Jay Walder won’t be answering to Andrew Cuomo anymore, and maybe that’s the point

jay-walder-wont-be-answering-andrew-cuomo-anymore-and-maybe-thats-p
Jay Walder. (MTAPhotos, via flickr)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Everyone seems to agree that Jay Walder has been a very effective head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which under his leadership continued to provide a functional transportation system and build for the future, even as enormous budgetary pressure forced cuts in spending and service.

But no one seems to know why Walder leaving, exactly.

Ostensibly he's going because, as State Senator Marty Golden put it to Liz Benjamin, Walder "got an offer he couldn't refuse."

The attractiveness of the new gig is undoubtedly part of it: Walder, who previously was in charge of London's transportation system, is now going to run the Hong Kong-based M.T.R. Corporation, giving him a brief that will include responsibility for a commuter rail system in Hong Kong and intercity rail in Hong Kong and China, among other things. He will have plenty of house money to play with (M.T.R., a publicly traded private corporation, made a net profit of $1.55 billion in 2010) and his compensation at the new job will amount to several times more than the $350,000 a year he has been making at the M.T.A..

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

“This is an exciting opportunity for me to lead a publicly-traded, multi-national corporation with a broad set of business activities,” Walder said in a statement released yesterday afternoon. “The MTR Corp. is widely recognized for its world-leading rail systems and the innovative property developments that are built around stations.”

New York officials duly put out their own statements expressing surprise and regret—both seemingly genuine—that Walder was making Oct. 21 his last day as head of the M.T.A., and that he was leaving at such a delicate time. Michael Bloomberg called him "the type of person we can't afford to lose," and Andrew Cuomo praised Walder's leadership and said he was a "fiscally responsible manager during these difficult financial times."

That last part is an almost comical understatement. Walder has had to figure out how to keep the city transportation system's state of repair up to date and maintain momentum on crucial capital projects while spending less money. The task he was facing looking forward was even more daunting, and more thankless.

As Benjamin Kabak put it on Second Avenue Sagas:

The next few months are going to be of paramount importance for the MTA as it must figure out how to close a $10 billion capital funding gap and negotiate a new contract with the Transport Workers Union Local 100. Walder had been a vocal part of both of those efforts, and it appears as though he likely won’t be around to see either through. ... The MTA is very much in transition as it has tried to cope with an austerity budget, major capital projects and technological innovation. The job isn’t done yet though as funding isn’t in place and projects are in flux. Will the next leader push through countdown clocks and better fare payment technologies? What will happen with the bus tracking projects and the authority’s commitment to providing datasets for developers? What happens with the labor negotiations and the capital budget wrangling?

But it wasn't just the physical infrastructure and the balance sheet Walder had to worry about. There was also the politics.

Walder, who was appointed by David Paterson, faced enormous public pressure as the M.T.A. implemented its politically deadly cocktail of service cuts and fare hikes. He would have had very real reason to be concerned about whether there was anyone in state government willing and able to give him cover as he set about holding things together under these conditions. That's where Andrew Cuomo comes in.

It wouldn't be fair to say that Cuomo isn't interested in public transportation as an issue, because maybe he is. But it's fair to say that it has not been a political priority for him. 

When he was running for governor, and rolling out impressively detailed post-election plans in other policy areas, Cuomo's transportation agenda was, relatively, somewhat vague. To the extent that Cuomo did address the issue of transportation, it was often to engage in the sort of cynical bashing of the M.T.A. and its leadership (read: Jay Walder) that sounded great to suburban voters who don't feel they have a stake in the welfare of the public transportation system, but which is actually deeply unhelpful at a time when the M.T.A.'s exisiting, not-quite-sufficient sources of revenue are under constant political threat.

Since Cuomo became governor, it is now becoming clear, he hasn't done much to indicate that his campaign bluster was an aberration, or that he'd have Walder's back.

From the Times story on Walder's resignation:

Mr. Walder, who was appointed by Gov. David A. Paterson, had expressed some uneasiness about his relationship with Mr. Cuomo. Mr. Cuomo had paid little attention to Mr. Walder since taking office seven months ago, and rarely met with him in person, according to two people close to the administration who insisted on anonymity for fear of angering the governor.

Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, said Mr. Walder and the governor “met and spoke several times,” but he would not elaborate on their meeting or the frequency of their interactions.

But Richard L. Brodsky, a former state assemblyman who has long monitored the transportation authority, said, “I don’t think Jay has ever been comfortable in a highly political environment, and with the budget scarcity that’s coming down the road, it’s likely to get more so.”

It will, unless the most powerful official in New York decides to take political responsibility for his state's public transportation system, instead of setting up the next M.T.A. leader to fail.