Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
UPDATED The head of New York’s transit agency abruptly announced he was leaving after less than two years on the job. The news took almost everyone by surprise, including some of his closest advisors. Top leaders in government and business learned only as the MTA was making the announcement public Thursday afternoon.
Even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday morning he didn't get a call until yesterday.
Walder is leaving to be the CEO of MTR, a Hong Kong-based company that runs transit and rail systems in Asia, London, Stockholm, and Melbourne.
“I’m stunned, shocked,” said Kate Slevin, Executive Director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a planning group. Walder, well-placed sources say, held the news close to the vest, and informed business leaders, government officials, and staff just hours before the MTA official announcement.
“He told me he regrets he has to choose between the job he loves here, and a much better job,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, a business group. Wylde said Walder had been meeting with her group up until very recently to discuss new initiatives in New York’s transit system.
The only hint that Walder was leaving was that the transit chief, who has school-age children, told associates he’d recently taken a family vacation to Hong Kong so he could see the transit system there.
Walder was appointed by former Governor David Paterson. The 6’6” tall, dome-pated transit chief, who had been a top official at London Transport, was lured from a job in the private sector only after being promised a $350,000 bonus should he be pushed out – a promise he extracted after turmoil following the resignation of former Governor Eliot Spitzer.
When Governor Andrew Cuomo took office this fall, transit watchers held their breath to see if Cuomo would ask Walder to leave. But Walder told associates that he had no indication from Governor Cuomo that the Governor wanted him to leave.
“For nearly two years, Jay Walder has shown true leadership at the helm of the MTA and been a fiscally responsible manager during these difficult financial times,” said Governor Cuomo in a statement. “Riders of the MTA are better off today because of Jay's expertise and the reforms he initiated will benefit all for years to come. Jay's departure is a loss for the MTA and for the state, but I thank him for his service and wish him the best in his future endeavors."
As CEO of MTR, Walder will get a much bigger compensation package than his current $350,000 salary, and will preside over a company that not only runs trains, but that owns the land around them. That land, and property development, provide a rich source of revenue for MTR, which, unlike the NY MTA, has seemingly endless expansion opportunities, including connecting Hong Kong to Mainland China’s 10,000 mile high speed rail network.
By contrast, Walder has presided over excruciating cuts at the MTA. During his tenure, driven by an $800-bllion budget gap, Walder made the most severe cuts in a generation, ending dozens of bus lines, shutting down two train lines, ending weekend bus service in some areas, and making trains noticeably less frequent. And the fares jumped this year by 7.5 percent, and will again next year.
But the cuts, fare hikes and layoffs -- in particular the slashing of hundreds of station agent jobs -- earned Walder the lasting enmity of transit workers. “Transit workers won’t miss Jay Walder and quite frankly will be glad to see him go,” said TWU Local 100 President John Samuelson in a statement. “He has been antagonistic to the union and the workers from his first day on the job. His attempt last year to blackmail the union into major pay and other concessions led to gratuitous layoffs. He ushered in unprecedented service cuts in both subway and bus service, with particular insensitivity to already underserved areas of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. He never grasped the notion that our bus and subway systems are the most basic and vital service afforded to New York’s working class.”
Walder has relied on technology to make up what he can’t in more frequent service. Hundreds of subway platforms now have displays that tell riders when the train is coming, the Authority is piloting “oyster cards,” which allow riders to swipe and pay, and releasing MTA data to app developers to better distribute schedule information.
The next chief “will have very big shoes to fill” said Tom Wright, Executive Director of the Regional Plan Association. “Figuratively and literally. It’s worrisome for all of us because this is such a critical time at the MTA. Ridership is up, the demands on the system are up, and there are real financial concerns.”
On Tuesday, the authority announced it would cut back its current capital construction plan by $2 billion, and neither the state legislature nor the governor have shown themselves in any mood to raise revenues to support transit.
“Years ago, the plum job in transit was head of the New York system,” said Buz Paaswell, a CUNY Professor and expert in urban transit systems. “And now the plum jobs are in Asia. Well run, beautifully designed, economically sound. As a New Yorker, I’m concerned.”