Home MTA Politics Walder, a subway rider, wants to serve full term

Walder, a subway rider, wants to serve full term

by Benjamin Kabak

Turnover and instability at the top of any large business does not lead to forward progress, and in recent years, nowhere has this been more evident than at the MTA. In fact, since I’ve started Second Ave. Sagas, the authority has gone through a variety of people at the top, but current CEO and Chairman Jay Walder says he plans to serve out his term if the next governor is willing to have him.

The revolving door began in late 2006. Even though it was clear that Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer would appoint his own people to head the MTA, outgoing Governor George Pataki reappointed Peter Kalikow as the MTA Chairman to maintain continuity. Once Spitzer named Elliot Sander as the MTA CEO and Executive Director, Kalikow vowed to leave when his own replacement was named, and on Oct. 22, 2007, Dale Hemmerdinger took over as chair. This two-headed management structure did not seem to work, and the pair went down with the MTA’s fiscal ship.

In mid-2009, as Albany prepared to pass a funding plan to shore up the authority’s finances, the state legislature required a reorganization at the top. The CEO and Chairman positions were consolidated into one, and Gov. Davi Paterson named Jay Walder as the new head of the MTA. He would be the third MTA chairman in as many years, and he inherited an authority suffering from managerial instability.

Yesterday, while speaking at the Crain’s New York business breakfast, Walder pledged to finish his six-year term, provided the state’s next governor wants to keep him. “I’d like to stay, I hope to stay, and I expect I’ll stay,” he said.

Walder, who said that he has “no conversation with any candidate,” is wisely staying out of electoral politics. If, as anticipated, Andrew Cuomo wins, I’ve heard that Walder will keep his job. Carl Paladino, on the other hand, has pledged to abolish the MTA. That can’t inspire feelings of job security among the executives at the authority.

I’ve wondered about the MTA’s seemingly arm’s-length approach to electoral politics and its interactions with Albany. The authority doesn’t respond to factually-shaky attacks that legislatures make against it, and the agency doesn’t lobby much. As Kat Stoeffel of The Observer reported, Walder said “that the MTA will ‘always rely on public support,’ but the questions of where to lay the tax burden are outside his job description. Rather, his aim is to present a better product to Albany so ‘we can look Albany in the eye and say we’re using every dollar wisely.'”

By and large, Walder seems to get it. He talked yesterday about his rocky relationship with labor but stressed how he’s making strides in modernizing the system. He cited the countdown clocks, the upcoming wireless service project and the internal spending cuts as signs that he’s committed to reforming the MTA and improving transit in the city.

He addressed too the public skepticism directed toward the MTA:

“I still ride our system every single day. In fact, since last week marked the end of my first year here, I took a look and found that I’ve swiped my MetroCard almost 900 times this year. Yes, I use the system for work – it’s my job to know what’s going on. But really I use it for the same reason everyone else does –- because it’s the best way to get around this region. And so I understand how fundamental the transit system is to New York, and I also understand the frustration people have with the system. The MTA will always be an easy target for criticism. It’s especially easy to look in the rearview mirror and take shots at the MTA. But if you stop and look at what’s happening right now, you will see that today the MTA is pointed in the right direction.”

Of course, actions speak louder than words, but Walder’s actions have, by and large, been a reflection of his words. He may not be perfect, but he’s made more strides than any chair in recent times while bringing some stability to the organization. The next governor would be wise to keep him on board.

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Alon Levy October 14, 2010 - 3:56 pm

Walder is probably the most knowledgable native English speaker on the MTA’s issues (and yes, that’s faint praise). Unless Cuomo decides to bring in someone from a city like Tokyo or Zurich, Walder is the best choice for the job.

JK October 15, 2010 - 10:35 am

Um, h’mm? do you really believe that a person from Zurich or Tokyo could succeed in the realm of intensely parochial and nasty NY politics that the MTA Chairman exists in? Running the MTA isn’t knowing what needs to be done, it’s knowing how to do it given the myriad of forces that actively want to keep the MTA weak and off balance. The state legislature doesn’t want a strong MTA which can fight back, the TWU wants weak mgmt they can push-over in negotiations and the other public sector unions are happy to steal as much MTA funding as they can get their hands on.If anything, Walder is probably too operationally oriented and technocratic, and overly optimistic that hard work and efficiency will trump the constant barrage of lies and distortions.

Alon Levy October 15, 2010 - 1:55 pm

Yes. Walder’s problem isn’t excessive technocracy. I mean, yeah, his attempt to go nine rounds against labor isn’t succeeding, but so far he’s not doing that well on the operational front, either; for one, his smartcard ideas are bizarre. As I said, he’s the best native English speaker the MTA could find, and that’s definitely mixed praise.

What the state legislature wants isn’t relevant. It doesn’t get to choose who runs the MTA, and only has control about street-level things like bus cams. What the TWU wants is more relevant, but even that is mitigable given good enough management. Knowing what can be cut without giving the TWU an opportunity to show it knows operations better than management does is precious.

maclondon October 16, 2010 - 7:33 am

Having worked for Jay in London (and grown up in and around NYC to boot), I think you have a very whinging approach to his skills and achievements. Jay inherited a financial mess, made worse by politics which pulled $1bn out his hands before he had his feet behind the desk! He has brought stability and some clear direction and on my travels back home have found small improvements operationally (information posters that make sense and now real time information of bus and subway services for example). If you have never used a smartcard, you do not know its power to empwer people, making transit more like driving in its pure accessibility.

Give the guy a break!

Alon Levy October 16, 2010 - 1:45 pm

The problem with Walder is not the small improvements. Those are precious. It’s the wheel reinvention that’s problematic.

I’ve used smartcards… I’m complaining that New York isn’t as good as Tokyo, which pioneered the contactless smartcard back in the late 1980s. What makes you think I don’t know that smartcards are useful? And the one I used, Singapore’s EZ-Link, makes Oyster look primitive; it’s helped rationalize transit fare payment, and kept fare collection costs down. But it’s not a panacea to anything, and hasn’t suddenly made anything more accessible. And that’s a smartcard done right; PayPass, which piggybacks on credit cards (=difficult to get a card), is tied to your name and account (=no anonymous electronic money), and is owned by another company (=no electronic money revenues), is a smartcard done wrong.

maclondon October 23, 2010 - 7:22 am

I am sorry to say you still do not get it – Paypass by using bankcard systems significantly reduces the cost to install and operate compared to the MTA putting together its own, rival smartcard network. Yes in Singapore and Hong Kong for that matter they have rival systems for small retail purchases and the transit operators get a cut of the commission to boot but they will never seriously take on the Visa/Mastercard networks (or for that matter the cell phone networks either). In London we seriouslyconsidered to upgrade Oyster to become more like The Hong Kong Octopus but for contractual reasons we dropped it – on reflection it may of been a blessing becuase otherwise we would of been fighting the last war!

And how about the significant savings made by the MTA in admin since Jay Walder joined ($170m per year is pretty good going) and the new real time bus/subway information being rolled out that you will be able to get on your cell phone?

He is also fighting the MTA’s corner which could not be said by previous heads so yes the MTA could be doing more and yes it could be better but considering the deep seated problems inherited, it looks pretty good to me!

The Times heads underground :: Second Ave. Sagas October 24, 2010 - 1:40 pm

[…] his efforts at reforming the MTA in the wake of its gaping budget hole. As we know, Walder wants to serve his full term as MTA head, and he reiterates that desire again in the paper […]

Tome April 24, 2024 - 7:58 am

The current CEO and Chairman Jay Walder made a plan to make a better train route and they will implement that plan after the new governor is not willing to have him.

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