally well-respected among those who study and advocate for transit, and his resignation is considered by most of them to be a loss.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has appointed Joe Lhota to the job. Lhota was formerly a deputy mayor and budget director under mayor Rudy Giuliani, though he currently works as an executive at Madison Square Garden; the main concern from the sort of people that think about these things is that, unlike Walder, who is well known for his work on the transportation system in London, he does not have experience in transportation.

But the speculation among insiders is that his hire means a closer relationship between the M.T.A. and the governor's office, which has been seen as distant from transportation concerns generally. And if it also means giving the agency a hand at dealing with tricky financial situations and an experienced negotiator for funding, it would certainly be welcome news to Horodniceanu.

Of Lhota, Horodniceanu said that he “is a really smart man,” and that the two have already met twice.

It's plain to see why someone in his position might want help on the money score. Apparent disinterest from the governor's office and a lack of funding to pursue major projects were among the reasons multiple reports cited for Walder's exit; they were also, according to the Daily News, the reasons Horodniceanu's predecessor, Mysore Nagaraja, left the post in 2008.

“He’s not a transportation guru, but, you know, that’s why we exist," Horodniceanu said of his new boss. "I’m an engineer; he doesn’t need to be an engineer. I need him to help me get the money. And that’s important.”

At this moment in the interview his cell phone rang. It plays Vivaldi. And then one of his aides came into his office to discuss a report. After this he came back to Lhota, whom he said he knows tangentially.

“We will need to work out, you know, it’s a matter of style,” he said.

HORODNICEANU HAS STYLE. LAST THURSDAY HE WAS WEARING a grey pinstripe suit, a blue checked shirt, black shoes with tassels, red cuff links, and around his neck was an untied bow tie in a red pattern that sort of matched the oriental rug on the floor of his office.

From his office window on the eighth floor of M.T.A. headquarters at 2 Broadway, you can see both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

The building itself is extremely intimidating, a black cloud looming over the Bowling Green subway station. The lobby is clad in black marble, and security is such that even after presenting identification and arriving on the eighth floor, the double glass doors on each side are locked.

At the time I arrived, there was no one in sight behind the doors, and no apparent way to find them.

Behind the doors is a maze of neutral-colored hallways, which, had the man who finally let me in not helped me navigate, would have made arriving at my destination very complicated.

Horodniceanu was in a meeting when I arrived, so I sat on a neutral-colored couch in a reception area that had an impressive, extraordinarily large tree and a table on which were glossy books about transit systems in various cities around the world; hanging on a nearby wall was an old photograph of Columbus Circle.

His office is large. On the right side he has a wide wooden desk, and to the left is a set of maroon couches, and on the wall are old photographs of various subway projects in various states of completion, and framed diplomas, one of which was in Hebrew.

He speaks slowly and eloquently and with an Romanian accent that gives away the country where he was born, though at 16 his parents emigrated to Israel, where he had to learn Hebrew for the last two years of his high school education. It was, he said, "grueling, gruesome—whatever adjective you want to use—it was terrible, tough.”

On Oct. 14, 1970, his family arrived from Israel, a move he doesn't question.

“Doesn’t everyone want to come to America?” he asked when I pressed him on his family's reasons for coming here.

But he took great advantage of his situation, earning a master's in engineering management at the tough Columbia University program, after having finished his studies at Technion, the Israeli institute of technology.

But it was not his first major cultural adjustment, and by now Horodniceanu had a way of dealing with that. He said you must immediately participate in the institutions that make the place work to feel a part of your new home. It's a lesson he learned in Israel when he completed his military service there. The military in Israel, with its compulsory service, is a "melting pot."

“When you’re in the military, you contribute. Giving back turned out to be the way. So I figured out that over here, in government, it would be the same way. And I think it was for me, because I was suddenly was able to understand, meet people that are in the high level of government. Many of them stayed friends for life and in fact if I had not done that I would not have met the guy that appointed me here—[Eliot] Sander.”

Horodniceanu was working with government as contractor or consultant for a long time before he ever drew a paycheck from the public-sector.

His first job after he left Columbia had been at an engineering firm in New York that was a subsidiary of the New Jersey company Louis Berger, where he stayed for five years before going to The Polytechnic Institute of New York, where he was hired as a research director for the federal government to study what he called “transferring the concept of system safety from NASA.”

He began teaching at what he colloquially calls “Poly,” where he earned a doctorate. Going into academia was, he said, one of the best decisions he made, given his penchant for public-sector work.

“It allowed me to gain insight into something that would have been very hard if I had stayed and worked at a consulting firm up in Westchester," he said. "It was just—that allowed me enough personal growth. At the university, you know, there is something very interesting about people.

