Walder Praised After Resigning; Successor Will Be Thrust Into Era of Scarcity

In his relatively brief time at the helm of the MTA, Jay Walder earned widespread plaudits for introducing technological innovations while guiding the agency through increasingly perilous financial straits. His departure comes at a critical moment for the transit agency. With a $9 billion deficit facing the MTA’s capital program at the end of this year, whoever replaces Walder will need political skill and technical expertise to spare transit riders another round of enormous fare hikes or service cuts. Even the most competent transit executive will have a hard time pulling it off, and leadership from the governor’s office and the state legislature will be absolutely necessary.

Walder had vowed to protect transit riders from higher fares and worse service. This March, he promised that both service cuts and fare hikes were “off the table,” and just yesterday, Walder pledged to cut the MTA’s capital budget “not by deferring vital projects but instead by finding better ways of delivering benefits.” Walder also promised the State Senate, when he was first confirmed, not to push for road pricing as a way to shore up the MTA’s precarious finances. Today, it is hard to see any possible scenario where some combination of fare hikes, service cuts, capital program cuts, and road pricing does not come into play in the near future.

With Walder’s departure, speculation immediately turns to whom Governor Andrew Cuomo will select as a replacement.

While both Walder and his predecessor, Lee Sander, are highly experienced transportation professionals, prior MTA chiefs were often politically connected businessmen allied with the governor. Kate Slevin, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, urged Cuomo to choose a “qualified professional who understands the transit system” to replace Walder. Given the timing of Walder’s resignation, she said — the capital plan runs dry at the end of the year exactly as TWU Local 100 contract expires — someone who can hit the ground running is particularly necessary.

“I hope the governor appoints somebody who is a devoted mass transit advocate,” said Jim Brennan, the chair of the Assembly Authorities committee. “The person is going to have to be an awfully good manager. The MTA is facing a lot of challenges.” Brennan praised Walder’s ability to manage the authority’s budget during two years of persistent and sizable shortfalls, saying he implemented policies which were difficult but necessary.

He called on Cuomo to appoint a worthy successor. “I hope the governor is willing to step up and be a partner in relation to supporting the mass transit system,” he said.

Walder’s resignation from the agency, effective October 21, came as a shock to staff at MTA headquarters, MTA board members, elected officials and transportation advocates alike. An anonymous source told the New York Times that Walder was not pushed out of his position, but rather felt that he could not refuse the job of running Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation. The Hong Kong job will be far more lucrative for Walder, according to the Wall Street Journal, and MTR’s finances are much healthier than the MTA’s.

The circumstances of Walder’s departure may be clearer after Cuomo makes his pick. If he goes with an experienced and respected transit professional, it will seem less likely that Walder was forced out.

Reactions to Walder’s departure have flooded in since his resignation was announced. With the exception of the TWU, they have been almost exclusively positive, focusing on accomplishments like the introduction of countdown clocks in the subways, real-time bus information, Select Bus Service, and gateless tolling on the Henry Hudson Bridge.

Here are the reactions so far:

Governor Andrew Cuomo:

“For nearly two years, Jay Walder has shown true leadership at the helm of the MTA and been a fiscally responsible manager during these difficult financial times. Riders of the MTA are better off today because of Jay’s expertise and the reforms he initiated will benefit all for years to come. Jay’s departure is a loss for the MTA and for the state, but I thank him for his service and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg:

“Jay Walder is a world-class transportation professional and any city in the world would have been lucky to have him. He set a new course for the MTA during an extremely difficult period when the agency was not given the resources required to meet the City’s needs. He expertly shepherded major projects like the 7 line extension and new bus rapid transit lines, and by embracing new technology, he made significant improvements to the customer experience – from gateless tolling on bridges to countdown clocks in subway stations – that the public will appreciate long after his departure. I was proud to work with him on these and many more projects. He is a first-rate leader with big ideas, and I will miss collaborating with him. He is the type of person we can’t afford to lose, and his departure is a real loss for New York City, the metropolitan region, the state and the country.”

City Council Transportation Chair James Vacca:

“This resignation comes at a crucial time. A year after the worst service cuts in the MTA’s history and yet another fare and toll increase, the most serious challenges for straphangers may still lie ahead. While Chairman Walder deserves credit for taking on many structural issues that previous MTA leaders had delayed for a tomorrow that never came, the MTA continues to face a $250 million operating gap and a capital budget that runs out January 1. It’s getting harder and harder to do more with less, and the MTA needs someone at the helm not only who understands the role mass transit plays in the lives of everyday New Yorkers but who is prepared to get to work on day one.”

General Contractors Association managing director Denise Richardson:

“This is not only a loss for transit in New York but for all transit systems in the United States. His resignation says more about our collective unwillingness to properly fund our transportation network than it does about new opportunities for his career. It is ironic that he is leaving New York for Hong Kong, a global competitor set to overtake New York in economic prominence.

We wish him well in his new position. As we approach the 30th anniversary of the first MTA capital program, we hope the next MTA chairman will bring to the table the same spirit that our appointed and elected officials had when they rescued the system during a similarly challenging fiscal crises.

