Home MTA Politics Thoughts on Walder’s last dance

Thoughts on Walder’s last dance

by Benjamin Kabak

Wednesday morning marked the beginning of the end for Jay Walder, the outgoing Chairman and CEO of the MTA. Yesterday, the Hong Kong-bound transit expert presided over his final MTA Board meeting, and the last part of the meeting was a veritable love-fest. Walder’s fellow board members all wished him luck in his future endeavors, and nearly all of them praised his leadership. I couldn’t help but feel that the kind words were premature.

The praise came fast and easy. “You are the best transportation operator on the planet,” Mark Lebow said. Patrick Foye echoed that praise: “At a time when public and private sector is in retrenchment, you were able to develop new initiatives that made a significant impact on the public and community.” Charles Moerdler, a fairly recent MTA appointee, praised Walder for his willingness to respond to complaints about service in his home borough of the Bronx.

The lone dissenting voice came from Norman Brown. The holdover appointee who is a strong friend of labor rightly criticized Walder for both leaving too soon and creating a strong sense of conflict between management and the authority’s labor forces. Walder, said Brown, isn’t through with the job, but he’s leaving nonetheless.

Walder himself deflected certain questions surrounding his departure. He insisted that he has a good relationship with Gov. Andrew Cuomo despite unsourced reports to the contrary, and he said that the lure of the job in Hong Kong pushed him to take it. He also spoke about any potential predecssor. “Whoever runs this organization should be dedicated to the organization,” he said. That person has to be “edicated to what it does on a day-to-day basis. I think it is helpful to have a knowledge of mass transit. I don’t know that it’s an absolutely essential quality.”

These statements seemed to be echoing sentiments from the Governor himself. “To me,” Cuomo said to Transportation Nation, “the management is very important. Of course, the technical expertise, but you give me a good manager, who can run an organization, and find efficiency, that this organization is going to have to find, that’s going to be paramount.” It sounds as though the governor wants someone who is at least as strong on leadership and creative management as they are on transit planning. That does not bode well for the TWU.

But the real question surrounding Walder’s departure is one of public effectiveness. During the meeting yesterday, one of the MTA Board members — I didn’t see who — issued some high praise: “You have left this place much better than when you came in.” That statement raised my eyebrow. I don’t disagree with it, but I’m not sure the public agrees.

The MTA’s problem right now is one of external perception vs. internal reality. During Walder’s two-year tenure, the MTA has streamlined a significant portion of its operations, and it has come to embrace technological innovations while moving stalled projects forward. It’s budget is leaner than it was half a decade ago, and the agency has programs in place to realize more savings. Anyone looking at it from the inside will see improvements.

Yet, to Joe and Jane Straphanger — the folks who just want their trains to come frequently, run smoothly and have seats for them — the system isn’t really better off. Headways are longer; the bus network is becoming less reliable and convenient; the subways cost more and trains are more crowded. We’re paying more and waiting longer for less service. Does that mean the MTA is better off today than it was before Jay Walder showed up? Publicly, at least, that’s a tough argument to make.

The next MTA head, whoever that may be, has his or her work cut out for them. That person will have to address a combative union, an obstinate legislature and a gaping hole in the capital budget. He or she will have to deal with rising debt costs and the desire to move the system forward. For the public, at least, “better off” might be slipping further out of hand, and the next MTA CEO will have some mighty high expectations to live up to.

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18 comments

Stephen Smith September 29, 2011 - 2:40 am

During Walder’s two-year tenure, the MTA has streamlined a significant portion of its operations…

I guess it depends on your definition of the word “significant.” From what I understand, he saved a few hundreds of millions of dollars. What he would’ve had to do to bring the operation to first world standards is save at least that much per kilometer on new construction projects alone, not to mention fire the majority of employees that I can see with my naked eye as I ride the system a day or two each year (i.e., anyone who’s on a train and not driving it). Saving a few hundred mil is just not gonna cut it. He may be impressive compared to previous MTA heads, but that’s a very low bar.

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Bolwerk September 29, 2011 - 2:19 pm

It is significant by any standard. The MTA chairman has little ability to effect the change needed to get costs down on big construction projects. That requires changing land use policies and contract bid rules the MTA must follow. The former is partly and the latter is wholly in the state’s court.

Keeping conductors on trains is inexcusable, at least most of the day, but isn’t that extremely difficult to change too? If you ask me, the state legislature needs to include a provision that future NYCTA contracts exclude a requirement for conductors. Even more pointless are token booth attendants.

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John Paul N. September 29, 2011 - 5:20 am

Greg Mocker’s opinion on Walder’s departure. Ugh.

The most annoying thing: the MTA board, before Walder’s administration, has repeatedly said that debt service was going to increase under his and future administrations and he would have little input in how to control it (without state government intervention). Mocker’s report insinuates that Walder contributed to the debt. Well, that sounds false. And if you want the Chambers Street station to be renovated, you’ll have to pay for it with either more debt or with state contributions, the latter being more preferred.

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Scott E September 29, 2011 - 1:18 pm

Greg Mocker is a big reason I gave up on Channel 11 news. He sensationalizes stories to a magnitude of which I’ve never seen before… even moreso than the Rupert Murdoch-owned station a few notches lower on the dial. (Sorry for the off-topic rant, but that Mocker guy just makes my head steam….)

