The upper ranks of the city Department of Transportation have been depleted by an exodus of high-skilled employees this year, reflecting mounting frustration among some staff members and making it harder for the agency to fulfill its mission, according to records and interviews.
Among roughly 560 of the top positions at the agency, nearly one in five sat vacant in early September, according to the DOT organizational chart obtained by Streetsblog through a Freedom of Information request. That’s higher than the DOT-wide vacancy rate of 12 percent shown by City Council data from June, the latest figures available.
The organizational chart reveals many high-level departures this year — the first of Ydanis Rodriguez’s tenure as transportation commissioner — including chief of staff, general counsel and the head of intergovernmental and community affairs. Turnover is common at the beginning of a new administration — especially in top positions — but other key posts that were empty earlier this month were also empty at the beginning of the year, according to interviews and a prior organizational chart. Those positions include director of communications, director of automated enforcement and director of federal and state aide.
The departures have left some remaining employees overworked and demoralized as they struggle to carry out the agency’s vast array of responsibilities amid persistently high rates of traffic violence in the city, according to interviews with a dozen current and recently departed staffers, nearly all of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly about their experiences.
“We got to the point where we couldn’t produce anything new,” said one recently departed agency employee. “We were just keeping the lights on.”
Not all of DOT’s problems are unique to the department. Agencies across city government are struggling with high vacancy rates — some more than DOT — according to Council data. That trend stems from a hiring freeze during the pandemic’s first year; a wave of resignations after the city required municipal employees to return to the office five days a week; a policy requiring agencies to let two jobs go vacant before filling one; the city’s slow hiring process; and the lure of the private sector, where salaries are often higher and schedules more flexible.
But some of DOT’s woes are entirely its own. Recently departed employees said staffing constraints are delaying street improvement projects and making it hard to meet street safety benchmarks. Other current and recently departed employees voiced dissatisfaction with alleged political meddling in street safety projects and with the leadership of Rodriguez, whom some described as well-intentioned but unqualified to lead the $1.3-billion agency.
“I think his heart’s in the right place, but he has no idea how DOT works,” one current DOT official said of Rodriguez. “He’s learning. But that’s not what you want. You want someone who’s a Janette or a Polly, who’s a transportation professional. Or someone who knows how to run a large organization. He’s neither.”
Former Commissioners Janette Sadik-Khan and Polly Trottenberg oversaw groundbreaking projects while leading DOT from 2007 to 2020, including the pedestrianization of Times Square, the creation of Citi Bike and the adoption of Vision Zero.
The agency declined to make Rodriguez available for an interview.
In a statement, DOT spokesman Vin Barone said: “Our passionate team is working every day to execute Commissioner Rodriguez’s ambitious agenda to deliver a safer, healthier, and more sustainable city with a clear focus on providing investment and resources equitably to historically underserved communities. As New Yorkers continue to lose their lives from traffic violence, the administration is investing a historic $900 million in the New York City Streets Plan and has outlined a plan to redesign 1,000 intersections this year that we…