Mr. Walder’s decision says more about the difficulty of gaining public support for transit in New York than it does for new opportunities in Hong Kong.”

TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen:

“Transit workers won’t miss Jay Walder and quite frankly will be glad to see him go. He has been antagonistic to the union and the workers from his first day on the job. His attempt last year to blackmail the union into major pay and other concessions led to gratuitous layoffs. He ushered in unprecedented service cuts in both subway and bus service, with particular insensitivity to already underserved areas of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. He never grasped the notion that our bus and subway systems are the most basic and vital service afforded to New York’s working class. And he was ineffective in dealing with Albany to not only secure new funding for public transportation to avoid service reductions, but to protect the dedicated sources of transit revenue. He attacked his blue collar workforce and his own lower level white collar employees, but never looked to upper management on his “quest” for cost savings.

He leaves New York City transit in worse shape than when he arrived less than two years ago. We will urge the Governor to appoint a new Chair who will view his workers as allies not the enemy, and a person who fully grasps the magnitude of the contribution of the public transportation system to the economic vitality of New York.”

Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White:

“Jay Walder steered the MTA through its toughest challenges since the bad old days of the 70s. Facing a daunting fiscal situation brought on by the governor and state legislature’s repeated budget raids, Walder kept our trains and buses serving millions of New Yorkers 24 hours every day. His work to bring Select Bus Service and Real-Time updates to transit riders is bringing New York City’s transit system into the 21st Century and will help keep the city and region competitive with other global leaders vying for business, talent and capital. Mr. Walder’s commitment to the necessity of transit in the lives of New Yorkers has set a high bar, and his successor must come with equal leadership to steer the MTA and the region through the rough terrain ahead.”

The Regional Plan Association:

“Jay Walder has done a superb job at the MTA during the past two years of extreme economic challenge. New York will miss his deep knowledge of and passion for the transportation network that makes the region’s economy possible. That network, of course, is bigger than any one individual. We have every expectation that Governor Cuomo will appoint an outstanding transportation professional to replace Jay and continue his work on modernizing and investing in the future of the subways, buses, commuter railroads, and river crossings.”

  • JamesR

    Could the TWU look any less magnanimous with their comments? Samuelson must think that this is supposed to make him look like some kind of populist street fighter to the public, yetpPublic sector unions may be the one entity hated more than the MTA these days. This won’t score him any points. Not only is this boorish behavior, its bad optics.  

  • BarneyTD

    John Samuelsen for MTA Chairman!

  • Anonymous

    Walder just got here!

    E. Virgil Conway held that post for SIX years.  Thanks Pataki.  http://www.mta.info/mta/leadership/chairs.htm

  • nobody

    Looks like TWU hasn’t learned much.

  • gcymb

    WALDER KNOWS, IN MY OPINION, MANAGEMENT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR FALSE INSPECTIONS OF SIGNALS AND BUSES NOT BEING PROPERLY BEING MAINTAINED… GRAB HIS PASSPORT…………….

  • gcymb

    I GAVE A LOT TO THE INSPECTOR GENERAL OF THE MTA, ALL ON TOM PRENDERGAST AND THE SIGNALATE…. IT IS IN THE CHIEF JAN. 14TH 2011

  • gcymb

    I GAVE UP TOM PRENDERGAST TO THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY ON JANUARY 10TH…………     I DO SEE ANYMORE ABOUT SIGNALGATE

  • Andrew

    Grab your Caps Lock first.

  • Nicole Gelinas

    All the praise for Walder is strange. He was doing fine … until yesterday. (And fine means fine — he wasn’t revolutionary. Back-office consolidation and countdown clocks started before he got there. He didn’t do such a wonderful job after the blizzard, the select bus service still doesn’t run right, many of his budget cuts were just plain old-fashioned service cuts, and just try taking any bus in a straight line on time on the weekend.)

    But the decision to leave so quickly now means that it wasn’t such a good idea to appoint him in the first place.When you say — or at least imply — that you are going to do a job for six years, you should do it. If there is any question that you won’t, you should say so upfront. Public service to the city and country in which you grew up — and not for a pittance, either — means not instantly jumping at the fancy job in Asia the first chance you get. As for the comments along the lines of, “Poor Jay, how can he work under these third-world conditions?”: he knew, or should have known, the political and fiscal environment coming in. It is absolutely true that the governor doesn’t care enough about transit, that the state senate (and assembly) is (still) toxic, and that Washington is a mess. It was Walder’s job to help change these things, not to leave. That’s what it means in a democracy — i.e., not China — to take on a top position that carries an important public trust. It’s your job to try to change the debate. We don’t have a central-planning edict from on high in this country that transit should be a top investment priority; you have to convince people, and that’s hard. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t take the job. If he has tried and found attracting political support for transit to be utterly impossible, and found that things behind the scenes are even worse than outsiders think they are — i.e., as Larry said, that he doesn’t want to preside over deferred maintenance — then, he should say so. Instead, he has largely led the public to believe that the holes in the capital and operating plans are manageable. And, by remaining silent on his way out — so far — he is still doing that. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    “As Larry said, that he doesn’t want to preside over deferred maintenance — then, he should say so.”

