by John D. Hubbard
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, better known as the MTA, moves people -- millions of people -- every day, in, out and around New York City. And it is E. Virgil Conway's job to make sure all the moves go well; that the trains run on time, that the bridges carry traffic smoothly and that the subways are efficient.
Appointed by New York State Governor George Pataki, Conway serves gratis. After more than 20 years with Seaman's Bank and a lifetime of involvement with the financial industry, Conway sits on several boards and is dedicated to public and community affairs.
"During my entire career I've always held some sort of public service job in addition to whatever I was doing to make a living," says Conway. "I think it's vitally important people take more of an interest in public service and give some of their time and talent to it."
The hours and skill Conway devotes to the MTA are enormous.
As chairman and CEO for the past year, Conway has set out to make the MTA and its affiliates much more self-sufficient. "Public transportation will always be subsidized, and properly so, but we have an obligation to operate on the most cost-effective basis possible," says Conway. To meet the substantial deficit he instituted a two-pronged plan that, along with his management style, stresses the high calling of effort and cooperation.
First, operational costs will be reduced some $3 billion and a fare increase will generate $308 million over a five-year period. over the same period. The new $1.50 subway fare is now comparable to the cost of tokens in every other major city in the country, while commuter rail fares were increased an average of 37 cents a ride.
"I just feel we owe the taxpayer and the farepayer a pledge to do the best possible job, and that includes cutting out duplication and eliminating labor and management practices where they aren't productive," says Conway.
The fare increases, cuts and the consolidation of departments are cited by Conway as small examples that "add up to a series of efficiencies."
Says the chairman, "My philosophy of management is to develop a plan and then execute it. If you have a general managerial background and if you develop a plan, I think the effects can show pretty quickly."
In addition to streamlining operations, Conway has strived to establish a concept of mutual trust. "I found a rather contentious labor policy around here that is foreign to my philosophy: a concept based on the fact we're all on the same team.
"You have to change the culture so that labor and management realize they are working toward the same goals. I feel strongly this approach in the end is the only one that works." Conway points to the new single map for all agencies rather than the old individual charts for each system as a step in the right direction.
Coming out of a deep history of Calvinism and Presbyterianism, Conway carries with him a sense of "whatever you're doing, you are doing God's work." He is also happy in his labors, choosing to serve rather than spend long days on the beach at Montauk or collecting primitive art, two important diversions that have yet to lure him from his efforts full time.
The descendent of railroaders, Conway works to assure the trains run on time and more, which has less to do with romance than a feeling "of absolute obligation to undertake tasks that have to be done."
In the '60s Conway helped tackle water problems caused by New York's drought and in the '70s he was on board to battle the city's financial woes. Now transportation has his attention.
"All have been critical to the economic vitality of the area where I live, which gives me a real zest to be working on these problems. They are important public policy matters that have to have leadership, planning and a vision for the future.
"Because of my faith, I can approach these problems with a sense of joy and hope. I don't mean there are not moments of discouragement but I've always enjoyed problem-solving -- looking at an issue to see what the options are and trying to do what's possible."
With analytical skills honed at Colgate, Conway credits his liberal arts education for modeling his ability to put problems and issues in perspective. Drawing on the wisdom of the past, he also understands the world isn't drawn in black and white. "You work in various shades of grey," says Conway.
Away from MTA headquarters (and the boards of Con Ed, Union Pacific, the Audit Committee for the City of New York and a host of other volunteer activities) Conway is an "inveterate snorkler," hunts quail and is enthralled with the power and depth of the masks and divination bowls he collects.
Conway and his wife Elaine, a member of the Governor's Cabinet as Director of the Division of Women, have several grandchildren who also fill up their sparse spare time.
The MTA includes 5,806 subway cars, 3,559 buses and 740 trains and, in 1995 10 billion customers had passed through bridge and tunnel tollbooths.
Virg Conway is dedicated to a new era of stability in which New Yorkers can be assured getting there is not only possible but safe and affordable.