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As the MTA and TWU once again sat down for negotiations toward the end of last week, the new head honco at the transportation authority let loose a few tidbits on a handful of key topics this weekend. In an interview with NBC New York’s Andrew Siff, Lhota offered up his take on everything from looming fare hikes to future subway expansion plans. It left me wanting more, but let’s jump in.

On Fare Hikes: In an attempt to bring regularity to the MTA’s fare structure, Jay Walder announced fare hikes for 2013, 2015 and every two years thereafter. Lhota voice his support for the plan as he said, “How sure is that? It’s going to happen.” The fares will go up next year, in 2015 and in 2017, but it seems as though the MTA will spend the bulk of the added revenue on paying down debt and employee obligations than on providing better service.

On Unrealized Revenue Opportunities: When I spoke with Walder back in late 2010, he discussed his desires to increase MTA revenues through better maximizing retail opportunities, and Lhota is on board with this initiative as well. “We’re trying to look for every place that we possibly can where we have foot traffic, where we can actually have retail operations,” he said. “There are thousands of people who come in here [to Grand Central] on the weekends just to go shopping.”

On Countdown Clocks: With nearly all of the A Division stations receiving countdown clocks, the MTA is eying how best to bring this technology to the rest of the system. I’ll have more on these attempts shortly, but Lhota hopes to accomplish this goal “within two years.”

On FASTRACK: As the MTA has embarked on an early-2012 pilot program created again by Walder that shutters track segments overnight during the week, riders are reportedly noting the improvements, and Lhota and the MTA have vowed to continue it. The program will inch northward next year, and Lhota noted brighter station conditions as one benefit. “Not only did we change all the light bulbs to make them brighter; we also cleaned the backs of them,” he said.

On Access to LaGuardia: Siff, who has long reported on the on-again, off-again efforts to bring the subway to LaGuardia, asked Lhota about subway access for the airport, and Lhota offered up a tiny tidbit. “We’re continuing to look at it. There are a lot of logistical problems. You can’t have an elevated train in the path of landing, so you’d have to submerge it,” he said. Of course, “logistical problems” is also code for NIMBYism, but even considering it offers a faint glimmer of hope. Maybe it’s something the MTA can explore for the capital campaigns once the Fulton St. Transit Center and 7 line extension are in service.

Ultimately, Lhota’s interviews in the early goings have given us a glimpse into his inner workings. I was initially skeptical of the appointment, but he has inherited an MTA that, while not perfect by a long shot, has been on a better path of late. He’s willing to acknowledge that and stick to the path. At some point, he’ll have to start forging his own path, but for now, he can push forward on efforts begun by his predecessor.

As he moves his agenda forward, Lhota, a train rider, seems to recognize what New Yorkers want, and I think his statement is key toward a better appreciation and support of transit by its riders. “I want it to work better, cleaner, faster and more frequent,” he said. “That’s not overly sexy, but that’s what New Yorkers want.”

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When Jay Walder announced in July his abrupt departure from the MTA, transit advocates viewed his resignation as a major blow to the authority. His was an independent voice with a mind for both fiscal savings and progressive transit policies, and his decision to move to Hong Kong was viewed as another sign of brain drain impacting the MTA due to a lack of support and investment from Albany. I had hoped that Walder would conduct an exit interview, but in an effort to avoid burning bridges, he never did.

Now that he’s settling into his new high-paying job in Hong Kong and must get the MTR budget into shape, the Hong Kong press has asked him about the numerous layoffs he instituted in New York. Vowing not to do the same in Asian, he spoke of the way New York politicians simply failed to support transit. “The assets were not renewed and the infrastructures were in terrible condition,” he said.

That pretty much sums up the state of the city’s vital transportation infrastructure. The assets aren’t there and haven’t been for decades. Yet, the aging system must transport over 5 million people a day and plays a major role in driving the city’s economy. Will anyone wake up to this reality before it’s too late?

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For online information junkies, the annual release of the Google Zeitgeist is a much-anticipated December event. This year, amidst top global searches for Rebecca Black, Fukushima and the iPhone, New Yorkers showed their true dedication to transit as the top three local search terms in NYC all focused around transportation. The MTA emerged as the reason’s clear top search term followed by NJ Transit and HopStop.

