Richard Ravitch dies at 89; helped bring NYC back from brink

Richard Ravitch, one of the financial saviors of New York City’ during the near bankruptcy of the city in the 1970s, died Sunday. He was 89, just over a week shy of his 90th birthday.

Ravitch, a former Lt. Governor of New York State and chair of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was an expert in municipal finance and had also executed a successful fiscal turnaround as chair of the then-troubled New York State Urban Development Corp. in the 1970s.

Ravitch received degrees from Columbia College in American history and in law from Yale Law School. After graduation in the 1960s, he worked for the U.S. House of Representatives’ government operations committee and then moved back to New York to serve on the state’s commission on governmental operations for New York City.

In 1966, he was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Urban Problems and in 1968 was elected president of Citizens Housing and Planning Council in New York City.

From 1979 to 1983, Ravitch served as chair of the MTA and helped turn around the fiscally challenged agency, recapitalizing its coffers, dealing with both union and management issues and weathering an 11-day subway and bus strike in 1980.

William Glasgall, senior director of public finance at the Volcker Alliance, fondly remembered Ravitch, who was an Alliance director and founder of the Richard Ravitch Public Finance Initiative.

“He was a great friend, public servant, visionary builder, enthusiastic philanthropist and fervent supporter of transparency and fiscal prudence and sustainability among states and municipalities,” Glasgall told The Bond Buyer Monday. “His key role in the financial rescue of New York City following its near-bankruptcy in 1975 set Dick on a nearly five-decade path making sure such an event would never happen again in the city and elsewhere.”

Praise for Ravitch poured in from all parts of the state.

“We have lost a giant of our city, a true leader, an indefatigable advocate, a friend, and an inspiration,” said Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission.

“For CBC he was a chair, Rohatyn Award recipient, and dogged motivator. Dick was a huge supporter [of CBC] and often said that CBC was the only organization that still told the truth and always urged us to be bold,” Rein told The Bond Buyer.

“All who knew Dick understood he would never stop fighting for New York’s progress. He never did. His example inspires us all,” Rein said. “I will miss him dearly and New York — better for all he has done — sadly loses a champion and a spark.” 

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli praised Ravitch’s experience and knowledge.

“Dick Ravitch was a transformative force who helped save New York and the MTA during their greatest fiscal crises. He found success in business but devoted himself to public service,” DiNapoli told The Bond Buyer. “What distinguished him from others was his credibility, experience and depth of knowledge. His aggressiveness about issues he cared about wasn’t part of any political calculation. It was always heartfelt. He was a mentor to me and to many others. He will be greatly missed.”

Always a fiscal realist, Ravitch often called for municipal securities to be subjected the same type of federal oversight as corporate debt, and for all states and municipalities to budget by generally accepted accounting principles, which New York went to more than 40 years ago.

“That’s the lesson we can learn from New York City,” he told The Bond Buyer in 2016. “It has carried the city through three significant recessions, including the big one in 2008 and the 9/11 tragedy. It’s a lesson nobody is willing to learn.”

He also warned about issuing debt to cover operating expenses.

“Using borrowed money without a rational scheme for paying it back in an economy that is dramatically weakened and that is dependent on the level of recovery from the pandemic that at the moment nobody is actually predicting,” he told The Bond Buyer in 2020.

Ravitch was a founding member of Build America Mutual’s Board of Directors, serving from 2012 through 2016.  

“His perspective and guidance were valuable to BAM and our member issuers during his service on our board,” BAM CEO Seán McCarthy told The Bond Buyer. “His career-long focus on improving fiscal transparency for state and local governments is a legacy that will continue to benefit the entire municipal market and the essential projects it finances.”

N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul said Ravitch was a titan of New York’s civic world who left an indelible mark on the state.

“From steering the MTA through a critical time to serving as Lt. Governor, he was a steady, savvy, and brilliant leader and a public servant in the truest sense of the term,” she said in a press release.

MTA Chair Janno Lieber noted Ravitch’s contributions to the city’s transportation infrastructure.

“Dick Ravitch, for everybody in the transportation business, was a giant. He was the chairman of the MTA at maybe the lowest moment in the history of at least the subway system, and certainly the mass transit system in New York,” Lieber said in a statement. “In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he led the beginnings of the turnaround of our great mass transit system … in many ways, he is one of the fathers of the mass transit system that we have today.”

Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, said when RPA established a lifetime leadership award to honor a public leader who has done extraordinary things for the New York metropolitan region Ravitch was the first recipient, in 2009.

“Dick was a friend, mentor, inspiration and leader for generations of public servants and civic leaders. He will be most remembered as the person who helped rescue the city from fiscal insolvency in the 1970s and restored New York City’s subway system in the 1980s,” Wright said. “He championed funding for the MTA throughout his illustrious career and was never afraid to stand firm for the issues and priorities he believed in. Today is a sad day for New York.”

Ravitch is survived by his wife, Kathleen, and his sons, Joseph and Michael. Funeral arrangements have not yet been finalized.