Jay Walder has been the head of the MTA with the power of both the CEO and Chairman for 16 months, and it sounds as though he’ll serve out his tenure. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has seemingly indicated that he’ll keep Walder on board, and it’s the right decision. So how has Walder performed in his job?
A few weeks ago, Theresa Juva, amNew York’s transit beat writer, asked me to serve on a panel of transit-minded folk who would judge Walder’s tenure so far. Juva asked us to grade Walder in seven categories, and overall, we gave him a B. I, however, was one of two panelists to give him an A-. A. Scott Falk, a CB8 member, joined me in that grade, and Gene Russianoff gave him a B+. Bill Henderson of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA gave Walder a B while Lindsey Lusher Shute of Transportation Alternatives also gave him a B. Peggy Morales from CB 11 gave him a C for reasons that are seemingly out of his control.
Juva asked us to assess Walder on seven measures: cutting administrative costs, reducing service cuts, speeding up bus service, providing bus and train arrival updates, adding new fare technology, improving subway stations and communicating with riders on service changes. The grades I assigned to Walder diverge greatly across categories.
In the first category, I assigned Walder a B+. He’s managed to find over $500 million in annual administrative savings, but it seems as though the MTA could still be trimmed administratively. The authority has layers of management atop layers of managements, and it could still streamline back-office functionality.
In the second category, I gave Walder only a B-. Since coming into office, he has not made friends with labor, but he’ll have to in order to reduce the MTA’s costs of providing subway and bus service. Later this year, collective bargaining negotiations will take center stage, and Walder will have to work with a group of employees who do not like him. While transit advocates and those who want to see the MTA modernize are appreciative of Walder’s work, unionized workers hold him in contempt. To them, he is just another fat cat who collects a paycheck and does not understand the plight of his employees. How he leads negotiations later this year will determine his legacy.
Speeding up bus service has been one of Walder’s crowning achievements, and there, I gave him an A-. He has overseen the expansion of Select Bus Service into Manhattan, and the MTA, during his tenure, will help bring this service to 34th St. and to Brooklyn as well. Select Bus Service is not, however, solely his work as NYC DOT has spearheaded the effort and Walder has inherited a lot of the work. Still, buses are slowly improving across the city.
Where Walder has excelled — and where we expected him to excel — has been in the field of technology, and again, he earned an A- in this category. While the MTA has long tried to get real-time bus and subway tracking measures in place, under Walder, the MTA has stopped spinning its wheels. It recently unveiled an in-house bus tracking system that will soon spread from Brooklyn to Staten Island, and it will equip 200 subway stations with countdown clocks by the end of 2011. Walder hasn’t developed these plans, but he’s pushed them through toward completion.
In a similar vein, I gave Walder a B in new fare technology category. He has committed to a program that will lead to the death of the MetroCard, but although other transit systems have used contactless fare payment cards for half a decade or longer, the MTA won’t be ready to institute a replacement plan for three or four years. He has moved from a pilot program to a replacement program, but the time-to-live is longer than we would hope it to be.
I honored the MTA Chairman with his lowest grade when asked to assess how he improved subway stations. By and large, the MTA’s infrastructure has suffered as the authority has had to cut costs. To keep train service at least steady, the authority has cut back on cleaning costs, and we have dirtier trains and stations as well as more and more rodents to show for it. Walder has a plan to target high-volume stations, but areas from which most riders start their trips are dirtier. I gave him a C+ here but could have scored him lower.
Finally, Walder got a B+ when it came to communicating with riders — or at least attempting to — on MTA service changes. He has led a London-inspired redesign of the MTA’s weekly service advisory posters, and the website attempts to present service changes in an easier-to-understand format. He can’t, however, make more people read the signs, and until straphangers take those signs seriously and read the, the authority can only do so much in that regard.
So why then did I give the Chairman an A- when his average grade is closer to a B? Mostly, it’s a matter of circumstance. Then-Gov. David Paterson brought Walder back to New York with the promise of a fully-funded authority that needed to be ushered into the 21st Century. Instead, the former Transport for London official met his new job with word of a $300 million budget gap followed shortly by the theft of $143 million in dedicated funding by the legislators that approved his appointment. He went from enjoying a $0 balance to presiding over a $500 million deficit before his first three months on the job were out.
Since then, Walder has tried to minimize the service cuts while pushing forward on the capital investments. He has seen rider-oriented technology arrive in a system allergic to innovation, and he has cut costs in ways his predecessors had never been able to. Still, he hasn’t worked well with labor, and the next eight months could be just as important as the final 44 he has left in his tenure. The capital budget has a $10 billion gap, and the MTA’s arduous labor contracts are up for renegotiation.
This year won’t determine his ultimate legacy, but it will allow us to see in which direction the MTA is heading. Administratively, the authority on the right track, and I still believe Walder is the right person for the job. Still, as the MTA loses political and economic support, I wonder where our services will be in another 16 months.