Home MTA Grading Jay Walder

Grading Jay Walder

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

Now that I’ve presented my views, how do you feel Walder has done? Vote in my poll below, and feel free to chime in with a comment.

What grade do you think Jay Walder deserves after 16 months on the job?
View Results

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Gary Wong February 7, 2011 - 1:01 am

I think he’s done the best he can under some pretty trying circumstances. As many others have pointed out, the job he took was a bit different than the one promised to him and yet he still managed to dive into it with great aplomb.

John-2 February 7, 2011 - 8:52 am

If Walder’s keeping the available funds pointed towards maintenance of way and railcar infrastructure, I’ll even give him a bit of a pass on the station cleanliness, since I remember Bill Ronan trying to fool people 40 years ago into thinking the new MTA was really taking care of improving things when he had virtually every subway car more than five and less than 35 years old repainted inside and out and had all the BMT Broadway-Fourth Avenue side platform stations retiled, while the preventive maintenance budgets were allowed to go down the toilet. He got the taking the soda, candy and gum machines out of the subway right as far as improving cleanliness goes, but Ronan’s MTA wasted a ton of cash trying to paint over the system’s real problems.

Also, what exactly were Moralges’ complaints with Walder (just wondering, since odds are whatever she believes is what some politicians also believe, and they’re the ones who really can make a tough situation worse by uninformed grandstanding against the MTA.).

Benjamin Kabak February 7, 2011 - 9:59 am

As far as I can tell from the info I have, Morales seemed to dock Walder heavily for things that are largely out of his control. She said he wasn’t phasing in the MetroCard replacements fast enough which is somewhat true but part of a more complex story. She wants faster bus service sooner on Lexington and 3rd Avenues, and she, as I did, highlighted the dirty stations. She also claimed the website is still cumbersome to navigate, which is a problem when there’s too much information to present. I just don’t see how that all adds up to a C assessment on her part.

BrooklynBus February 7, 2011 - 11:02 am

However, a coat of paint is a relatively cheap way to spruce up a subway station without a water problem as anyone can tell you who has stared at the pealing paint on the ceiling while waiting for a train to arrive. Painting them once every 25 years or whatever the present cycle is, is just plain ridiculous.

John-2 February 7, 2011 - 11:16 am

You can paint stations as part of an overall system maintenance program. What was being done back in the 70s was painting subway cars in place of a maintenance program (albeit the R-1/4s were already starting to fall apart under the TA before the MTA was born. But until the Kiley/Gunn era, it seems like the attitude of the agency’s leaders was that just one more coat of paint was going to finally solve the overall problem, instead of making painting of the older cars part of an overall rehabilitation schedule for the rolling stock and the stations and other aspects of the system).

If they hack the budget to the bone, maintaining the rolling stock, signals and rails has to take priority, or you’re back in the 1970s-early 80s again. I’m not against painting the stations, but if you’re going to have to pair down a budget line-item, it’s a better place to do it than some of the other options.

BrooklynBus February 7, 2011 - 3:10 pm

I wasn’t trying to excuse what they were doing back in the 70s, just making a point. Yes if the choice is to cut back on signal maintenance or painting stations, clearly it makes more sense to cut the painting. But you can cut only so much. There comes a time when you’ve cut back the schedule so much, you really have almost eliminated the program and you can actually have dangerous situation.

The City did the same thing with tree pruning. There used to be 300 tree pruners before Guiliani. (Probably a lot more earlier.) He cut it down to 80. Bloomberg cut it to like 19. So now they have to hire private contractors for emergency situations and the schedule now calls for City trees to be pruned once every 10 years, escalating the danger that you will be killed by a falling dead branch. All it takes is one successful lawsuit that can prove negligence to wipe out all the savings.

The MTA is heading down the same route. If a piece of paint falls into someone’s eye and he loses his sight, in a station that has not been painted for 25 years, there goes the savings.

pete February 7, 2011 - 4:09 pm

And what about lead paint? It takes just 1 crying mother to win over any jury in NY.

Nesta February 7, 2011 - 8:59 am

All of the different branches of the MTA still have seperate EVERYTHING! This alone is reason enough for a grade of F for cutting administrative costs. He never even got rid of the administrative staff that he promised which was not nearly enough.

There is no reason that LIRR, MNR, TA should all order uniforms and office supplies on there own. 2 full departments should be eliminated along with the hundreds of managers that don’t manage anyone! This is just an example there are many many more just like this one.

