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New York Post


Can The Next MTA Chief Be A Fighter?

July 22, 2011

By Nicole Gelinas

MTA chief Jay Walder dropped a bombshell on Gov. Cuomo and the metro area yesterday, abruptly an nouncing that he’s leaving in October after less than two years on the job and just a third of the way through his term.

Though Walder was doing some good stuff, his sudden exit points to the peril of hiring a corporate-consulting-world superstar.

Walder will leave in October -- for a better-paying job than his $350,000 here. After a 2½-month transition period, he’ll start in Hong Kong as head of MTR, a big private firm that runs transportation all over Asia and Europe.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be a total surprise: Walder helped manage London’s transit system a few years back, and then globe-trotted for the McKinsey consulting firm. Chances are that this new gig was a dream job he didn’t want to pass up -- since the opportunity might not come along again anytime soon.

Yesterday, Walder pointed out some of his accomplishments here: “bringing fiscal stability” and “credibility” to the MTA by slashing administrative costs, renegotiating deals with construction contractors and vendors and such. He’s also cut 10 percent of the cost of the MTA’s (still unfunded) five-year capital budget, allowing construction on big projects like the Second Avenue Subway to continue.

And riders have seen countdown clocks in subway stations and other new technologies (well, new for New York) begin to emerge.

But he didn’t achieve all that much to justify the quick departure. Much of those improvements that we see now, including the countdown clocks and the consolidation of back offices, are the fruit of efforts that started long before his arrival.

As for fiscal stability: Sorry, but it would take more time to make sure his cost-cutting sticks. Plus, it’s the regional $1.4 billion payroll tax -- enacted before Walder took office -- that has produced the most “stability.”

Nor has Walder’s performance been flawless. His managers fell down badly in last year’s post-Christmas snowstorm. More important, he isn’t sticking around long enough to get his hands dirty in negotiating a tough labor contract with the Transport Workers Union when the current three-year deal expires in January.

And it cost taxpayers cost a lot of time and money to recruit Walder in the first place after former Gov. Paterson booted out Elliot Sander in the spring of 2009. And then Walder insisted on a payout of up to $850,000 from the state if Paterson or a future governor made him leave too early (money that won’t be paid now).

Now it may be hard to find a new person, quick. Back when Paterson was out looking, the list of people who had run a subway, bus and rail system as big as New York’s was pretty short.

All of which leaves New Yorkers in a tough position. Unless Cuomo’s secretly got a candidate waiting in the wings, he’s got to scramble to find a replacement and win approval by the state Senate -- which will be vetting the candidate just when labor negotiations with the powerful TWU heat up.

Plus, the MTA still has a big hole in its $25 billion, five-year capital plan -- at least $3 billion to $5 billion, despite savings and future debt. Who’s going to show leadership on that?

Rather than focus on another glamour guy skilled at producing glossy progress-touting brochures and schmoozing the media, lawmakers and “transit advocates,” Cuomo might be better off finding someone who’ll just stick around long enough to do the job -- including the annoying parts, like butting heads with tough unions.

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