Despite speculation that Governor David Paterson’s dim reelection prospects could hamper efforts to fill vacancies in his administration, the governor has landed a new chief for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and by most accounts he is one of the best transit experts around.
COURTESY office of the governor
At a press conference [video], Paterson applauded Walder for his previous work at the MTA, where he “used a kind of creativity that certainly transformed what was the symbol of urban decay into a beacon of urban renewal.” It is for these reasons, the governor said, that he is happy to have him back, especially during these trying economic times.
After graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Walder joined the MTA in 1983, eventually rising to the title of executive director and chief financial officer. In 1995, he departed for his alma mater to teach public policy, and then, in 2000, he moved across the Atlantic to become the first managing director and planner for Transport for London.
There, he not only reorganized a sprawling group of transit agencies into a coordinated system—saving $2 billion annually in the process—but also implemented the first contactless smartcard fare system in Europe, called the Oystercard, as well as leading the planning efforts for London’s successful Olympic bid. Three years ago, Walder left the transit agency to become a partner at McKinsey’s London office in charge of its global infrastructure practice.
Walder is faced with the difficult task left by the MTA’s former executive director, Lee Sander, to right the agency in what continues to be a hostile political climate. (Sander departed when his job was combined with that of the board chair’s, a move that is supposed to lead to greater transparency at the agency, as the governor reiterated in his remarks: “This way, the taxpayers of New York will have one independent leader whose purpose will be to eliminate waste and satisfy customers.”)
Walder said he would not get into the details of the hard work that lies ahead, saying simply that a more sustainable long-term plan must be created. “We can’t meet the ambitious objectives that have been laid out, to keep the system safe and operational and developing without a well-structured, secure, long-term capital program,” Walder said. “On the challenge list, that’s at the top of the list.”
But the first step is regaining the public’s trust, Walder said, while also appreciating how far the transit system has come since he joined up three decades ago. “I think we all need to remember and see what has happened,” he said. “At the same time, as we’ve gotten past this rebuilding, our aspirations, our goals, our expectations for the organization continue to rise.”
Wiley Norvell, communications director for Transportation Alternatives, said he did not envy Walder’s position. “We definitely recognize the huge task before the new CEO,” Norvell said. “Traditionally over the last ten to 15 years, this position has been the whipping boy for Albany, their way of hiding the fact that they do not sufficiently fund the MTA.”
Given Walder’s past experience, though, Gene Russianoff, counsel to the Straphanger’s Campaign and arguably the state’s foremost transit advocate, said the new MTA director might have an easier time finding his way around Albany. “He played leadership roles in getting the agency’s vital five-year capital program passed by the state legislature, as well as advancing the MTA’s popular set of fare discounts, including unlimited-ride MetroCards and free transfers between subways and buses,” Russianoff said in a statement.
In other words, this could just be the job of a lifetime for a man who grew up across the street from the Rockaway “El.”