One hundred and three days ago, Jay Walder assumed control of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. As an incoming CEO and Chairman with a career’s worth of experience in transit, Walder set about to figure out a way to improve the MTA. As he worked to figure out how to streamline the MTA and improve services, the authority ran headlong into budget problems, and his review shifted to focus on cost cutting measures and efficient spending.
This week, as promised, Walder released his 100 days report and earlier today, he spoke at the ABNY breakfast about the plan. On the surface, his report — available here as a PDF — sweeps broadly. It highlights bus lane improvements and newer fare collection technologies. The only major new development to come out of it is a plan to eliminate tollbooths and replace them with high-speed tolling technologies to cut down on congestion. The Times covered that angle this morning.
But on the other hand, Walder’s speech drove home some points about how the MTA will be searching to improve services while cutting down on organizational efficiencies during a period of economic distress both for society at large and the agency specifically. Instead of rehashing the platitudes set forward in the report, I’ll leave it up for you to read the short, 20-page document or the even shorter press release. Here, I want to focus on what Walder said this morning.
After the obligatory introductions about the current state of the system as compared to that of the 1970s and 1980s, Walder landed on his main theme: improving the customer experience through efficient spending. Starting with the countdown clocks in the subways, he talked about how in London, train riders “had a sense that someone was in control, that your commute was not in chaos” because the clocks told riders when the next train was coming, and the train would then arrive as scheduled.
In New York, the system is different, and straphangers are naturally skeptical of the MTA because of the inherent uncertainties of riding the train. “We lean over the edge in hopes of seeing a white light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “What comes across is a sense of angst and anxiety.”
Buses too are plagued by these same uncertainties. “It’s difficult to go more than a block or two without seeing a car or a delivery truck in the bus lane,” Walder noted. “We must convince people that, if they’re in a bus lane, they will get a ticket. If we can, the bus can become a reliable mode of transportation in New York.”
Now, these words seem to ring true every time an MTA head starts speaking in public, but Walder, with a background at McKinsey, seemed to recognize that improving the system starts with efficient spending and ends with cutting out the fat. He listed numbers: The MTA has 92 different public numbers and five call centers to handle complaints. The authority has 5000 employees doing administrative tasks. “There will be layoffs,” he said.
In terms of fiscal responsibility, though, Walder is prepared to tackle the MTA’s problems as any good consultant would. Right now, for instance, it costs the agency 15 cents to collect $1 in fare revenue. Even a savings of 2-3 cents would increase the MTA’s revenue streams by tens of millions of dollars. That, he said, is one of the driving forces behind replacing the MetroCard.
He also highlighted the need to cut wasteful services. In highlight express buses, an area I tackled this week, Walder picked on the X25, a little used route from Grand Central to Wall Street. “A grand total of 20 take this bus each day, and it costs the MTA $80 per person to run this service,” he said. “I can assure you that we won’t be running the X25 much longer.”
In the end, Walder focused on the need now during lean economic times to turn around the MTA’s internal structure. He said he’s already been working with agency heads and labor leaders to “address outdated processes and work rules that drive up the costs and hurt the credibility of the MTA and its unions.” He discussed the “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to “change how the MTA does business.”
Of course, Walder’s actions this year will speak louder than words, but Walder seems to understand the challenges he and the MTA face in the eyes of a skeptical public. With the speech behind him, the tough parts — the cost-cutting, the realization of savings, the service improvements, the move toward an efficient transit organization — have only just begun.