Mortimer L. Downey III, leader in urban mass transit, dies at 87

After holding top jobs with New York’s MTA and the federal DOT, he had a tumultuous reign as a government appointee to the Washington Metro board

By Bart Barnes, for the Washington Post

November 3, 2023 at 12:05 p.m. EDT

Mortimer L. “Mort” Downey held high-level project policy and funding roles in both NYC and federal transit agencies, and was a top executive of Parsons Brinckerhoff, now part of WSP.
Photo: Eno Center for Transportation Studies

In June 2009, a Red Line train accident — the result in part of shoddy maintenance on electronic track signals — killed nine and injured 80 near Fort Totten station in Northeast Washington.

It was a harrowing reminder of why Metro riders had long been losing confidence in the system’s reliability. Ridership was down. Trains were late. Escalators were breaking down. Maintenance had been neglected. Moreover, the system was millions of dollars in debt.

In the wake of the crisis, the Obama administration stepped in to name federal appointees to the Metro board with the hope of reassuring commuters — especially the 300,000 local federal workers who use it daily — that safety and stronger administrative oversight were important to the system’s management.

One of those appointees was Mortimer L. Downey III, a nationally recognized leader in urban mass transit, who died Nov. 2 at 87.

“The federal government would like its employees to arrive at work on time, fundamentally alive,” Mr. Downey, a transportation consultant who had been executive director from 1986 to 1993 of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and then deputy transportation secretary during the two terms of the Clinton administration, said at the time of his hiring in 2010.

Mr. Downey spent six years as a Metro director, including a stint as chairman in 2015 and 2016 when he oversaw the most fractious, troubled period in the system’s 47-year history.

His work on the board initially drew praise as he helped introduce safety measures. As chairman, however, operational and financial crises mounted, and a hard corps of dissident board members emerged who said he was failing to introduce urgently needed reforms. Mr. Downey, in turn, accused them of divisive rhetoric, stalling Metro expansion plans and unreasonably limiting borrowing measures.

They “made life so miserable for Downey that he decided not to seek reelection as chairman,” The Washington Post reported in 2016. “They did so partly by raising questions about what they saw as a conflict of interest between his work on the board and a consulting deal he had with a Metro contractor. It resulted in an ethics investigation that he deeply resented, but he was ultimately cleared.” (He had been accused of having a conflict of interest as a paid adviser to an engineering company with ties to the transit agency.)

“I don’t need the aggravation,” Mr. Downey told The Post that year. “Some of the new board members were rushing in and saying … ‘Basically, you are a crook.’ … I’ve had a good long career, and this is not the way I’d like to bring it to end. I’m very unhappy.”

Despite the bad feelings, Mr. Downey felt vindicated later for having overseen the selection of Paul J. Wiedefeld as the system’s new chief executive and general manager in November 2015. Wiedefeld was credited with restoring a degree of stability to Metro and putting it on a path to recovery before his retirement from the position in May 2022.

Mortimer Leo Downey III was born in Springfield, Mass., on Aug. 9, 1936. He graduated in 1954 from the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and in 1958 from Yale University. He received a master’s degree in public administration from New York University in 1966.

In 1961, he married Dorothea Joyce Vander Meyden, a physical therapist. She died in 2013. Survivors include two sons, Stephen M. Downey of Dix Hills, N.Y., and Christopher S. Downey of Chatham, N.J.; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Downey died at a retirement home in Oakton, Va., of pulmonary fibrosis, said Kelley Coyner, a friend and former colleague.

Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Downey worked with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and became a transportation program analyst for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Budget. He was the U.S. Transportation Department’s assistant secretary for budget and programs from 1977 to 1981.

He came to the Washington Metro after having earned a reputation for strong management with the largest independent public authority in the country — New York’s MTA — and then at the Transportation Department under Bill Clinton.

At first, Mr. Downey won plaudits from the Federal Transit Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board for instituting safety procedures recommended in the wake of the 2009 fatal Metro train collision.

Mr. Downey, then U.S. deputy secretary of transportation, talks to a traffic information manager in 1997. (James A. Parcell/The Washington Post)

Those accolades were all but obliterated by a 2015 Metro toxic smoke incident in a tunnel outside L’Enfant Plaza station that left one passenger dead and scores of others ill.

“What’s troubling is that our focus for four years had been on safety,” Mr. Downey said at the time. “One afternoon, and it’s gone.”

During his year as chairman, Metro board members were quoted in The Post as having said Mr. Downey failed to hold staff members accountable for mistakes and poor judgment. There were bitter confrontations.

In January 2016, there was a blistering contretemps involving Mr. Downey and one of his allies on the board, former Amtrak chairman and president Tom Downs, and Leif A. Dormsjo, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s director of transportation.

“You’ve got your head in the sand,” Dormsjo told Mr. Downey and Downs.

Downs answered with an observation that Dormsjo’s head was lodged in his posterior.

In April 2016, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx replaced Mr. Downey and two other federal members of the Metro board, citing continuing safety concerns.

“Given the continued urgency, we will be forced to use every available lever at our discretion to force action as soon as possible to improve safety for the traveling public,” Foxx said. “No more excuses.” (Foxx’s announcement came only days after an emergency evacuation of a Red Line train because of an electrical problem that caused smoke in a tunnel.)

“Despite decades of warnings from the federal government and others, Metro has failed to instill a safety-first mind-set in its workforce and allowed its equipment to deteriorate so much that it sometimes endangers riders,” The Post said in reporting Mr. Downey’s replacement.

Foxx praised the service of Mr. Downey and the other two directors being replaced. “They’re doing what they think is necessary,” Mr. Downey said at the time, “and they’re looking for results.”