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.”

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

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 […]

Cuomo Selects Joe Lhota as Next MTA Chair

|
Governor Andrew Cuomo today named Joseph Lhota as his pick to run the nation’s largest transit system. Lhota, a former deputy mayor and budget director under mayor Rudy Giuliani, will officially hold the position of MTA CEO after a confirmation vote by the New York State Senate, which is not expected to pose much of […]

Last Night’s Gov Debate: Cuomo Piles on in MTA Bash-a-Thon

|
Try this little experiment. Click over to the video of last night’s seven-candidate gubernatorial debate. Start at the 55:30 mark, then close your eyes and listen to seven solid minutes of MTA bashing. Which of those candidates is the presumptive governor-in-waiting with a 35-point lead in the latest poll and, presumably, some political leeway to […]

MTA Identifies $2 Billion in Savings — Now Comes the Hard Part

|
Jay Walder’s surprise resignation announcement last week overshadowed some important news about the MTA’s finances: The agency has identified $2 billion in savings in its capital program [PDF], which maintains and expands the transit system, but expects $1 billion less in federal assistance. That brings the total gap in the five-year, $26 billion capital plan […]