Nearly a year to the day after he took the reins as chairman and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Jay Walder touted the agency’s accomplishments and laid out his vision for the future before a crowd of about 80 people at York College in Jamaica.
But Walder acknowledged jokingly that his timing may not have been the best, as he spoke on Oct. 8, the day after the MTA raised bus and train fares for the second time in about a year and a half.
Walder said the agency, beleaguered by continual deficits, had no choice but to increase fares as well as make other structural changes to reduce costs over the long run, even as it moves forward with modernization projects like establishing cellular and Wi-Fi service in the subway system and installing station alert signs that say when the next train is coming.
Nobody was happy with how the MTA was operating when he took the helm, Walder said, and the city’s eight million residents had eight million different opinions on what should be done. The agency faced a $900 million deficit almost immediately because of declining tax revenues and cuts in governmental support.
“We took swift action with the belief that even if we didn’t get everything right, it would be better than it was before,” he said. “We had to cut costs and improve service.”
The MTA eliminated 3,500 positions, including 20 percent of the staff at headquarters, consolidated its myriad press offices and made other cost reductions that resulted in a savings of $500 billion. And that is not a one-shot decrease in costs but a group of structural changes that will recur every year, he said, and in fact will increase to $750 billion by 2014.
But the agency didn’t just eliminate vacant positions, it laid off more than 1,100 employees from its workforce of more than 70,000.
“Laying off more than 1,100 hardworking employees is not an easy thing to do,” Walder said. “It’s painful.”
But he blamed the unions for forcing management to lay off so many people, saying that if they had been agreeable to other reforms, many jobs could have been saved. And he challenged the unions to enter into a “partnership” with the agency to continue cutting costs while getting the job done, saying that is the “only way to service customers and employees.”
“We have to work together to find productivity improvements so we can put tax dollars to work as intelligently and efficiently as possible,” Walder said.
He was challenged during a question-and-answer session following his speech by two officials who said the agency was cutting costs on the backs of the workers — Daneek Miller, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Division 1056, and state Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village), who worked for the Transit Authority from 1969 through 1981. Both used their turn at the microphone to criticize MTA management.
Miller corrected Walder’s claim that transit workers do not contribute to their health and pension benefits, while Clark said layoffs are not the way to close budget gaps.
“What will take this country down is the jobs issue,” she said. “I don’t think layoffs are the plan to have.”
Walder said he does “feel pain for what happened” but stuck to his position that the unions were largely to blame.
“We went to the unions with a proposal that would have changed the benefits and pensions for new employees,” he said. “That proposal never gained any traction. We went to mediation and it went nowhere.”
He added that “we’ve adopted a plan that is not dependent on layoffs going forward.”
Walder’s address was part of the college’s Executive Leadership Breakfast Series, which next will feature Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Nov. 3.