Jay Walder Says His Replacement Doesn't Need Transit Background

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Jay Walder, taking questions from reporters the September 2011 MTA board meeting (photo by Kate Hinds)

The CEO of New York's MTA, Jay Walder, said that his successor doesn't necessarily have to have a transportation background -- but he or she does have to love it.

"Whoever runs this organization should be dedicated to the organization," he said,  and "be dedicated to what it does on a day-to-day basis." Walder went on to say: "I think it is helpful to have a knowledge of mass transit. I don't know that it's an absolutely essential quality."

His remarks came at his final meeting of the MTA board before he leaves for a job in Hong Kong next month, where he'll be heading that city's transit agency.

In an interview last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose administration is currently looking for Walder's replacement, also telegraphed that the next MTA chief may not come from the transportation world.  He told New York State Public Radio's Karen DeWitt in a telephone interview that his administration was engaged in a  "very aggressive talent search." And he said didn't necessarily want to hire a "transit geek."

"The MTA primarily is an effective manager, and I think the ability to manage a complex process, that deals with highly technical services, in a political environment, in a large organization, at a financially strapped time, you know, that's where we are," Cuomo said. "To me, the management is very important. Of course, the technical expertise, but you give me a good manager, who can run an organization, and find efficiency, that this organization is going to have to find, that's going to be paramount."

The next head of the MTA will be managing a delicate financial situation, as Walder pointed out in today's meeting. "As you look forward for the MTA, I think you need to be able to find a way to have both sufficient resources and stability of resources," he said. "I think the ups and downs of the economic cycle create financial burdens for the organization that's inconsistent with the fact that we have a service that continues to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And frankly, I don't think all of us don't want to see that service have to suffer through that."

When asked later if he had any regrets about his tenure, he said "I wish the economic situation I came into was different...[but] you have to play the hand you were dealt. And the hand we were dealt was one that said this was a very very difficult time financially."

But Walder said he was proud of the work the MTA had done under his tenure. "Nothing happens at the MTA because the person in the corner office at 347 Madison Avenue [MTA's current headquarters] says it should happen. Things happen at the MTA because 67,000 dedicated men and women make it happen." He repeatedly praised MTA staffers of all stripes -- from token booth clerks to management to his colleagues on the board. "When we say we're going to get something done, the result is truly, truly incredible."

When the meeting's official business was over -- and it was dispatched with in under 20 minutes -- board members took to the microphones to tell Walder how much they'd miss him. Nancy Shevell said that right after she began working with Walder, she told a friend "well, it's just a short matter of time before a large public-sector company scoops him up. And it happened, and I'm not surprised. And it's sad, in my opinion, for the MTA."

"You are the tallest person in the room," said Allen Cappelli Mark Lebow. "You will probably be the tallest person in China, and you will, I'm sure, be the tallest achiever there as you were here."  (Walder: "I think Yao Ming is going back.")

Governor Cuomo hasn't yet said when he will announce Walder's replacement. As for Walder, he greeted a Chinese-speaking reporter with a hearty "Ni Hao" -- and then said he was going down to the Rosetta Stone store.