Home Asides Walder: MTA infrastructure in ‘terrible condition’

Walder: MTA infrastructure in ‘terrible condition’

by Benjamin Kabak

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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Marc Shepherd January 4, 2012 - 12:33 pm

I do not think anyone (or at least, not the right people, nor enough of them) will wake up to this reality. For a whole bunch of reasons, decades in the making, most Americans do not trust the political apparatus to Get Big Things Done. There is an overwhelming preference to keep fares and taxes artificially low, and wait until the infrastructure either breaks down completely or is dangerously near doing so, before taking action. I don’t see any sweeping change in sight.

BrooklynBus January 4, 2012 - 12:41 pm

How can you say our taxes are artificially low? Don’t New Yorkers pay among the highest rates in the country? The problem is that we don’t get back what we put in and not enough goes to transit and what does go to transit goes disproportionately to the suburbs and commuter rails.

pea-jay January 4, 2012 - 12:50 pm

Tax burdens in the US are at historic lows and low compared to European levels as well. Lumping the subways with the rest of the regional commuting infrastructure has not helped though. While it makes planning and operational sense, politically it allows the suburbs to leach off the city when it comes to transportation dollars

BrooklynBus January 4, 2012 - 1:07 pm

We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to Europe but with other major American cities.

Christopher January 4, 2012 - 1:47 pm

Depends on what you are counting. For property tax rates, NYC is in the bottom 5. Des Moines — not where people think of as being an expensive city — is in the top 5. Income tax is high but so is Potomac, Maryland, and high growth areas in suburban Washington and California.

Taxes in reality have little to do with growth. Maybe corporate tax rates. Regulation, land use policies. Unionization. And general cost of living get in the way more (although some of our highest cost cities are also are most economically successful, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, DC.) So of course the answer is broader — what is connectivity like to other job centers, what is the state of infrastructure., what’s the quality of living like, what’s the quality of the schools and higher education like.

Part of NY state’s problem is that while NYC is well connected and booming, the corruption and disintegration of the rest of the state is poor, and with the loss of tradable product creation in those places as well as quality of life especially related to temperature (air conditioning in the South really killed NY in many ways), everything north of the NYC region is dying and the rest of of us are paying for it. (And with the death spiral comes easy corruption, which only increases the death spiral.)

Bolwerk January 4, 2012 - 2:04 pm

I think poor government administration is worse than high taxes any day of the year, and but for the cut-tax-cut-tax-cut-tax ideology of some politicians the focus now would be on better administration. (In NYS, we seem to lack both an ideology that demands better administration and one that demands lower taxes.) Spending on things that get you a return someday (eg, train tracks) is better than spending on things that don’t (eg, a conductor)

But one problem with NY region taxes is they are easily avoided. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how you can get most of the benefits of consuming private business services offered in New York, if you even need them, without paying the taxes, and this was clearly a problem in the 1970s.

What to do about it from there is harder to say, but clearly upstate NY needs an economic regime that makes it attractive to…well, somebody. I have a hard time buying the climate is really the problem though. Places like New Hampshire are, or at least were in mid-decade, fairly high-growth. And as much as people say they like heat, I don’t see it if they’re moving south and running the air conditioner all day. Rather, whatever is making people move is rawly economic in nature – better jobs, or even worse jobs that are easier just easier to find. And with our “better jobs,” the over-generous pensions get taken south – another way we subsidize the rest of the country, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Bolwerk January 4, 2012 - 1:47 pm

I disagree. Right now, we should probably be comparing ourselves to London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and probably Hong Kong too. We should be asking ourselves why we aren’t keeping up with them. Both in transit and in general economic function, they all have their strengths and weaknesses, but on the public financial and public investment fronts they’re all doing better than we are. At least if the U.S. maintains a degree of economic superpowerdom in the 21st century, those are the established places that we in NYC will be vying against for investment and talent, along with some up-and-coming major cities in the developing world.

John January 4, 2012 - 12:35 pm

Sadly, the results of the 1970-85 period pretty much show how bad the system’s condition has to get before anything is done — i.e., bad to the point that the politicians can no longer avoid doing something, because the reliability and safety become more than just annoyances, but real election issues.

Trains breaking down, fires in tunnels, graffiti, rising crime rates, etc., are what it took to get the Kiley-Gunn reforms of the mid-1980s. The political will was there because the politicians were worried not to do anything would finally cost them their jobs. We’re not at that same point yet, so don’t expect any changes in the near future.

BrooklynBus January 4, 2012 - 12:43 pm

Hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself and we learned our lessons from then. Bringing the system back was not easy. If we let it go again during the next 20 years, it will take at least another 20 to return it to the condition it is in today.

