Reminder: The MTA Chair Is Not an Omnipotent Transit God

Jay Walder may have exaggerated when he claimed this week to have put the city transit system “back on firm financial footing” during his stint as MTA chairman, but he did show remarkable reserve in not letting loose on Albany for undercutting rail and bus service at every turn. Unfortunately the media failed to fill in the blanks.

Half a world away from Albany, Jay Walder has more to smile about.

Speaking at a press conference in Hong Kong, where he just started his new job as chief executive of the privately-owned Mass Transit Railway Corporation, Walder said: “New York, when I arrived there, was in a financial crisis. The system simply did not have enough money to continue to operate. The assets were not being renewed. And the infrastructure was in terrible condition.”

Walder’s understated comments were picked up by the Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others, but nowhere have we seen anyone point out how little power the head of the MTA actually wields over agency funding. Nor did any reporter or editor take Walder’s cue to highlight years of Albany malfeasance.

To read the Times piece, for example, you’d think the MTA is an autonomous operation, free to conduct business without political interference. There is a passing reference to Governor Cuomo’s gutting of $320 million in annual payroll tax revenue, but no mention of last year’s $100 million Albany raid on dedicated MTA funds. Forgotten is how state senators used congestion pricing as a litmus test for Walder’s confirmation. With Albany unwilling to enact a new revenue stream via road pricing, it fell to Walder to cut spending.

Most glaringly, absent is an accounting of the decades of lawmaker thievery and neglect that preceded Walder and Cuomo, though those misdeeds more than anything will saddle transit riders for years to come, in the form of decreased service, fare hikes, or both. Other than raising fares or selling off assets, the chair of the MTA has very little revenue-raising clout. For whatever reason this factoid never seems to make the papers.

As for Walder, you get the distinct sense that there is no looking back.

“I think we have a very different situation here,” Walder said. “We have a first-class railway. We have a sustainable financial model that is supporting that railway. And I think the people of Hong Kong are benefiting tremendously from what we have.

“I don’t think it’s the same situation as what you have in New York.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    If Walder didn’t play ball he wouldn’t have gotten the job.  The same is true of the MTA Board.  Now you have to ask, who is it that they are expected to serve?  Who is the beneficiary on the other side of the losses?

    Debts have been added that will have to be paid — later.  Pensions have been enriched that will have to be paid — later.  “The assets were not being renewed” but the transit system essentially works, until later.

    Meanwhile, a generation screams “I want for me now!” over and over.  Do they say “and to hell with later and those who will still be around?”  No, it’s not their problem, and they aren’t worried about their legacy.  And you’ll get banned for even bringing it up.

    Meanwhile, look across the entire range of public policy and you see the same thing.  It isn’t just transit.  It isn’t just infrastructure.

    Most NYC public employees in or near retirement were promised a half pay, not inflation adjusted pension at age 62 after 30 years or work with a 3 percent contribution when they were hired.  But that was changed, by the legislators of their generations supported by the union, to a partially inflation adjusted pension at age 57 or 55 after contributing for just the first ten lower paid years.  Retroactively, meaning it was suddenly awarded without money having been set aside and earning returns throughout the retiree’s careers to pay for it.  And public services are now being gutted as a result.

    And in that same address Cuomo says that there should be no givebacks for current employees, but a new pension should be put in place for future employees with retirement at 65 or 67 — later than those now hired to begin with!  With no questioning why that difference is fair.  Just the younger paying for the pillage of the older.

    Look at the federal government, and you see the same discussions going on for Medicare and Social Security.  Meanwhile, the national debt rises by $trillions a year after 30 years of tax cuts and old age benefit increases for today’s seniors.

    It will just keep happening until someone has the guts to call it what it is.  The money that wasn’t spent on transit was not burned in a bonfire in Albany, and this state hasn’t exactly invested in roads and bridges either.

  • carma

    having ridden the MTR in hk, i can attest that it IS far superior than nyct.  yeah, sure it has much less lines, but when a train says it will arrive at 13:03PM, it MEANS it WILL arrive at 13:03PM.  plus, the octopus card is so awesome.  something walder wanted to do for the MTA.

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