Jay Walder, rightly so, doesn’t want to get involved in the current race for governor of New York. During a breakfast yesterday at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, Walder stressed his firm desire to stay out of electoral politics. “I have successfully avoided being involved in the campaign,” he said, and with just under two weeks under Election Day, he doesn’t plan to jump into the fray anytime soon.
Yet, Walder’s speech — an impassioned defense of the MTA’s cost-cutting measures as well as an acknowledgement that the authority can and should be doing better — can be read as the perfect counterpart to the baseless bashing session in which the gubernatorial candidates engaged earlier this week. Whereas the state’s next executive — the leader who can set the policy tone and name an MTA head — might not know much about the current state of the MTA (or might just be pandering to a public who finds sport in critiquing the public authority), Walder seems to have a firm grasp on the challenges he and his organization face.
Take a listen to the seven minutes of criticism that the candidates for governor lobbed at the MTA on Monday night. If you can stomach the fifth mention of two sets of books — a claim disproved in court six years and debunked yet again last year — without wanting to throw something at these politicians, you’re a stronger person than I.[audio:http://bkabak.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/news20101018_nysgovdebate_mtaquestion.mp3|titles=news20101018_nysgovdebate_mtaquestion]
The ideas bandied about range from inane to ludicrous. One candidate proposed privatizing the MTA and using the proceeds from the sale of authority property to fund the state’s pension obligations. A few stressed the need for either direct control of the MTA by the state’s governor or New York City’s mayor. No one acknowledged that through board appointments and the political process that the state executive and legislature and city leader already exert significant control over the MTA, and no one fessed up to the fact that the MTA is a state agency that exists because of a grant of power from the legislature.
But that’s neither here nor there. Expecting informed politicians in New York is akin to relying on the G train during the weekends. Let’s instead look at the answer that matters: that given by Andrew Cuomo, the candidate with a 37-point lead among likely voters. His transcript:
“In some ways, the MTA is just a gross symbol of the problem that a lot of these state agencies and authorities have. Number one: it wastes a tremendous amount of money. And number two, nobody’s in charge. In terms of the amount of money they waste, two sets of books, certainly; $500 million in overtime, something like 8,000 people make more than $100,000, the pension system, the payroll system – it’s just another example of government (that’s) inefficient, wasteful – and government just doesn’t get it. Everybody else has to live within their means, not government.
The MTA also has the additional issue of nobody’s in charge. It’s an authority. It’s a joint board. It’s the mayor, it’s the governor, it’s everybody, it’s nobody. Put the governor in charge. If it doesn’t work, it should be up to the governor and everybody should know. The fraud in the MTA – we did a case on the Long Island Railroad, which is part of the MTA – over 90% were on disability (cut off by moderator). It can’t be.”
Nobody, Cuomo said twice, is in charge at the MTA. Someone should tell Jay Walder that because he certainly presents the aura of being in charge. At the breakfast yesterday, Walder spoke of his responsibilities with the right mix of authority and knowledge. The MTA, he said, is probably the most important authority in the state. It provides an “absolutely essential and critical public service,” one used by millions of New Yorkers every day. “That doesn’t,” he said, “exempt us from being as efficient as possible.”
During his speech, Walder laid out the MTA’s internal cost-cutting measures. Regular SAS readers know that the MTA has saved over $500 million this year by cutting 10 percent of its overtime spending, by eliminated 3500 jobs which include 20 percent of its administrative staffing at headquarters, by renegotiated with its contractors and suppliers and by consolidating its organizational structure, among others.
On the one hand, said Walder, the MTA should do this to run a leaner ship, and on the other, it had to do it to regain political support and public credibility. “We need to show people and politicians we were tightening our own belt,” he said. To gain trust, the MTA has to show that it is “using dollars wisely” and “show people we were being more productive and more efficient.”
The problem Walder faces is that no one listens. The public would prefer to blame the MTA for sluggish commutes, weekend changes and dirty stations. No one likes fares hikes or service cuts, but when the political support is gone, the MTA can only do so much to generate savings or create more revenue streams. Since politicians are insulated from responsibility by the structure of the MTA and the way most people don’t understand how public authorities in New York are established, these elected officials and those running for office can simply pile on as the people in charge of the MTA are engaged in a serious and largely successful effort to solve its economic problems.
On Monday, perhaps, as many have said, Cuomo was simply pandering. He was saying what he had to say to shore up his support, and once he’s in office, he’ll do what Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson have done: He’ll let the MTA run itself and let those who know what they’re doing take the reins. Yet, without candidates who speak the truth and take responsibility for the state of public transit in the city, without politicians willing to speak out for the Jay Walders of the city, we’ll be left with eroding support for transit and massive political missteps.
It’s hard to imagine an MTA worse than it had been, but if the next governor would to take control and oust yet another qualified head one year into his tenure at the helm, things could easily go from bad to worse. That’s a fate we cannot afford.