“If you’re a consultant and you knock on the door of a government official—like me now—what are you going to present to them?” he said. “But if a professor comes and says, ‘We’ve done research in this area; we think maybe you can make use of some of this information,’ it’s a different thing, because as a professor, you do not have the monetary incentive to drive you to do that, because you are an academic. So it opens the doors to many more people than otherwise. So that’s why I’m saying it was terrific from that point of view. It allowed me to interact with people that otherwise I would never have been able to do.”

While teaching, he and his colleagues from Poly formed a business that he called his "baby," Urbitran.

It had “allowed the professors to make a buck on the side,” he said, consulting with governments about transportation issues. For two years during that period he was also teaching at Manhattan College.

By the time he sold the company in 2008, he was effectively the majority shareholder, and Urbitran employed roughly 250 people.

High-tech travel-demand forecasting was what Urbitran first did.

"When you need to build a highway, or if you need to put a rail line, or to widen the road and so forth, you have to be able to forecast how many people are expected to use it," he said. "And that’s a complex issue because it goes into social issues, it goes into land use, it goes into population growth, it goes into income.”

When Urbitran was founded, high-speed computers were only available at universities, government entities, or in some cases major companies.

“We had access to that,” he said, “therefore we found a niche.”

They worked for entities like the federal Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

IT WAS IN 1986 THAT HORODNICEANU FOUND HIMSELF eating lunch in City Hall Park. City Hall had been rocked by a giant kickback scandal that resulted famously in the death by suicide of the former Queens borough president Donald Manes. There were big turnovers in several city agencies. And here, suddenly, was Jack Lusk, Deputy Counsel and Special Advisor to Mayor Ed Koch on transportation and environmental issues.

“We ended up on a bench eating lunch, and he offered me the job. Probably I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that,” Horodniceanu said.

Within three weeks he was confirmed, and held the job until 1990, when Ed Koch had lost the mayoral election and lots of people were making way for incoming Dinkins appointees.

Horodniceanu went back to Urbitran full time, buying the stock back for what he said was a much higher price.

In 2008, he sold Urbitran after Sander, who had since become the executive director and chief executive of the M.T.A., asked him if he would run capital construction.

“We became friends,” he said. “And so when he took the job [as head of the M.T.A.], he offered me this position. And I kind of thought about it for a while.

"He waited for me because I could not have a job here, and then my company.”

It meant halving his income (Horodniceanu actually said he has never taken a job that gave him a raise), but, he said, he eventually decided to join the authority because it was such a rare opportunity, the culmination of his desire to be a decision-maker about transportation instead of a suggester.

He now lives in Forest Hills, and has two adult sons, one of whom is a civil engineer, who also lives in Forest Hills; the other one works for a bank in Washington D.C.

“My aim is to really finish this job on time and on budget," he said. "Not always easy to do that. So my job is in effect to constantly be a cheerleader for my people, and at the same time being a cheerleader for the program outside.”

Horodniceanu doesn’t quite micromanage, but as an engineer, he likes, as he put it, that he gets to play the part as often as he likes.

“I come down from the 30,000 feet to about five feet to see what is going on," he said. "I like to touch things. I go out in the caverns—really am hands on, Right? That’s my—and sometimes could be a fault. But I do never lose site of the big picture. But I do get down, because sometimes you never understand what’s happening unless you go into the details. The devil, you know, is in the details.”

The most difficult project the M.T.A. is working on, Horodniceanu said, is East Side Access, which, when it is finished, will connect two lines of the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal.

At the moment, that means boring an 120-foot tunnel under Northern Boulevard in Queens, where the ground is soft, and under the F line and Metro North tracks. It means making what Horodniceanu calls a “freezing zone,” where, using a brine—because salt water freezes at a lower temperature—the surrounding earth is frozen to roughly minus-70 degrees Fahrenheit.

“You freeze it solid, he said, “and then it acts like a rock. So now you start taking it out.”

The freezing zone is pressurized, which means those working on the tunnel—the Sandhogs—have to go into a pressurized chamber until the body has adapted, spend one hour working, and then go into a depressurizing chamber for an hour before they can leave.

“It’s similar to diving,” Horodniceanu said.

Last Thursday night Horodniceanu was to be on assignment, giving a keynote address at a gala to raise money for the Transit Museum. But in lots of ways, Horodniceanu's job is to cheerlead, and hope that some money and goodwill makes its way into the M.T.A. capital construction budget, too.

“I was thinking, what can I say?" he told me. Someone else had given him some advice: "Explain how important these projects are, and the [for] first time in 75 years that we’re building all this stuff—you’re going to be the next Robert Moses of New York."

"OK, so, it sounded right," Horodniceanu said, "and so the funny part is that I said, ‘I feel now that I’m actually working on Second Avenue and bringing all these plagues to people—there is dust and vermin and flies and who knows what.

"And I feel like the real Moses."

But he does think it's all worth it.

"It is something that—you do it once in a lifetime, a once in a lifetime opportunity, to put your stamp on the expansion of the transit system in New York,” he said.