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Mortimer Downey, Force for Mass Transit in U.S. and N.Y., Dies at 87

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Mortimer L. Downey, whose creative financing helped revive New York City’s subway system and who also oversaw far-reaching regional and federal transportation policy for more than six decades, died on Thursday at a retirement home in Oakton, Va. He was 87.

The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, said Kelley Coyner, a friend, former colleague and spokeswoman for the family.

Mr. Downey became an accidental transportation expert after failing to receive any offers from the banking and financial institution recruiters he interviewed with as a student at Yale in the late 1950s.

Instead, he enlisted as a management trainee with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, his first step on a road that would take him to Washington, where he became the U.S. Transportation Department’s longest tenured deputy secretary, serving from 1993 to 2001, under Secretaries Federico Peña and Rodney Slater during the Clinton administration.

As the department’s chief operating officer for eight years Mr. Downey played a role in initiatives such as reforms to Amtrak and the drafting of the Transportation Equity Act of 1998, the most expensive public works legislation ever passed by Congress. It authorized an outlay of $217 billion (about $413 billion in today’s dollars) and granted localities more flexibility in spending federal funds on mass transit.

“I know of no person in recent history who contributed more to our nation’s transportation and mobility systems than Mort Downey,” Mr. Peña said in an email.

In the 1980s, Mr. Downey was instrumental in devising three strategies that generated billions of dollars for mass transit in metropolitan New York even as the city and state were still reeling from the city’s mid-1970s brush with bankruptcy. With Richard Ravitch, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman, Mr. Downey persuaded the bond market that an agency that was losing money on every ride would raise fares or resort to other means to repay whatever it borrowed on its own.

“This credit was the fundamental building block of rebuilding the system,” said Jay Walder, who succeeded Mr. Downey as the M.T.A.’s executive director and later served as chairman.

As a result, the agency raised some $3 billion to purchase 1,500 subway cars, a fleet of new buses and new commuter rail trains. The money also went toward rehabilitating stations, signals, tracks and power systems as well as repair shops, to upgrade the existing rolling stock.

He also masterminded an innovative lease-back financing arrangement under which new subway cars were sold to private companies — unlike a public agency, the companies could reap the tax benefits of depreciation — and those businesses then leased the cars back to the M.T.A.

The huge demand for new subway cars led to the establishment, in upstate New York, of the nation’s largest rail car manufacturing plant — another part of Mr. Downey’s legacy, Mr. Walder said.

In addition, against a looming deadline in 1985, Mr. Downey engineered a swap of about $500 million in federal funds originally designated for the proposed, but doomed, Westway arterial highway along Manhattan’s Hudson River waterfront and had it earmarked instead for mass transit projects.

“Without his wizardry, fiscal and otherwise, all the improvements that followed wouldn’t have been possible,” Janno Lieber, the M.T.A.’s chief executive, said of Mr. Downey in a statement. He called him “the premier transportation professional of his generation.”

Mortimer Leo Downey III was born on Aug. 9, 1936, in Springfield, Mass. His father was a claims adjuster. His mother, Elizabeth (Carlin) Downey, was an English teacher.

Mort attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., on a scholarship. His first transportation job was working one summer as a sailing instructor in Bermuda for a Phillips faculty member.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale in 1958. He later served in the Coast Guard Reserve, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander, and received a master’s in public administration from New York University in 1966.

His master’s thesis was on the urban planner Robert Moses, before Robert A. Caro’s magisterial biography “The Power Broker” was published in 1974.

“My paper emphasized Moses’s many accomplishments and how knitting them together across multiple agencies and projects served to meet broader public goals,” Mr. Downey recalled for the National Academy of Public Administration. “After ‘The Power Broker’ was published, I did see how the process could be refined to be more responsive to public issues of equity and accountability. But the major lesson was that big projects could bring big results.”

He married Joyce Vander Meyden in 1961; she died in 2012. His brother, Peter, also died. Mr. Downey is survived by his sons, Stephen and Christopher; five grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.

In his first job, with the Port Authority, he urged the bistate agency to devote more of its resources to mass transit and was involved with its takeover of the bankrupt Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, which became what is now the PATH system connecting New Jersey and Manhattan.

Mr. Downey went to Washington in 1975 as a transportation program analyst for the House of Representatives Committee on the Budget. He left to become the Transportation Department’s assistant secretary for budget and programs from 1977 to 1981, during the Carter administration. In 1981, he returned to New York to join the M.T.A. as assistant executive director of management and budget. He was the agency’s executive director from 1986 to 1993.

After working in private industry and as a consultant, from 2010 to 2016, Mr. Downey served as the first federal representative on the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority, which aimed to rebuild bus and subway ridership, repair its neglected infrastructure and deal with the repercussions of a deadly train collision in 2009.

His chairmanship, from 2015 to 2016, was marked by stormy relations with a divided board, with some members complaining about inefficiencies and indifference to safety and accusing him of having a conflict of interest involving a consulting contract. He hired a new safety officer and, after an investigation, was cleared of any wrongdoing regarding the contract.

Mr. Downey was a voracious reader. He regularly took two suitcases filled with documents home with him after work. Once, while his wife was driving him to the ferry to Block Island on a summer weekend, he became so desperate for reading material that he flipped down the visor over the windshield and started perusing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warning sticker. He noticed a mistake and returned to work after the weekend and directed the agency to fix it.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, may have paid Mr. Downey the ultimate compliment. When his nomination as deputy secretary was being considered by Congress, Mr. Moynihan, who died in 2003, recalled Mr. Downey’s tenure at the M.T.A.

“He left almost as popular as when he arrived,” the senator said. “No one has done that with a subway system in our time.”

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