The Real Reasons Jay Walder Resigned

THE COMMUTE (Special Edition): Since I have been writing The Commute, I really haven’t said anything really bad about Jay Walder. In fact, I have complimented him several times. I gave him credit for being the first MTA Chairman to admit that the MTA could be doing a better job managing its money and eliminating waste. I have also given him credit for attending some of the public hearings last year for the massive service cuts he instituted due to Albany stealing dedicated funds for mass transit. He was sensitive to the concerns he heard and vowed that these would be the last major service cuts.

But now that he will be leaving, none of his promises matter anymore. If you want to read about Walder’s accomplishments during his short tenure, you have come to the wrong place. You can read about the money he saved, the new projects he initiated, and the reactions to his departure elsewhere. Ben Kabak at wrote a fine summary.

Now that he will be leaving, he’s shown his true colors. His promises no longer matter, and he has betrayed us.

One thing I do not agree with is the assertion that he has restored credibility to the MTA. I do not know anyone who believes that the agency is any more credible today than it was two years ago, before he assumed the helm.

However, everyone (except the unions) seems to agree that now is probably the worst time for him to leave, when the MTA has a $250 million operating gap, and the future of the capital budget is uncertain.

Walder has been a big promoter of new technology: countdown clocks, replacing The MetroCard with a Smart Card, providing real time bus information, et cetera. Now all those programs are in jeopardy. I have little faith that his replacement will be better, especially if Governor Cuomo chooses to replace him with one of his friends from the banking or real estate industries where most of the previous MTA chairmen have come from. At least Walder was transit knowledgeable to some degree. I do not believe that he was the major problem at the MTA.

Previous MTA Chairmen

The last MTA chairman with a transit background prior to Walder was Peter Stangl in the 1980s. Stangl and David Gunn, the New York City Transit Authority President who he hired, were responsible for turning the subways and buses around from the dismal days of the 1970s when subway cars were breaking down every 6,000 miles and there was a chronic bus shortage. Today, that number is something like every 150,000 miles and we have a fairly new and reliable bus fleet.

Aside from Stangl and Walder, none of the other MTA chairmen provided real leadership or showed interest in improving the transit system. They owed their allegiance to the real estate and banking industries, not the riding public.

Another reason why the MTA floundered under the other MTA chairmen or NYCTA presidents, is that none of them were there long enough to make a real difference. Until Stangl and Gunn, the average turnover was every two or three years. It takes that amount of time just to get acclimated to the job. You must stay longer to see your projects through. Gunn and his successor, Alan Kiepper were able to accomplish much because each of them stayed about seven years, not two, although Kiepper merely maintained the initiatives Gunn put in place.

Still, I give Stangl and Gunn most of the credit for putting the MTA on the right track. Stangl was an advocate of customer service, unlike Walder who’s only goals are reducing the deficit and bringing new technology to the MTA. Stangl also put his money where his mouth was.

My Experiences

After being ejected from Operations Planning in 1982, I unsuccessfully attempted to return for the following five years. I submitted 14 job applications, not receiving a single interview or even an acknowledgment that my job applications were received. So I wrote a letter to Stangl enclosing my resume and all 14 job applications for which I applied and asking what type of customer service is being provided when no one can even show the courtesy of acknowledging the receipt of a resume? If this is how employees are treated, can customers be treated any better?

I received an immediate response that he arranged a job interview for me. However, the first words that came out of the mouth of the Director of Operations Planning at the interview was, “I’m only interviewing you because Peter Stangl said that I have to, but I have no intentions of hiring you.” My only regret is that I never wrote back to Stangl relaying that information.

Even if I had, it may have not made a difference. The MTA Chairman and NYCT President cannot just do whatever they want. Sometimes they are led by their underlings because they place too much trust in what they are told, which may not be the truth all the time.

After David Gunn’s first three weeks as NYCTA president, he met with me privately and also arranged for me to have an interview with the head of Operations Planning. But that is another story. What surprised me the most about our conversation was how candid he was. He told me that if he knew how difficult the job would be, he never would have accepted it. He said, “Whatever change you want to make, there is always someone who will give you a reason why it can’t be done.” He didn’t accept those reasons and made the changes he set out to make, like eliminating graffiti.

Back to Jay Walder

When the head of an organization leaves, it usually is not a good sign. It can mean that they see trouble on the horizon and they do not see a way around it. They want to be remembered for making improvements, not for failure. The MTA certainly has many problems on the horizon, most of them fiscal and that was the major reason Jay Walder was brought on board in the first place, to solve them.

As a recognized transit fiscal expert, he was supposed to remain on board to steer the MTA through that crisis. He has betrayed us. The MTA Chairman serves at the pleasure of the governor, but Governor Cuomo was wise enough not to replace Walder, because he knew it would not be smart. He also didn’t want to give Walder a golden parachute.

So what happens? Walder leaves anyway. And what are his reasons? To accept a job on private industry at three times his salary as MTA Chairman. Is he leaving just for the money or because he believes the MTA’s problems are just insurmountable and he doesn’t want to be around when the system starts slipping downhill again (Some think it already has)?  I think the answer is a combination of both, or maybe he never intended to stay in the first place.

The capital budget is in trouble. It is doubtful in my opinion that the first portion of the Second Avenue Subway will be completed on schedule in 2016. I expect another five or 10 year delay, and I don’t believe there ever will be money to fully complete it, not to mention extending it to Brooklyn with a new subway tunnel.  I think that longtime MTA head of Capital Construction Mysore Nagaraja saw the dismal future of the Capital Program several years ago and also decided to bail when times were still good.

The question remains, why did Jay Walder return to the MTA after more than a 15-year absence from the NYCTA?  Surely, he could have gotten a higher paying job in private industry. He led us to believe that he came back for the challenge to solve the fiscal problems of an agency that was his former home. But was that the real reason?

As a transit veteran, Walder’s pension is determined by averaging his final three years at Transit. Walder’s last salary at the NYCTA in the 1980s was under $100,000. Since returning, his pension now includes his two years as MTA chairman, where he earned $350,000 annually, tripling his pension. Not a bad reason to return.

Walder is not the first transit head to return to the MTA in order to pad his pension. Former NYCT president, Howard Roberts did the same thing several years ago. It is a little hypocritical for Jay Walder to criticize union personnel working huge amounts of overtime their last three years in order to increase their pensions when he does something similar.

His attempts to cut overtime and other dealings with the unions, such as legally challenging their raises won through arbitration, led to great hostility.  In his statement, TWU Local 100 President John Samuelson said: “We will urge the Governor to appoint a new Chair who will view his workers as allies not the enemy.”  In my column, “10 Needed Changes At The MTA“, Number 3 was “The viewing of communities, the unions, and elected officials as enemies must end. They should be treated instead as allies…” Could he have been reading The Commute?

Perhaps Walder’s contract should have included a penalty provision if he decided to leave before his contract was completed. By leaving early, not only did he break his contract, he betrayed our trust, and has taken us all for a ride.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).


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