The Jay Train: M.T.A. Chief’s Tough Sell

MR. WALDER, 51, is a physically imposing figure at 6-foot-6. He towers over most other speakers at public events, creating an amusing contrast with the foot-shorter Mayor Bloomberg, with whom he enjoys a good relationship. He talks with a subtle Queens accent-he was raised in the Rockaways-and he rocks back and forth as he speaks.

He is a career transit professional, a veteran of the M.T.A., in fact, who worked as its chief financial officer in the 1990s, helping craft, among other efforts, the unlimited MetroCard, which he now wants to tweak. He was wooed away to London in 2000 for a top post at the tube, where perhaps his most visible contribution was the Oyster Card, a tap card that replaced tickets (a time-saving feature seemingly every large city now has except New York). And when the Paterson administration decided on a change at the top of the M.T.A. late last spring, officials reached out to Mr. Walder.

He is the first M.T.A. chairman in two decades who was not a campaign contributor to the sitting governor. Instead, he is simply a pure transit technocrat, one whose well-regarded analytical approach-a “performance indicators” report on the agency’s Web site shows month-by-month changes to things like on-time performance-speaks of his time at McKinsey.

Still, his tenure has been mostly devoted to dealing with surprise new budget gaps, installing major cuts that eliminated two subway lines and trying to find new efficiencies-tasks on which he has delivered some notable successes, such as a pledged savings of $40 million from negotiating better rates with contractors.

On the one hand, the fiscal situation and the lack of a reelection campaign for his boss this fall empowers Mr. Walder to slash and cut in ways that predecessors in his seat lacked-a big step for the agency.

On the other, he has to somehow keep the riding public from revolting as service diminishes and nice conveniences like station agents vanish. The carrot he’s offered, in a sense, is a big push on relatively low-cost measures that are highly visible, such as installing countdown clocks in stations and piloting an Oyster Card-like initiative that allows people at certain stations to tap a card over a reader rather than swipe a MetroCard.

“He’s made all the right moves so far,” said Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch, himself a former M.T.A. chairman. “I think his goal is to try to get through the next year, and see what happens to the economy, and what the new governor’s disposition is, and what happens to the fiscal situation.”

 

NOW, NEARLY A year in, on the cusp of a fare increase, much of Mr. Walder’s legacy is out of his hands, including, chiefly, how he will be received by the next governor. Mr. Walder has a six-year contract with an expensive clause if he is ousted, but governors often like to install their own M.T.A. chairs.

The presumptive governor, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, has been noticeably silent on the M.T.A., at least so far. A lengthy campaign book only mentions the M.T.A. in passing, although future policy papers on specific items are expected. His office declined to comment on Mr. Walder.

Yet it’s difficult to understate the value to an M.T.A. chief of a strong governor in his or her corner, given the challenges ahead: The agency runs out of state funding for repairs and maintenance at the end of 2011, and it expects to develop a plan to presumably ask the Legislature to approve some sort of a new funding plan-likely a tough sell.

There is also the 2012 expiration of the transit workers contract; the union, thus far, enjoys a poor relationship with Mr. Walder.

At least in his rhetoric, Mr. Walder seems quixotic about the politics, acknowledging the standard process. “I, however, retain the view that our elected officials are going to recognize what the M.T.A. has done in a very difficult climate,” he said. “I think they will recognize what’s happened.”

ebrown@observer.com