Shop Talk: Can Jay Walder Save Transit?

As head of the nation’s largest public transit agency, MTA Chairman and CEO Jay Walder does not have an easy job. He bears the dubious distinction of wrestling with the largest deficit and debt anywhere in the transportation world. In June, despite a year of drastic cost-cutting, his agency was forced to eliminate the W and V trains, cut dozens of buses and reduce service on scores more.

And even that is not enough: most folks in the know expect January’s fare hike to be a whopper. Despite all that, Walder is remarkably upbeat. This spring, he unveiled new Select Bus Service, deployed long-awaited countdown clocks in subway stations and piloted swipeless MetroCards. Reclaim sat down with the MTA’s head honcho at his headquarters near Grand Central Terminal to talk about his take on the rider experience, what we can learn from London, and how New York City will weather the current fiscal storm.

Reclaim: You’re in the middle of a difficult year.

J.W.: The MTA is in nothing less than a dire financial situation.

What should riders know about it?

Fare revenues are actually exactly where they are expected to be. Expenses are lower than projected. The shortfall is because of $800 million in revenues coming from the State that have not been there, most prominently the new Payroll and Mobility Tax, which hasn’t achieved its objectives.

What does that mean for the next fare hike?

I don’t yet know the size of the fare increase. In July we’ll come out with a financial plan that looks at the updates to our estimates and costs, brings in the subsidies that are there, and from that we’ll be able to make a judgment about the fare increase. It’s been our intent to hold to the schedule of having fare and toll increases in January 2011 and January 2013.

With so many transit agencies across the nation facing big shortfalls, why not turn to Washington for more operating support?

New York’s delegation is seeking operating support in Washington. We’ve been supportive of that. But I cannot accept trading off capital for operating dollars. Capital funding from the federal government is a significant, critically important part of what we do in our capital program. Our capital programs have been the fundamental underpinning of bringing back a system that had been effectively left for dead.

How about some good news? Your crusade for real-time arrival information seems to be bearing fruit. What do you think it means for the public’s perception of the MTA?

I think people will see that this is a system that’s in control. Whether a train is coming or not is not an accident. If it’s not coming, there’s somebody who’s saying either we intended it not to come because we have work that’s scheduled or we have delays which happen and we have to admit to that.

That’s a lesson from your tenure in London?

I was in London for the last nine years and if you watch people who are using the underground, they will walk down the stairs to the platform and they’ll all look up at an electronic sign. It will tell them when a train is coming. In London people relax because they have a sense of comfort and control and understanding of what’s going on; here we create angst. We come down the stairs, we walk over to the edge of the platform, we lean over the platform and we look for a white light. And it’s not just on our subways, it’s on our buses as well.

So where does NYC’s real-time info stand right now?

Today we have about thirty signs that have been rolled out on the 1 and 6 lines. Now we have to figure out how to get the letter lines going in that same way. When I asked about those, I heard, “We won’t have it till 2025.” I don’t know whether it was the look of horror on my face or the words that came out of my mouth but a couple weeks ago our in-house forces put together a trial at a few stations in Upper Manhattan for how to do these signs on the A and C trains. They said to me, “Look, could you accept something that isn’t absolutely perfect? We can get a sign going that will tell you whether a train is coming on the express track or the local track. We may not be able to tell you whether it’s an A train or D train.” I said, “It’s a deal.”

There’s a lesson in there, perhaps…

One of the ways we’re going to get technology to work for the MTA is to realize that the best is the enemy of the good.

Will you talk to us a little about bus lane cameras and what you saw them achieve in London?

London has a very well-marked, a very well-enforced set of bus lanes. We used camera technology as part of that. We put out a big public information campaign called “Smile, You Are on Camera.” Bus speeds went up. Bus reliability went up. Bus usage skyrocketed. Skyrocketed.

And here in New York?

We have 2.5 million people a day who ride our bus system. Yet, in a way, we show those bus customers very little respect. Why is a bus with 75 to 125 people being treated exactly the same as the car that is right next to it? A bus lane is like bus tracks, but culturally we accept the idea that it’s okay to park there. Bus lane cameras reinforce the notion that bus lanes are for buses. I think the fact is most people will look at this and say it is not worth getting a ticket for $115 to park for a minute in a bus lane.

We want more than faster trips; we also want to have some confidence that if we get on a bus that it’s going to take us ten minutes or 20 minutes or half an hour—not it might take us 10 minutes or it might take us 45 minutes.

Where do you rank BRT on the list of tools to improve transit?

When you go up and ride the Bx12 on Fordham Road, you see that it’s a very, very positive improvement. I’ve been on there a number of times and the bus is just mobbed. Just packed. The idea of BRT is a very positive element to what we are doing and we are very supportive of doing it. The difficulty with BRT is the pace and difficulty of being able to deliver these projects. It puts together the road improvements, the signal improvements, the buses, the fare collection piece.

Where do you rank BRT on the list of tools to improve transit?

When you go up and ride the Bx12 on Fordham Road, you see that it’s a very, very positive improvement. I’ve been on there a number of times and the bus is just mobbed. Just packed. The idea of BRT is a very positive element to what we are doing and we are very supportive of doing it. The difficulty with BRT is the pace and difficulty of being able to deliver these projects. It puts together the road improvements, the signal improvements, the buses, the fare collection piece.

You recently met with a group of students who are trying to preserve free and discounted student MetroCards. What did you tell them? 

We had a very robust, actually a fantastic, conversation about the situation that the MTA was in. I support having free fares for our students. I appreciate their view that the transit system in New York allows people the mobility to be able to make their school choices. That is a message that comes through. When I was a kid, you went to your local school. The way that the system is today, people are able to take advantage of the broad range of school opportunities we have across the city.

And as of now it looks like student MetroCards have been restored.

The State budget included $25 million for student MetroCards. While we had hoped that the State and City would pay the total $214 million cost of this program, we recognize the very difficult financial environment. We heard loud and clear not just at the meeting with students, but at our public hearings and in protests around the city, that charging students would have a life-changing impact on the ability of New Yorkers to receive a quality education. In light of these unbearable impacts, we decided to abandon the proposal to charge students for travel to and from school. As a result, the budget deficit that we are facing will increase, but the alternative is worse. Further actions needed to close this gap will be addressed when our preliminary financial plan is released in July.

Thank you for your time.

I didn’t get any bike questions, huh?

Were you expecting one?

I was. I like riding on the West Side bike path!