Benjamin Kabak February 7, 2011 - 9:45 am

A few points, Nesta: I think you’re viewing this through a black-and-white lens when it should be seen through shades of grey. First, Walder has begun to reduce management inefficiencies. You’re not correct when you say he never get rid of the administrative staff he promised to cut because he did indeed eliminate a good number of redundant staff positions. As I said, though, he could be cutting and consolidating more. That said, my second point is that it’s not as easy as simply cutting by decree. He has to figure out a way to cut the fat and reorganize while maintaining proper operations and oversight for a system moving 7-8 million people per day. Finally, what other MTA chair has even bothered to take on administrative cuts? The bottom line shows savings of $500 million annually. You can’t just ignore that outcome even if you want him to do more.

BrooklynBus February 7, 2011 - 3:22 pm

You are correct. He has made a start. But he is only one person and can’t see inefficiencies at the micro-level. What he has to do is to somehow reorganize the MTA structure to allow for layers below him to also see and change inefficiencies.

I just saw one glaring one this afternoon. The schedule for my bus route was just rewritten to reduce overcrowding, but something got screwed up in the implementation. Now you have dozens of buses being taken out of service while hundreds of people are trying to board. Totally wasteful. There is now enough service to give everyone a seat, but instead the buses are still operating at crush load and passengers in the street are being bypassed.

I don’t expect Walder to personally fix something like this, but something is totally screwed up for something like this to happen. At some level, someone should be able to see what is happening and correct this problem which is really very simple to correct, by allowing passengers on the Not In Service buses to ride the mile to the subway instead of sending the buses directly to the depot.

nycpat February 7, 2011 - 11:25 am

Why should NYCT motormen where uniforms at all? A badge and vest and denims should suffice. Throw in TSSs and RCIs=millions saved.

Nathanael February 10, 2011 - 6:14 am

Walder’s actually making major moves to centralize the departments which were duplicated between NYCT, MNR, LIRR, etc. This is causing uproar among the employees, so he’s wisely doing one department at a time. Benefits has been a particular hassle apparently.

Marc Shepherd February 7, 2011 - 9:43 am

A-minus is about right. Even in the categories where you gave him lower marks, it is tough to see how he could have done much better, given the circumstances.

Consider, for instance, the C+ you gave him on station cleanliness. What exactly could the guy have done, without making horrific cuts in something else?

BrooklynBus February 7, 2011 - 11:11 am

I think A- is way to high a grade for speeding up bus service. Two SBS routes represent an infinitesimal amount of the system. I would estimate that on most routes at least 35% of the buses arrive in bunches of two or more or are severely off-schedule by being one minute apart instead of ten, leading to extraordinary waits 50% of the time. Until that problem is somehow greatly minimized and becomes the exception rather than the rule, he shouldn’t even get a B in that category.

You also cannot look at just speed without considering total travel time. If you walk six extra minutes to reach an SBS stop and you save five minutes traveling, your net savings is one minute.

Kevin February 7, 2011 - 7:59 pm

I agree, this happens in the subway as well, during midday hours and sometimes even during rush hours, trains are never consistent on their timing and are always sent in some kind of a bunch. While it is true that holding a train to keep times consistent will result in slightly longer waits, the waits will be far longer if the trains we’re bunched which appear to be the pattern today. Mostly on the Queens Blvd Local where a M and R are seemingly bunched together, and once you miss the bunch you have to wait ages for another one to arrive.

John Paul N. February 8, 2011 - 1:14 am

Unfortunately, the M and R (and other shared-corridor lines) are scheduled to bunch that way, i.e. intervals of 2 min, then 5 min, then 2 min, then 6 min, etc. To change the schedule you’d need to look at the Manhattan trunk lines first, which I bet are driving the schedule for the other lines. Or reroute some Es or Fs to run local, something that passengers on those lines probably don’t want. Ridership in the Queens Blvd. Local stations should warrant more local service anyway.

BrooklynBus February 8, 2011 - 10:15 am

I thought they do hold trains when they are bunched together. At least they used to. When I was a kid the Lex was always held at Bowling Green, sometimes as long as 5 minutes on weekends.