For the MTA, it was quite the year. Between hurricanes and snow storms, the authority withstood some tough weather while end-of-year politicking has left the authority looking for more funding sources. Meanwhile, Select Bus Service continued to spread throughout the region, and the abrupt departure of its CEO and Chairman left many fearful for the MTA’s long- and short-term future. I’ll wrap up the year in a few days, but as the Google searches show, for better or worse, the MTA is never far from the minds of the millions of New Yorkers who ride the rails everyday.

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I took a walk through Grand Central this afternoon as word got around that the wrapping around the new Apple Store had come down. From the floor of the building’s main hall, the Apple Store looks tastefully integrated into Grand Central. There is no ostentatious glass cube, a winding staircase or any garish signage. A bright, glowing Apple logo is visible from all throughout the terminal, but the computers, iPads and iPods aren’t visible from below.

Meanwhile, members of the ol’ print media got a tour of the Apple Store courtesy of the Cupertino-based company. (Thanks for inviting me, Apple. Harumph.) Andrew Grossman of The Wall Street Journal calls the store “understated.” The main entrance simply features tables with computers, and Apple’s typical markings are reserved for the parts of the mezzanine not visible from the concourse. amNew York has some photos of the store. It all opes on Friday.

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Earlier this morning, current MTA Executive Director and future Chairman and CEO Joseph Lhota had the opportunity to attend his first Board meeting as leader of the much-maligned organization. Both Michael Grynbaum and Andrew Grossman were on hand to file reports from the meeting, and it sounds as though Lhota is at least prepared for the daunting challenges he faces over the next six years. “In the last two days, not a moment goes by that I don’t think about the budget,” Lhota said during the meeting. “I have to be optimistic about everything I do, because that’s how you get things done and move things forward.”

The next Chairman talked at length about both the MTA budget and its perception problems. He called the sprawling budget “a living organism” and spoke about improving the way the public views the MTA. “I do think the good that the MTA does, and all of its operating agencies, sometimes fails to get above the horizon,” he said. “Do I think it has a public-relations problem? I think it needs to focus on the good that it does and how important the MTA is to the economy of the region, because it is critical.”

Results will be more powerful for Lhota, who has already admitted the need to maintain a predictable pace for fare hikes that is tied to the overall inflation rate. As with Jay Walder and Lee Sander before him, though, the public will judge him on subway service, station cleanliness and fare policy. No amount of talk can change that reality.

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Former deputy mayor Joseph Lhota started at the MTA today as its executive director.

As the MTA is debating a new plan to speed up disruptive track work, the authority’s new boss is taking over. Although Joseph Lhota cannot assume his role as the MTA Chairman and CEO until after State Senate confirmation hearings set for early 2012, the Cuomo nominee and former Giuliani administration official joined the MTA today as its Executive Director, and he will be responsible for day-to-day operations. Andrew Saul will continue to serve as Acting Chairman until Lhota is confirmed in Albany.

“The MTA is the engine that drives our economy and makes our way of life possible here in New York, and we have a responsibility to operate our service as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Lhota said in a brief statement. “The MTA is facing a number of difficult fiscal and operating challenges, including funding our vital capital program and continuing to improve service in tough economic times. My focus in the next couple of months is understanding this organization from top-to-bottom, and listening to our employees, customers, and community leaders as we work together to shape an agenda and improve this vital service for all New Yorkers.”

His first official duty involved a rare joint statement with TWU President John Samuelsen. The two leaders asked New York City prosecutors to pursue maximum penalties for those who assault MTA employees. It is a good sign indeed for the upcoming TWU negotiations that the two parties are working together to make a public show of support.

In addition to the arrival of Lhota, the MTA announced a handful of other leadership changes as well, including one that is raising some eyebrows. Nuria Fernandez has joined the organization as Chief Operating Officer, and Catherine Rinaldi, former MTA and LIRR General Counsel will now serve as the authority’s Chief of Staff. Charlie Monheim, the outgoing COO, will remain on board as Director of Strategic Initiatives, and he will be working on the MTA’s technology projecting and overseeing labor relations.

