Reminder: The MTA Chair Is Not an Omnipotent Transit God

Jay Walder may have exaggerated when he claimed this week to have put the city transit system “back on firm financial footing” during his stint as MTA chairman, but he did show remarkable reserve in not letting loose on Albany for undercutting rail and bus service at every turn. Unfortunately the media failed to fill in the blanks.

Half a world away from Albany, Jay Walder has more to smile about.

Speaking at a press conference in Hong Kong, where he just started his new job as chief executive of the privately-owned Mass Transit Railway Corporation, Walder said: “New York, when I arrived there, was in a financial crisis. The system simply did not have enough money to continue to operate. The assets were not being renewed. And the infrastructure was in terrible condition.”

Walder’s understated comments were picked up by the Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others, but nowhere have we seen anyone point out how little power the head of the MTA actually wields over agency funding. Nor did any reporter or editor take Walder’s cue to highlight years of Albany malfeasance.

To read the Times piece, for example, you’d think the MTA is an autonomous operation, free to conduct business without political interference. There is a passing reference to Governor Cuomo’s gutting of $320 million in annual payroll tax revenue, but no mention of last year’s $100 million Albany raid on dedicated MTA funds. Forgotten is how state senators used congestion pricing as a litmus test for Walder’s confirmation. With Albany unwilling to enact a new revenue stream via road pricing, it fell to Walder to cut spending.

Most glaringly, absent is an accounting of the decades of lawmaker thievery and neglect that preceded Walder and Cuomo, though those misdeeds more than anything will saddle transit riders for years to come, in the form of decreased service, fare hikes, or both. Other than raising fares or selling off assets, the chair of the MTA has very little revenue-raising clout. For whatever reason this factoid never seems to make the papers.

As for Walder, you get the distinct sense that there is no looking back.

“I think we have a very different situation here,” Walder said. “We have a first-class railway. We have a sustainable financial model that is supporting that railway. And I think the people of Hong Kong are benefiting tremendously from what we have.

“I don’t think it’s the same situation as what you have in New York.”