Walder's Time as MTA Chief Marked by Fiscal Discipline, Unfinished Business

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Jay Walder abruptly announced his resignation Thursday after just two years into his six-year term — and though he was considered a shrewd fiscal disciplinarian his departure comes as many important developments hang in the balance, from completion of mega-projects like the Second Avenue subway to an impending contract negotiation with a major union.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg called him "a first-rate leader with big ideas" and advocacy group Tri-State said he helped "restore the agency's credibility" by finding billions in savings during his tenure. But many wondered how Walder was planning to pull off the feat of convincing Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to plug a $9 billion hole in the authority's capital construction and maintenance program.

That particular showdown is set for the fall, but with Walder's final day set for October 21, he will either avoid it or confront it as a lame duck. Either way, his replacement will need to get quickly up to speed. The five-year capital program runs out of money at the end of the year.

Walder gets good grades because he largely accomplished the mandate he had received on his appointment by former Governor David Patterson: balance the MTA's budget, which was $800 million in the red, without more money from government.

He did that by making draconian service cuts last year, especially to bus lines in the outer boroughs, and raising fares by 7.5 percent. Fares are set go up again next year by the same percentage. Riders felt the pain of those measures, but  transit watchers and business leaders generally gave Walder high marks for imposing fiscal discipline. He was praised for taking once unthinkable steps, such as trimming the authority's administrative payroll.

But not everyone approved.

Walder angered Transport Workers Union Local 100 in advance of an upcoming contract negotiation when he said labor had not "played an active part" in helping the MTA face its budget crisis.
"[Walder] leaves New York City transit in worse shape than when he arrived less than two years ago," TWU 100 said in a statement about the departing transit chief. "We will urge the governor to appoint a new chair who will view his workers as allies not the enemy, and a person who fully grasps the magnitude of the contribution of the public transportation system to the economic vitality of New York."

Walder arrived from his previous job as managing director of London Transport  with a reputation for innovation and a willingness to tackle big projects. 

"I would love to bring some of the innovation of London to New York," he told WNYC during his first days on the job.

In particular, he said he'd like to see countdown clocks and "a simpler fare-paying system."

Today, countdown clocks are up and running in 161 subway stations, with 18 more expected to get them by the end of the year. But simpler fare-paying--turnstiles that open with the wave of a debit card-is still in the pilot stage. The most optimistic roll-out date for a successor to the Metrocard is 2015.

Walder also introduced real-time bus tracking projects and oversaw two redesigns of the MTA website-riders can now check the service status of a subway, rail or bus line from a more user-friendly MTA homepage. And he made available much of the authority's long-secret data to software developers, who have started churning out mobile apps that do things like show commuter line schedules or help riders choose the subway car that will get them closest to their station exit.

In leaving the MTA for rail operator MTR in Hong Kong (SEE WHAT HONG KONG'S TRANSIT SYSTEM LOOKS LIKE), Walder will be jumping from the world's largest public transit system to a private rail company, albeit one that made a reported net profit of $937 million in 2009. As he readies his exit, we'll excerpt the musings of Benjamin Kabak, the voice of a savvy transit blog called Second Avenue Sagas:

"As the news sinks.I can't help but feel as though Walder is leaving before the job is done..Walder was the best and most knowledgeable MTA head during the past few decades, and his departure is clearly a blow to the MTA and those fighting for better transit in the New York City area."