Alex C January 4, 2012 - 11:01 pm

The only positive is that those of us in our twenties will have great stories to tell our grandkids about how awful the subways were when we were in our 30s. So there’s that. I do wonder though if with the advent of the internet and Twitter/Facebook/Google+, etc. the crooks in Albany could really get away with driving the MTA into the ground without it being caught on to my the general population before it’s too late.

pea-jay January 4, 2012 - 12:46 pm

Walder is going to find working with authoritarian Chinese leaders so much easier than cajoling dozens of semi-educated legislators whose only real skill was convincing more people to choose them over their respective competitors.

Bolwerk January 4, 2012 - 2:05 pm

What competitors? Have you checked incumbency rates lately?

pea-jay January 4, 2012 - 2:15 pm

mostly referring to the initial election to fill an open seat.

Bolwerk January 4, 2012 - 2:33 pm

You mean anointment, right? :-p

BrooklynBus January 4, 2012 - 1:05 pm

“Will anyone wake up to this reality before it’s too late?”

Ben, I asked the same question but not regarding infrastructure. I asked it here http://www.sheepsheadbites.com.....s-to-take/ regarding additional service cuts creating more service gaps (creating more double fare trips)instead of updating the bus routing system to fill those service gaps to make it easier to get between neighborhoods where the subway does not go.

I feel it is just a matter of time before the MTA releases another round of service cuts. Maybe not this year, but it is coming. They have shown absolutely no desire to increase service since they were created. They only do so under political pressure, and for the last ten years or so coupled any increases with cuts or just made cuts outright.

Al D January 4, 2012 - 5:32 pm

I get what you’re saying generally, but let’s say, in the instance of the L, there was no political pressure that I’m aware of that increased service. It was simple supply and demand, albeit in arrears. They HAD to increase service to match demand over time.

As I say, I agree with you. So from a macro view, I wonder where and when, if ever, the MTA will propose and act on a significant expansion of service. Phase I SAS is NOT a significant expansion even though every politician and MTA Press Release would have you believe it.

bob January 5, 2012 - 7:23 pm

Historically it’s the city government that does the expansions. They planned the IRT, and paid for much of the construction. When that was a success along came the BMT and IND. Construction is expensive. Only the government has the resources to fund it. (This is not new. We forget that the transcontinental RR was also government funded.)

I don’t know why people think the MTA can work some type of magic when there isn’t even enough money to do appropriate maintance. If you want a low fare and good service there has to be some type of subsidy.

If enough people care about the issue the politicians will respond. But so far people seem satisfied to let politicians point fingers while nothing changes.

Larry Littlefield January 4, 2012 - 1:10 pm

“Wake up?” You imply the problem is lack of knowledge. Is the system going to collapse before Generation Greed doesn’t need it anymore. No. So there is no problem, according to just about every single person in charge of just about every institution in this country, public and private.

Don’t trust anyone under 31 and over 13 at the time the phrase “don’t trust anyone over 30” was coined, in 1968.

Tsuyoshi January 5, 2012 - 1:30 am

Speaking as a non-native, I didn’t move to New York because I was looking for low taxes. One of the reasons I moved here was because the services funded by taxes (transit especially) are better here than anywhere else in the US.

And seriously, when you hear people complain about New York City, taxes are never at the top of the list. What do they complain about? Housing of course, and… transit! The balance in favor of low taxes and in opposition to reliable and comfortable transit is seriously out of whack here.

People who want a city with low taxes where it’s easy to drive everywhere have hundreds of other options in this country. We should play to our strengths and put more money into transit.

Bolwerk January 5, 2012 - 1:55 pm

Good points. For an individual, there are actually a lot of pretty compelling reasons to see New York as fairly affordable and leisurely…assuming you can find work. If you land in a decent enough neighborhood, you can actually find some bargains in the outer boroughs when you consider the costs of housing and transportation together.

There is a legitimate problem with taxes though. They’re complicated, confusing, and often unfair, which drives away businesses. Regardless of how you feel about taxes and who should bear the burden of government expenditure, the reality is we have to compete with other cities for employment to some extent.

bob January 5, 2012 - 7:32 pm

Going back to Walder – I find it interesting Ben didn’t bother to quote his other statement:
“What I did,” Mr. Walder added, “was to be able to right that financial basis and to be able to put the system back on firm financial footing.” (from the NY Times CityRoom column, Jan 4 2011)

This is, to be blunt, a baldfaced lie. There are enough posts on SAS (and elsewhere) with all the details of the current precarious state of the agency finances. So if Walder would say something so obviously untrue to make himself look good, how can you trust anything else he says?

Bolwerk January 7, 2012 - 7:46 am

I don’t know if it’s a lie. Definitely it would be possible now if Lhota et al continue his policies. But yeah, there is no guarantee of firm financial footing for the MTA, and to say so does seem somewhat disingenuous.

Bloomberg punts on MTA financing schemes :: Second Ave. Sagas January 6, 2012 - 1:08 am

[…] when Jay Walder finally broke his silence on his tenure in New York. As I reported on Wednesday, he did not have kind words for the MTA’s condition or Albany’s treatment of the network. We’ve heard that […]

James January 7, 2012 - 7:45 pm

What if the subway was privatized?


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