Can New Bosses Put New York's Subways Back on Track?

new york subway mta walder transit management

New Chief, New Management System
In the same week that New York City's MTA, the beleaguered, budget-crunched manager of the world's biggest mass transit network, gets its report card from the city's rider's advocacy group, it also got a London transit guru as its new chairman, and a new management program that could improve every line -- and save millions.The program makes 36 managers the "CEOs" of their lines, overseeing departments from platform cleaning to track maintenance. The two lines that began the program, the 7 and L lines, both received the highest marks on the Straphangers' Campaign latest report card, which examined timeliness, cleanliness and reliability. With the expansion of the program -- the first MTA reorganization in 50 years, the MTA will likely bring improvements to the whole system, while saving an estimated $7 million, reports amNY.

By making individuals responsible for specific lines, the MTA improves responsiveness to complaints, and encourages a sense of ownership and competition to build better service. Riders can also use an email form to talk to the managers of their line.

The program would also allow for fewer managerial jobs, allowing an estimated $7 million cut in expenses.

One caveat: the new lines will not benefit from additional train cleaners, which the pilot program delivered to the 7 and L lines.

Getting Rid of the "Debt Bomb"
Alongside the managerial program, the MTA looks poised to get an upgrade at the top, from chairman nominee Jay Walder.

Walder, who previously served at the MTA in the '90s before serving as Chief Financial Officer for Transport for London, is respected in the transit field for his experience in financial management. His stint in London brought numerous improvements to the Underground, including the introduction of the Oyster swipe card. It also coincided with an up-tick in transit use due to the city's new congestion pricing system. After London, Walder consulted on transit and finance issues for McKinsey.

That fiscal experience will prove useful as the MTA prepares to submit its 2010-2014 capital program this week. As of now, the agency has money for only the next two years, notes 2nd Avenue Sagas. "We must have a long-term financial solution for the MTA," Walder told reporters.

Without much transit investment from the state and city -- and with federal stimulus money limited, as Economix notes, only to new projects -- the MTA has predicted that it might need to issue billions of dollars in debt to pay at least $20 billion for five years of maintenance and expansion, including the ongoing 2nd Avenue Subway line.

But as the Tri-State Transportation Campaign argues, doing so would simply relight the "MTA debt bomb." Passed around "like a hot potato," the practice of using debt to finance the MTA led to a financial meltdown in the fall and fare hikes this month (to use another metaphor, major derailment.)

Depending on future fare raises to balance budgets is bad policy, not least because it functions like a regressive tax on a good that ought to be encouraged, not discouraged.

To get through these tough times smartly, Walder's willing to play bad cop. His new role as joint Chair and CEO, he said, "is sufficiently independent to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions," including, possibly cutting some late-night service.

The MTA's Public Image
Many in Albany are skeptical, and rightly so, about the MTA's ability to improve service or manage budgets.

That makes Walder's other emphasis -- improving the MTA's reputation -- so important.

"The taxpayers and riding public need to understand and believe they are getting value for money in the way we operate the trains, buses, bridges and tunnels, and in the way we undertake the massive capital investments that are underway," he said.

Shaping a stronger narrative for the MTA, notes Streetsblog, is as crucial a task as any, given that skepticism about the MTA's credibility and competence among officials often serves to "deflect blame for their own lack of leadership on transit policy, and the press corps often appears to serve as a willing accomplice."

That leads to waning public support, strengthening among officials and business leaders, and making it even harder to find ways to fund mass transit.

Now what?
It's not clear whether he'll even be confirmed by the country's most dysfunctional state senate, who are likely to put up a fight out of spite for the governor. But how Walder answers the questions he may face in the senate and on the job could begin to revive the subway system, and provide lessons for improving mass transit systems across the U.S.

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