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WVU grad oversees safety for the largest transit system in North America

As vice president of the NYC Transit Authority, Cheryl Kennedy oversees the Office of System Safety for the largest transit property in North America, one that carries more than two billion passengers a year and encompasses more than 70 miles of track.

The former Mountaineer basketball player and 1982 safety management graduate is tasked with the daily safety of NYCTA’s eight million bus and rail passengers as well as its 46,000 employees. Additionally, Kennedy is the federal, state and local safety contact charged with the oversight of the organization and its unions.

Kennedy and her 93-person staff ensures that safety is integrated into all operations—including occupational safety, environmental safety, fire safety, accident investigations, hazard analysis, safety audit programs, and performance indicators for customer and employee safety statistics.

“You have to integrate safety into operations and still maintain the ability to operate,” says Kennedy, an Edison, NJ native who still commutes daily from her hometown into the city. “You have to look at regulations and procedures and help implement safety so you can still operate at a high level.”

Kennedy first earned a BS degree in physical education from WVU’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences (CPASS) in 1981 before securing her master’s degree in safety management. Thirty-four years ago, she responded to an NYCTA employment ad in the New York Times . Five promotions later, she still enjoys the challenges and pressures that come with a top management job at the world’s largest transit system. 

“My job is so diverse,” says Kennedy.  “I deal with many difference safety issues and I’m not stuck in one area. I’ve had a lot of people leave and go to other jobs and come back because of that. There are so many different things to get involved in and  make it interesting.”

On that unforgettable day in the nation’s history nearly 16 years ago, Kennedy was in Manhattan for a meeting.

“We were getting ready for a transit committee meeting in Manhattan at Madison & 47th,” says Kennedy. “We saw something on the news and thought that a small plane might have hit the Tower. But then it became apparent what was happening and the meeting was cancelled.”

With the NYCTA operations team immediately shutting down the subway, Kennedy had to make her way through the throngs back to headquarters—safely.

“There were people all over the streets,” she says.  “People were running from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I walked across the bridge with thousands of people. It was unbelievable.  The phones would not work but I was able to use our Nextel system to talk to my staff as I was going across the bridge.  One of our employees met me on the other side and took me to the Brooklyn office.”

The management team spent the next 24 hours sequestered at the office—the exact time that the system was down.  There was extensive damage to one of the tunnels at the World Trade Center and subsequently part of the subway line near Chambers street was shut down for more than a year.

“We were tying to figure out when we were going to re-open – how we were going to get the system back up,” says Kennedy. “I had to make sure our employees had the personal protective equipment that they needed when they were working there.  It was a lot more on the occupational and environmental side of safety, and industrial hygiene figured in as well. We had to identify – are we going to be exposed to asbestos or what when we go in there?

“She’s a powerhouse,” said Carmen Bianco, president of the NYC Transit System and Kennedy’s boss until his retirement in August of 2015. “I would describe her as the most technically-versed person in the profession. She is that grounded. She has a handle on things from design to the end of whatever you are doing.”

Kennedy’s love for WVU began when she stepped on campus in 1977 as an 18-year-old, and along the way, she has converted most of her family to the gold and blue. Five years after his big sister enrolled, brother Doug, now a police officer in upstate New York, joined her on campus.

Donald and Elizabeth Kennedy, Cheryl’s parents, also fell in love with the University over the eight years that Cheryl and Doug were in school. After their children graduated, they continued to make the six-hour trek from New Jersey to Mountaineer home football games, and quickly made friends with a group of RV owners. Today the RV is gone, but they are die-hard season ticket holders and continue to tailgate with the same group.

Even as she was climbing the corporate ladder, Kennedy found time to sneak away to WVU on football weekends with husband Mike and daughter Kelly. Mike, who had attended a small college in New Jersey, was instantly a fan. “He had never seen anything like it,” said Kennedy of the spirit at Mountaineer home games.

In 2012, Kelly became a member of the WVU family, spending two years on campus and receiving a master’s degree in CPASS sports management. Last year Kelly became the first Kennedy family member to make Morgantown her permanent home, joining WVU Trademark Licensing as a full-time program coordinator.

Sports has always run deep with Kennedy, who walked on to the women’s basketball team in 1977 and played two seasons.

“The role of sports helped me tremendously in managing people,” she says. “As I was promoted into managerial jobs, the skills that I developed playing on sports teams truly translated much more than you would ever think. You eventually figure out where your employees are weak and where they are strong. Knowing how you can help them is more useful as you get higher in the corporate world.

“Likewise, safe and reliable transit service to customers only comes about when you function as a team. Whatever I do affects the organization. The value of being united on a team toward the same goal – that really helped me in my career.”

The safety studies program at WVU, which moved from CPASS to the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources in 1991, also prepared Kennedy for the high-pressure scenarios that she has encountered during her career.

“WVU had very good safety courses in a lot things that I ended up getting exposed to,” says Kennedy.  “In particular it helped you to learn where to access information. We took a look at a project and assessed what change would occur if hazards were introduced to the system, and how likely certain things would be to occur and what remedies were options.”

The NYC Transit Authority, including Kennedy’s safety unit, meets with the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Fire Department four times a year for large-scale drills, and other times, for mock table-top drills. The drills could be derailments, collisions or fires.

“WVU helped me to have the mindset of looking at a problem and analyzing it—looking at the big picture and figure out how to manage it.”

It’s “safe” to say that Kennedy learned her lessons well.

Lisa Morton Franson is a 1980 WVU graduate who has spent the last 35 years working in sports media relations. She and Kennedy are former Mountaineer teammates and college roommates.

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