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SEAN September 29, 2011 - 3:24 pm

I understand completely, but you don’t think Jodi Applegate is hot? sports broadcaster Michael Kay thinks so.
The best part of PIX news @ 10 comes at 10:47 when Lionel does his commentary. I may not always agree with him, but he’s quite entertaining.

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Al D September 29, 2011 - 8:58 am

I can’t agree with Norman Brown or your characterization of his criticism. Sounds a bit like sour grapes. Walder signed an employment contract and has met all its terms. This is a free market system, as everyone loves to tout all the time. As long as Walder has adhered to the terms of his contract, including any termination or resignation provisions he may have invoked, he is well within his rights to do this. He after all, he is the only 1 responsible for himself and his family.

Now, did he leave early? Of course, but as discussed at length in earlier articles about this, I believe that he is making the right call for Jay Walder.

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Anon September 29, 2011 - 8:59 am

BK you aren’t going to get first dibs on an exit interview?

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Larry Littlefield September 29, 2011 - 9:31 am

“The lone dissenting voice came from Norman Brown. The holdover appointee who is a strong friend of labor rightly criticized Walder for both leaving too soon and creating a strong sense of conflict between management and the authority’s labor forces.”

I look forward to Norman Brown’s plan to maintain and upgrade the transit system after another three-year contract with wage increases at three times the rate of inflation (in the face of the median household income for city residents falling 5.0%), and given a 20/50 pension plan, in a place that already has just about the highest total state and local tax burden as a percentage of its residents’ income in the U.S.

Anything else will cause labor-managment conflict, because that is what the TWU unions must tell their members they deserve in order to get elected.

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Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 11:22 pm

…and with a state government which is decreasing its contribution, a city government which is leaving its contribution flat, and with politicians who demand that the MTA provide free schoolbus services. The TWU local has rarely targeted Albany or Bloomberg.

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Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines September 29, 2011 - 10:09 am

[…] Norman Brown: Walder Leaving Too Soon, Could Have Done Better on Labor Relations (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

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SEAN September 29, 2011 - 12:19 pm

And as the post above this one reports, Chris Ward of the PA is also leaving. I think it is a warning sign in regards to both our politics & lack of desire to move foward on the transportation front.

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JAzumah September 29, 2011 - 12:45 pm

The biggest focus for him seemed to be getting information to the public cheaply and clearly. That is the difference between a transit manager and everyone else. This is something the MTA needed to focus on and did.

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BrooklynBus September 29, 2011 - 4:03 pm

I am very disappointed in Walder’s comment that he’s not sure that knowledge of mass transit is an “essential quality”. That’s just an invitation for Cuomo to appoint another Hemmedinger or Kalikow to the post. That is exactly what we do not need. Knowledge of mass transit, a concern for the riders and common sense are the most important qualifications in my book. That along with managerial experience and a willingness to treat everyone fair and equally are also necessary qualities. We don’t need another chairman whose only concern are dollars and cents. There is much more to the job and that is what Walder failed to recognize. We need someone who is willing to work with the unions, not alienate them. At the same time, the unions must be willing to abandon archaic work rules to give management the flexibility to run the system efficiently. Everyone must be willing to cooperate.

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Bolwerk September 29, 2011 - 4:50 pm

You may be right, but to some extent I expect knowledge of mass transit is going to be tough to demand as part of the job description. In the handful of mass transit systems in the world that are comparable to New York’s, the acrimony is lower and the pay is probably better. We’ll be lucky if we get someone who understands transportation in general. It’s not like executives from DB or Tokyo are lining up, and even if they were, I wouldn’t be surprised if something akin to NIH syndrome made it impossible for them to pass political muster. And the handful of people in the U.S. who might be competent, like Richard Sarles, want to stay the hell away.

The lesson from Walder is too much at the MTA, as an organization, is set in stone and too many stakeholders want to keep it that way. So why bother? If the status quo is going to be same, we may as well have another Kalikow.

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BrooklynBus September 29, 2011 - 5:14 pm

While the financing and other aspects may be set in stone, many aspects of the MTA are within the controls of the Chairman for example how the organization treats and rewards its employees.

Small changes could have a huge impact on productivity. One problem is that the MTA doesn’t value the opinions of its employees (and certainly not the public), many of whom understand some problems better than MTA management.

Here are just ten changes I outlined last June that could be made if someone is appointed who understands how the organization works. http://www.sheepsheadbites.com.....-business/

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Larry Littlefield September 30, 2011 - 10:44 am

“While the financing and other aspects may be set in stone, many aspects of the MTA are within the controls of the Chairman for example how the organization treats and rewards its employees.”

The most important aspect of how the MTA and other public agencies has been set in stone by the unions and the state legislature. Relatively low pay for doing your job while you are doing it, and many years of relatively high pay for doing nothing for no one in retirement.

The pension costs are going up, up, up. So is the cost of retiree health care. New pension enhancements are introduced in the legislature every year. This leaves less money for fewer workers, which the unions use to justify doing a lousy job for the people and hostility to management.

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Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 11:24 pm

That’s not even the most important aspect;the most important aspect is “Your budget is set by state legislators. Your mission (i.e. provide schoolbus service for children for free) is set by state and city legislators. They will blame you for any failures and they will refuse to actually learn anything about the operations of mass transit. Have fun.”

Who on earth would take that job?

Dan September 29, 2011 - 9:55 pm

I think he’s done a good job. A lot of the problems at the MTA are not things which frankly any executive can alter without new labor contracts or laws.

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