Wonks Wistful for Walder

With Jay Walder hopping the express to Hong Kong this October, the city’s transit junkies are stunned and saddened by

I hear the weather's lovely in Hong Kong this time of year. (Getty)

With Jay Walder hopping the express to Hong Kong this October, the city’s transit junkies are stunned and saddened by the loss of one of the most highly regarded transportation directors in the business.

“It’s a great opportunity for Jay and a real loss for New York,” Regional Plan Association president Robert Yaro told The Observer. Mr. Walder will be leaving behind a cash-strapped agency for a publicly traded company that operates the Hong Kong metro as well as rail lines throughout the world. And while the pay at the MTA is one of the highest in state government ($350,000 a year for Mr. Walder), many point out he will be making a good deal more on the other side of the world.

“Jay has a global network to play with, one several times the size of New York’s,” Mr. Yaro said. “He has been a very steadying hand at the M.T.A., but since he got here, it had its financial problems. I think he came with the promise of stable finances, but it’s been anything but that.”

Transportation Alternatives’ director Paul Steely White echoed these feelings in a statement:

Jay Walder steered the MTA through its toughest challenges since the bad old days of the 70s. Facing a daunting fiscal situation brought on by the governor and state legislature’s repeated budget raids, Walder kept our trains and buses serving millions of New Yorkers 24 hours every day. His work to bring Select Bus Service and Real-Time updates to transit riders is bringing New York City’s transit system into the 21st Century and will help keep the city and region competitive with other global leaders vying for business, talent and capital.

Experts are nervous about the future of such programs now that the tech-savvy Mr. Walder—who implemented magnetic toll cards, 21st-century doubledeckers and congestion pricing in London—is departing. From M.T.A. blogger extraordinaire Ben Kabak:

As the news sinks in, I’m finding little good in this announcement. The next few months are going to be of paramount importance for the MTA as it must figure out how to close a $10 billion capital funding gap and negotiate a new contract with the Transport Workers Union Local 100. Walder had been a vocal part of both of those efforts, and it appears as though he likely won’t be around to see either through. Gov. Andrew Cuomo will likely appoint an interim CEO at a time when the authority can ill afford to suffer through turmoil at the top.

I also can’t help but feel as though Walder is leaving before the job is done. The MTA is very much in transition as it has tried to cope with an austerity budget, major capital projects and technological innovation. The job isn’t done yet though as funding isn’t in place and projects are in flux. Will the next leader push through countdown clocks and better fare payment technologies? What will happen with the bus tracking projects and the authority’s commitment to providing datasets for developers? What happens with the labor negotiations and the capital budget wrangling?

Mr. Kabak also points out that Mr. Walder will not be taking his controversial golden parachute, valued in 2009 at $850,000.

Governor Andrew Cuomo wished him well:

For nearly two years, Jay Walder has shown true leadership at the helm of the MTA and been a fiscally responsible manager during these difficult financial times. Riders of the MTA are better off today because of Jay’s expertise and the reforms he initiated will benefit all for years to come. Jay’s departure is a loss for the MTA and for the state, but I thank him for his service and wish him the best in his future endeavors.

One thing’s for sure: They don’t have Shake Shack at the stations in Hong Kong.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC Wonks Wistful for Walder