Amidst a fiscal crisis, Jay Walder, center, hasn’t been able to implement many of his plans for the MTA. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)
When Jay Walder took over as the MTA CEO and Chairman nine months ago, he thought he was inheriting an organization on the path to financial recovery. The state legislature had just passed a comprehensive funding package that was supposed to provide the authority with some fiscal stability over the next few years. But, as we know, once the economy bottomed out, the legislature stole earmarked funds and the payroll tax revenue came in well below the state’s tax accountants’ estimates, Walder had to set aside his ambitious plans to solve the MTA’s financial crisis.
So instead of presiding over growth, in the short term, Walder has presided over contraction. The authority dusted off its plans to trim service, started cracking down on waste and overstaffing at both the administrative and operation levels and readied a sweeping proposal to raise fares. It just might save the MTA, but at what cost?
Along the way, Walder made more than a few enemies. Union leaders, while working with him behind the scenes, have not publicly embraced the MTA head. After all, who could blame them? Walder has engaged in a public battle to cut down on jobs, and the union doesn’t want to and shouldn’t accept layoffs without a fight. Walder has also alienated a public already frustrated with the MTA by putting into place service cuts and fare hikes. And he still has five more years left on his not-quite-ironclad contract.
Late last week, Eliot Brown of The Observer profiled Walder’s first nine months. As Jay proclaimed his adherence to the agreed-upon 7.5 percent fare hike, Brown pondered a question that should concern transit advocates throughout the city: Will Walder “ever be able to unshackle himself from fiscal issues sufficiently to install more noticeable, meaningful changes-an undertaking that would take time and money-or will he continue to have to put out these fiscal fires, started long before his arrival, with viciously unpopular actions?”
Brown’s piece provides a nuanced look at the financial troubles plaguing the MTA. He tracks the travails of the five-year capital plan and highlights how the authority is dependent on the state for operations funding while the state would rather have nothing to do with it. Into this morass came Walder from McKinsey (and before that, Transport for London). “When I heard that he was possibly going to [take the job], I said, ‘There’s no way this guy is going to want to take a pay cut to take this,'” one MTA Board member said to The Observer.
What makes Walder stand out and what gives me hope that he could shine if given the money and support is the fact, as Brown notes, that “he is the first MTA chairman in two decades who was not a campaign contributor to the sitting governor. Instead, he is simply a pure transit technocrat, one whose well-regarded analytical approach-a “performance indicators” report on the agency’s Web site shows month-by-month changes to things like on-time performance-speaks of his time at McKinsey.”
But Walder must also recognize political reality. The governor who appointed him — David Paterson — will be in office for just a few more months before giving way, in all likelihood, to Andrew Cuomo. The current Attorney General has been relatively silent on issues of the MTA and hasn’t given his vote of confidence to Walder. As the MTA’s top spot is often a political plum, I don’t expect him to do so yet, but Walder has a Golden Parachute. Cuomo would be a fool to ignore both the CEO’s credentials and the money owed to him.
For better or worse, the MTA is where it is because previous leaders haven’t had the economic management expertise and the transit knowledge to deliver a better product. Walder may not be the most tactful when it comes to service cuts; he might not be the most invested into the politics; and he may not be the perfect leader. But he should be allowed to stick around for a while, to ride out the financial tide, and to see his pro-rider initiatives implemented. “I,” he said to Brown, “retain the view that our elected officials are going to recognize what the MTA has done in a very difficult climate. I think they will recognize what’s happened.”