The intriguing departure though involves Diana Jones Ritter. Brought in as a so-called efficiency expert, Ritter was to serve as the MTA’s Managing Director, but her appointment drew criticism. No one is saying much about her departure, but it seems as though the MTA will find its efficiencies elsewhere.

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For two years, Jay Walder served as the center of attention at the MTA. (Benjamin Kabak/Second Ave. Sagas)

For the MTA, today is the end of a tumultuous four-year era during which its Executive Director has been known more for his transit background than anything. Today is Jay Walder’s last day as the MTA CEO and Executive Director, and after two years of Lee Sander followed by two years of Walder, the authority will soon welcome Joe Lhota, a leader some have called a “fiscally prudent and seasoned manager,” into the fold. I’ve heard rumors of a $70-a-head going-away party for Walder, but I’m much more concerned with this transportation legacy and lasting impact on New York City.

When then-Gov. David Paterson nominated Walder back in July of 2009, the nominee said all the right things. His top priority — and one he never realized — was a fully funded capital plan, but he knew he had to deliver more.

“There’s no question,” he said, “the taxpayer and the riding public need to understand, need to demonstrate, need to see and need to believe that they’re getting value for the money in the way we operate the trains and the buses and the bridges and tunnels, in the way that we undertake the massive capital investments that are underway. And that has to be an immediate focus. We must restore the public trust and confidence to this organization. We won’t have the credibility to argue for the capital program that this system needs unless we restore the accountability of public trust and public confidence. I believe we can do that. I’m certain we can achieve that.”

At the time, I offered up my own list of the challenges that awaited Walder. Before we knew the depths of the MTA’s fiscal crisis and the ways in which Albany would repeatedly twist the knife into the wounded authority, we thought Walder would lead an MTA renaissance. He would see stalled technology projects through to completion while earning Albany’s trust through a convincing PR battle. He would add service in exchange for fare hikes and find a way to work out a funding plan for the five-year capital project.

So how did he do? Due in part to circumstances beyond his control and those very much under his control, Walder’s tenure atop the MTA has been a rocky one. On the bright side, the MTA has indeed entered the 21st Century. Perhaps it’s still trying to catch up with the rest of city, but the authority has embraced technological innovation like never before. We have countdown clocks, touch-screen info centers, Help Point intercoms and a real-time bus-tracking program in the works. While Walder may not have created these programs, he pushed through to completion. It was supposed to be his crowning achievement, and for that he deserves praise.

Yet, technology is not the only barometer. Jay Walder is leaving a system that has less service than we he began and costs more. In the eyes of the public, that’s his final legacy. Trains are more crowded and they run less frequently. Stations are dirtier and staffed with fewer people. Crime — thanks to gadget theft — is on the rise, and subway fares went up in 2009 and 2010. They will go up again in 2013 and 2015, if not sooner.

As far as the capital program is concerned, Walder’s approach was the best the MTA could do, but it’s far from perfect or complete. The MTA is proposing another round of debt-based funding that will lead to higher debt service payments and more pressure on the operating budget. Furthermore, while Walder pledged in 2009 to focus on capital budget funding, he has not succeeded in securing that funding as he heads to Hong Kong.

Finally, with union negotiations set to begin in January, the relationship between management and labor hasn’t been this frigid since 2005. Walder, who earned $350,000 a year as MTA head and took a lot of grief for it, was unsympathetic toward labor and cut numerous jobs. Meanwhile, departments like the Business Service Center continue to serve as magnets for charges of bloat in the bureaucracy. Thanks to Walder’s focus on making every dollar count, the MTA is more efficient today than it was two years ago, but it’s hardly a model of lean operations.

As with most outgoing MTA heads, then, Walder leaves behind a mixed legacy and one I believe to be unfinished. He’s departing before the job is through. We don’t know what the future holds for the MTA’s capital budget or its union negotiations. We may or may not see a MetroCard replacement plan see the light of day by 2015. We hope the Second Ave. Subway and East Side Access will continue apace. Everything, though, is very open-ended.