Al D February 7, 2011 - 11:26 am

Overall. I’d say Mr. Walder gets an A for effort, except when it comes the unions. He has fumbled badly there and needs to recover. The implementation of his efforts has also been slow and spotty. I consideration of this:

cutting administrative costs. B

Mr. Walder has made cuts to an agency/familiy of agencies that clearly could handle it. Mr. Walder’s hands are tied somewhat by the political system that controls it because that system uses the MTA for nepotism. It’s a lot easier to do this there than a ‘regular’ state or city agency because of the different employment process. This is out of Mr. Walder’s control and he, like all who have preceded him, have to accept this as part of the job.

Having said this, there are still plenty more administrative cuts to be had.

reducing service cuts. B-

I still see plenty of empty buses running around, and yes, they’re in service. I’m not sure that I quite get the ‘required for network coverage’ bureaucrat line, but I also understand the catch 22 of reducing service and forever losing riders. However, an empty bus is an empty bus is an empty bus.

When all the trains are as crowded as the L, only then will I empathize with those riding ‘more crowded’ trains.

speeding up bus service. C

There has been a qualified success (see all our comments here about SBS) on 1 line, the M15SBS in the past few years. Yes, I guess a few lines got a limited Limited bus, but basically nothing short of a bus revolution is going to get me to give up my car where I live because I can truck my family around faster by 3 to 4 times and more conveniently than riding the bus. I understand that only so much can happen in 16 months, and that (hopefully) we are just at the beginning of significant change.

providing bus and train arrival updates. A

Mr. Walder has taken us from almost nothing to something fairly quickly, expanding rapidly from what was only the L line.

adding new fare technology. B-

As with bus improvements, we are (again hopefully) just at the beginning. But as recent as Friday, I am still getting “Please swipe again at this turnstile” unnecessarily.

improving subway stations. F

C’mon. This category is a joke, right? OK, OK, so some stations got a major rehab, but then they’re left to fall apart quickly and soon enough, they look almost as old as stations that never were renovated!

At Union Sq, huge paints chips are peeling off the ceiling and have been for some time. Now that should be a priority repair.

So a lot needs to be done here.

communicating with riders on service changes. B+

This is a category that also has gone from very little to a lot quickly, but there are persistent, nagging problems. Example, peak AM L trains have a 3.5 minute headway. The MTA web site told me “Good Service” before I left this morning. Now, the L is overcapacity at those headways. When I got to the station, the countdown clocks showed the next 4 L’s about 7 minutes apart, or double the headways. (I had to wait for a few trains because I could not get on the first 2, and eventually left the station to go another way.) Now, how can this be “Good Service”?

My review may be a bit harsh, but again Mr. Walder gets an A for effort, and the results of his effort still need to appear more wholly. Mr. Walder is by far the most competent transit executive in recent memory.

Overall = B

Donald February 7, 2011 - 5:52 pm

I read a report in one of the major newspapers a few years ago that found that most of the crumbling subway stations are in bad neighborhoods. Any truth to this?

John-2 February 7, 2011 - 7:14 pm

Chambers Street? Not exactly a crumbling neighborhood, though the lack of any routes that travel north of Delancey allows the MTA to ignore it, since no one from upper Manhattan even knows it’s there (if the SAS ever goes south of 63rd St. and hooks into Nassau St., odds are you’d see an amazing rehabilitation of Chambers).

Alon Levy February 7, 2011 - 1:58 pm

I was conflicted between a B and B-. I decided to be nice, despite the buses that sit still for inspections, and the insane ideas about how to replace ticket-punching on commuter rail.

Donald February 7, 2011 - 2:23 pm

With contract negotiations starting this summer with the union workers, it will be interesting to see what approach Walder takes. On one hand, he wants to save money in the process. BUT if he goes in there too tough and aggressive, he will easily repeat the mistakes that Peter Kalikow made in 2005. And we all know how thoe contract negotiations ended. The upcoming negotiations will be Walder’s TRUE test of leadership and will mark his legacy far more than anything else he does. However, if I recall, London Underground workers went out on strike under Walder’s leadership there. But to be fair, strike are much more common in Europe than in the U.S.

Tsuyoshi February 7, 2011 - 6:20 pm

This is subjective, but I would say that most of the “good“ neighborhoods with subway service are located in Manhattan, below 110th. So those stations might be less crumbling. Even though I don’t live in one of those neighborhoods, I think it would make sense to focus maintence money there because, with few exceptions, that area sees more traffic than the rest of the city.

MTA President Jay Walder Resigns | MetroFocus | THIRTEEN July 21, 2011 - 6:07 pm

[…] Saving the MTA $500 million through administrative cuts, including 1,700 layoffs in 2010. […]


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