    If he was willing to say so, however, he wouldn’t have been hired for the job.  This is the sort of thing that is required to advance in our society.

    You don’t believe me?  Try getting an article holding that those over 55 have drained away the future of those coming after in an ideologically neutral sense — leaving aside whether they should have paid more or demanded less — into the newspaper.  Any newspaper.

    You want revolutionary change?  You have to be willing to allow an immediate collapse rather than allow current institutional arrangements to limp along to the benefit of those exploiting the institutions, as the future continues to be slowly drained away.  It’s no different in Washington or on Wall Street.  The latter was bailed out.   We’ll see about the former in a couple of weeks.

  • Bolwerk

    I actually can’t think of many good candidates. Mike Bloomberg would be good if he weren’t tied up in another job he paid a lot of money for. Somebody independently wealthy is probably necessary, ’cause you don’t want them being bought by someone else. Elliot Spitzer might want a foot in the door again, and I’m sure stirring things up at the MTA is better than having to sit next to that nitwit they put him with on CNN. Bill Clinton? I would mention David Paterson, but for all his good ideas he was generally bad at execution.

  • Bolwerk

    Well, then at worst he’s admitting he’s ultimately a failure. What can you do? At the very least someone in that position needs the support of the governor and probably the other two men in the room. Anybody who is not heavily politically compromised or a moron has to know that transit is critical to NYC, regardless of what the rest of the country feels about it, so I doubt convincing people gets you far – unless you mean convincing voters in 2014 that Cuomo was a mistake. If Walder doesn’t have the support he needs between now and then, after a point he’s probably wasting everyone’s time including his own.

  • JamesR

    None of those are people with experience in the transit/infrastructure world. Elliot Sander was a former AECOM exec, and Walder was a former head of Transport for London. We need someone on that level for this position, but the zeitgeist around transit in NY is so nasty and hostile that the best and brightest may not want to touch the position. I can’t blame them one bit. 

  • JamesR

    None of those are people with experience in the transit/infrastructure world. Elliot Sander was a former AECOM exec, and Walder was a former head of Transport for London. We need someone on that level for this position, but the zeitgeist around transit in NY is so nasty and hostile that the best and brightest may not want to touch the position. I can’t blame them one bit. 

  • JamesR

    None of those are people with experience in the transit/infrastructure world. Elliot Sander was a former AECOM exec, and Walder was a former head of Transport for London. We need someone on that level for this position, but the zeitgeist around transit in NY is so nasty and hostile that the best and brightest may not want to touch the position. I can’t blame them one bit. 

  • JamesR

    None of those are people with experience in the transit/infrastructure world. Elliot Sander was a former AECOM exec, and Walder was a former head of Transport for London. We need someone on that level for this position, but the zeitgeist around transit in NY is so nasty and hostile that the best and brightest may not want to touch the position. I can’t blame them one bit. 

  • Anonymous

    Love the reactions from others. Shows how respected Walder truly was/is.

  • Bolwerk

    @0725e26de8afcbf0a72ccf98de3fb783:disqus  I’m more concerned with political experience. Walder was a breath of fresh air in that he had both abilities, but there is probably plenty of engineering experience in the MTA. There is little experience with changing procedure. We need someone smart enough to look at other people and ask how we can do what they do, and that might be more a political challenge.

    Many of us on Streetsblog and SAS at least have a fairly good idea of what kind of reforms the MTA needs, and for those who don’t understand it takes either a lobotomy or an agenda to not understand.

  • UKTrainman

    New Yorkers would do well to consider some of the other things that make public transport in Hong Kong and London so successful. First, both systems are run and planned commercially, to maximise passenger numbers wihtin the available public funding. This means that fares vary by time and distance, reflecting market demand. As long as New York operates with its flat fare system, it will always have lower revenues AND fewer riders. Both systems over most or all of their operating costs from passenger revenues. Yes, Hong Kong gets income also from property, but this is matched by large capital debts which it must pay off to build the system. Unlike MTA, it cannot get big capital grants from Washington (and certainly not from Beijing!). It has to pay its way. With more clever fares, New York could also cover most of tis operating costs. Second, staff are paid market wages, and managed to provide a safe and efficient service. Bus services in both cities, and suburban rail in London, are mostly operated by private companies which tender for the routes. Staff in London are mostly unionised, but the union power is moderated by competition. Staff are rostered for efficient and safe operation, not to comply with union rules (although there are still some “spanish practices”). During his brief tenure Jay Walder tried to tackle costs and productivity, with some success. He did not attempt to tackle the fares structure. 
    Finally, Hong Kong, London, and other places with successful transit systems pay their top managers attractive salaries, typically half a million dollars per year or more. In Britain, there are at least 50 bus and rail managers earning this much or more. Who can blame Jay Walder for accepting the higher salary on offer in Hong Kong? It is still much less than is paid to a top football coach or movie star. High salaries do not guarantee good performance from public servants, but relative low salaries will never retain top people.

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