And so two years after taking the reins and riding in as a potential savior, Jay Walder will depart this afternoon. He likely was the most qualified transit guy to head up the MTA in recent years, but his tenure is over, a fleeting and incomplete one. So I leave you then with a question: Did he leave the MTA better off than when he started? I think so, but it’s not as good as it could have been.

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In nine days, Jay Walder will leave his post as MTA Chair and CEO as he readies to depart for Hong Kong, and despite the looming resignation, all has been quiet from Albany on his potential replacement. Yesterday, I reported that Joseph Lhota may be the leading candidate, and today, the Daily News echos my scoop while adding Neil Peterson, Thomas Prendergast, Nuria Fernandez, Daniel Grabauskas and Karen Rae to the list of candidates. The outlook for the nomination remains hazy, but we do however have an inkling of who will replace Walder in the short term. According to a New York 1 report, current MTA Vice Chairman Andrew Saul will serve as interim chair as the search for a permanent replacement continues.

As interim heads go, Saul is the safest of safe choices and one primed for the moment. Named to the MTA Board by Pataki, he has served the Authority since 1996. He is a member of every committee, and with an extensive background in retail and private equity, he is the chair of the MTA’s finance committee. He also sits on a number of other boards, including the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and UPENN’s Wharton School.

In the immediate few weeks, Saul will have to continue to lobby for a resolution to the MTA’s $10 billion capital budget gap, and according to NY1, Saul will “likely follow in the same policy path” as Walder. It offers some stability for the MTA, but still, with another interim head preceding a new permanent CEO and Chair, the MTA is guaranteed to run through six chairmen or women in as many years. For an organization as vital yet on shaky financial footing as the MTA, such turmoil at the top isn’t helping in the long- or short-term.

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For years, one of the most obvious signs of bureaucratic issues with the MTA concerned its public phone numbers. The authority had, at its high point, 117 different phone numbers depending upon which service callers needed, and no one really knew which number to call. As part of its effort at cutting down these severe inefficiencies, the MTA has consolidated to one, state-run number. Those who need information from the MTA can now just call 5-1-1.

The 511 service, the authority said in a press release, will provide a portal to an interactive voice response system that will connect calls to customer service and travel information for all MTA agencies. Services include all rail and transit schedules; trip planning; lost and found; MetroCard, rail ticket, or Bridges and Tunnels tolls; and Mail & Ride. Furthermore, as 5-1-1 is a state service, this move costs the MTA no additional dollars. “This is a great example of how we are working to make it easier for our customers to get information and interact with the MTA at the same time that we reduce the MTA’s administrative costs,” MTA Managing Director Diana Jones Ritter said. “Customers now have a single phone number for all transportation-related questions, instead of a long and sometimes confusing list of agencies and departments.”

The MTA noted that 5-1-1 has been available as a transportation resource for a while, but the offerings have been refined. Call transfer paths will “better direct customers’ inquiries to the appropriate departments,” and functions such as Lost & Found, MetroCard Balance Protection and general comments and concerns are now available at one phone number. Ads promoting the new service will soon appear in buses, subways and rail cars throughout the area.

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With Jay Walder’s departure date just a few weeks away, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s search committee is hard at work trying to find the next person brave enough to take on the role of MTA CEO and Chairman. Today, we find out a little bit more about the potential candidates under consideration. Courtesy of The Daily News, the list contains the following: Jeffrey Morales from Parsons Brinkerhoff, Tom Prendergast from NYC Transit, Helena Williams from the LIRR, Michael Burns of Santa Clara’s Valley Transportation Authority and Neil Peterson, a transit vet who founded a ZipCar predecessor.

Williams, a one-time interim MTA head, and Predergast are, of course familiar names around these parts, but I’m not too familiar with the other three. I’ll try to prepare some profiles of these potential candidates. Morales and Peterson both have experience with West Coast transit and transportation agencies, and Morales is a former higher-up from the Chicago Transit Authority. At the least, if one of these five is chosen, the next MTA head will have a pedigree of transportation and transit policy, and that’s a step in the right direction.

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