You can’t blame him for taking a better paying, more satisfying job where he’s likely to face a lot less criticism and far fewer institutional roadblocks, but MTA Chairman Jay Walder sure did pick a lousy time to resign.
Then again, any time is a lousy time for a skilled manager to leave the constantly beleaguered transit agency. Perennially on the edge of bankruptcy, continually having to repair aging infrastructure, always the target of disparagement from all sides, the MTA lurches from one problem to the next like a train in a curving tunnel. But Walder was making great strides in improving the agency’s finances, updating its technology and overseeing major capital projects that had long been in the works.
He just presented his final budget plan, a $12.7 billion proposal that puts off fare hikes for another two years. As before, he managed to slice hundreds of millions of dollars off original spending projections, a laudable accomplishment.
But as painful as they are to the working class and poor, more fare increases are inevitable, whether now or later. As it stands, the MTA is still bleeding money, despite Walder’s many improvements in how it operates. That’s largely because for every dollar it costs to run trains and buses, riders are only contributing 60 cents. Drivers, conversely, are paying three times as much in tolls as it takes to maintain the bridges they use. The estimated 8.5 million people who use the subway and bus systems simply must contribute more to the cost of their transportation — though increases have to come gradually to ease the burden as much as possible.
Where Walder’s going, they have even better ways to bring in money. He’ll be heading Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway Corp., a profit-making entity that functions more like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey than it does the MTA. That’s because like the Port Authority, the MTRC holds profit-making assets like commercial properties, whereas the MTA does not. And that’s why it could afford to lure Walder with a salary believed to be at least three times as much as the $350,000 a year he is paid now.
It will be difficult for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to find someone nearly as qualified as Walder to replace him. Whoever it is will first have to work out contracts with the 60-odd unions that represent the agency’s 66,000 workers. But it’s crucial to the future of New York City that Walder’s gains not be lost, that his successor be as dynamic and creative a leader as he has been — and that he or she be chosen as soon as possible.