Transportation wonks have a habit of talking about Jay Walder, the outgoing head of the M.T.A., in messianic terms, as though he were the only man capable of fixing the agency’s myriad problems—an aging system, run by intransigent unions, with almost no political support. While many of them have greeted his resignation with shock and concern, there is a growing sense that this could actually be the best thing to happen to the M.T.A. since Mr. Walder’s arrival two years ago.
“I guess I’m partly responsible for inflating the importance of Jay,” said Gene Russianoff, head of the Straphangers Campaign and dean of transit advocate.
Indeed, there have been others—Richard Ravitch, the team of Kiley-Gunn, even Mr. Walder’s predecessor, Lee Sander—who have done a lot to resurrect mass transit from the death throes of the 1970s. Mr. Walder, though, was different. He had moved from McKinsey to run London’s transit system, introducing successful innovations, including the vaunted oyster card, which speeds up bus and Tube boardings, as well as implementing that dread scourge, congestion pricing. He was supposed to bring the same innovation and ingenuity to New York.
“You have to hope it’s a wake-up call to the people in Albany,” blogger and M.T.A. kremlinologist Benjamin Kabak said.
That hope is directed at one man in particular: Andrew Cuomo.
The governor grew up riding the same subways from Queens as the Rockaways native he must now replace, though he is not the likeliest booster. On the campaign trail, Mr. Cuomo expressed indifference that bordered on antipathy when reporters questioned him about mass transit. This included an uncharacteristically testy press conference outside City Hall, when he unveiled his Urban Agenda. Of its 230 pages, 25 covered affordable housing, 32 on criminal justice, 20 on health care but only two on transportation. He has done nothing of note on the subject during his first seven months in office besides reappointing Mr. Walder. Despite that, they have a cool relationship with limited communication.
Still, transit advocates and straphanging pols are hitching their train to the governor, either out of desperation or legitimate belief that he could transform the M.T.A. in ways that have been talked about but rarely acted upon. “It puts the governor on the hook,” Mr. Russianoff said. “It will be his pick running the agency, and he will be accountable for what happens to the M.T.A.”
There are few greater political liabilities than the M.T.A., which is why the Cuomo administration has held it at arm’s length for so long. Even with Mr. Walder in place, he could keep this up for only so long, but now, unable to point to a Paterson appointee calling the shots, the responsibility will be his all the more. “When the big issues come, from fare policy to safety and the reliability of the system, in the end this is America, and the elected officials are held responsible,” said former Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who used to oversee the agency in the Assembly.
Should the governor embrace the M.T.A, advocates believe he has a singular ability to fix its problems, many of which stem from a Legislature that shortchanges the M.T.A. on a regular basis, thwarting projects like congestion pricing and other forms of transportation funding and even raiding the agency’s budget on occasion, as happened twice last year. “A big part of this is getting the support of the Legislature,” Mr. Brodsky said.
With his string of victories this year—the rent regs/property tax cap deal, gay marriage and an on-time, balanced budget—Governor Cuomo has shown an ability to bend Albany to his will.
“I think a lot of people feel our public transportation system is being held together by chicken wire,” said Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who represents the Upper East Side. “There’s a lot of speculation Jay left because why oversee a crumbling system when you can oversee the best in Hong Kong. That’s a wake up call to New York that we need to do something transformative. So whether that’s the governor taking more control of the M.T.A. or possibly breaking up the three systems, they don’t work so well anymore.”
Mr. Kellner put forth Mr. Brodsky’s name as a possible change agent. “Nobody’s smarter or worked with it more deeply than him,” Mr. Kellner said. Many of the other names that have been batted about come from within the M.T.A., chief among them hard-charging Thomas Prendergast, head of New York City Transit, and Helena Williams, the L.I.R.R. president who has served as interim chair in the past. Mr. Kabak points out that a dark horse is always possible. “Jay was pretty firmly ensconced in London when they picked him, so you never know,” he said.
Meanwhile, State Senator Lee Zeldin of Long Island laid out a 10-point to-do list in The Post on Monday, which included capping agency managers’ compensation, selling real estate and pursuing public-private partnerships. Other reform agendas have begun to emerge, as well. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Richard Ravitch, the former lieutenant governor once charged with rescuing the M.T.A. in the 1980s, told The Observer that the idea that the authority needs to be torn down and rebuilt was “dumb as shit.” Instead, it’s a matter of approach. “It all depends on what you define as broken,” Mr. Ravitch said. “The M.T.A. isn’t broken. It’s just facing a lot of challenges, and it will always face a lot of challenges. In a way, that’s how it was set up.”
So how can the governor tackle those challenges, many of which are fiscal? The M.T.A. faces a $9 billion hole in its five-year capital budget that must be addressed by the start of next year. Between now and then, the agency must negotiate a new contract with the union representing most of its workers. Both will be expensive propositions, and while the Cuomo administration has shown an ability to broker compromise in the Legislature, taxes or any other revenue increases have been antithetical to that platform—that balanced budget allowed the millionaire’s tax to expire at the same time it cut $100 million from the M.T.A. Gay marriage is free, mass transit is not.
“The message from Andrew has been that revenues are hard to come by,” Mr. Brodsky said.
The first indication of the governor’s position, barring an unexpected address on a mass transit revolution, will come from who he appoints to run the agency. “Some governors want to be hands on and in control and take credit and blame for whatever happens at the M.T.A,” Mr. Ravitch said. “Other people are delighted to have someone who is a reputable, well-regarded professional and independent.”
Still, the governor is on a political roll. “It has wetted his appetite for more victories,” said one Democratic operative, who said that in addition to Medicaid and the Port Authority, the administration is looking very closely at the M.T.A. for an overhaul. “It would be quite the feather in his cap.”