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Jaybird Flies

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Jay Walder is no Casey Jones.

Unlike the iconic railroad engineer, who kept his hand on the throttle while his train plunged down curving tracks to disaster, and by doing so saved the lives of many people, the MTA chief Jay Walder did not even complete two years at the helm of the transit authority before he jumped ship for a more secure and lucrative berth in a private, profitable transit system.

Walder was not shanghaied in the dead of night; he is going voluntarily to MTR (Mass Transit Railway), a railroad colossus headquartered in Hong Kong. Any idea where they might bank?

Actually, Walder had a number of good reasons for his secretive flight from New York and the MTA. The first is the impoverishment of the system he is leaving. The MTA has consistently been undersupported, not given enough money to operate, let alone to build and maintain the system in good repair. Before he came, they overspent wildly, in part because of bureaucracy, over-engineering, and weakness before unions, as well as traditional corruption, particularly in construction and real property. Walder did not want his reputation endangered by too many years presiding over a system subject to those perils.

Second is the apparent indifference of Governor Cuomo to the plight of the MTA, and the absence of any effort to develop a relationship with Walder. It was not nearly as bad as Governor Paterson, who refused to speak with Lee Sander, Walder's predecessor, or even to return his calls, because Sander had been appointed by his predecessor, Governor Spitzer. Sander did not have the luxury of another job offer as Walder did, so he hung around until he was dismissed by Paterson on May 7, 1999 on practically one day's notice, even though it took more than two months after that to find a successor (Walder).

Sander was not the only Paterson commissioner to be fired practically instantly. On October 21, 2010, just twelve days before the election of Governor Cuomo, the Environmental Protection Commissioner, Pete Grannis, who had served since the start of the Spitzer administration and before that, spent 32 years in the Assembly, was told to clear out immediately by Larry Schwartz, at the time a key aide to Governor Paterson. The trumped-up charge against Grannis was that he had sought to avoid budget cuts for his agency, which every commissioner worth anything does every year. Grannis was told that Paterson would not speak to him about the matter and that his dismissal was final. He got the news as he was preparing to deliver a speech and receive an award from an environmental group at what became his last supper in office.

The question arose as to why Grannis was fired just then. Why not leave it to the incoming governor (Cuomo) to choose his cabinet? Why should Grannis' 36 years of state service end in peremptory dismissal? One plausible explanation is based on where Larry Schwartz is now. Governor Cuomo has appointed him secretary to the governor, which is the equivalent to chief of staff on the national level and the same post Schwartz held in the Paterson administration.

It is likely that, in firing Grannis on the spot, Schwartz was serving his new master, Cuomo, and sparing the governor-elect the embarrassment of firing an environmental icon. Cuomo has the right to choose his own commissioners, and Joe Martens is a good choice for the position, with a fine environmental record. Nonetheless, we recount the story now to tell you how it was done, which is in accord with the important Rule 26, "No prints."

Walder chose to accept what could be the best transit job in the world, at a multiple of the salary which was begrudged to him in New York. He thus avoided the fate of his predecessor Sander and his colleague Grannis.

Last night, I watched The Call on New York 1. People called and emailed the station to express their views on Walder. Almost all were very negative, with the exception of Richard Ravitch, the former lieutenant governor, as well as MTA chair. Ravitch was highly complimentary, as was Mayor Bloomberg. The hostile attitude of the public came because of the service and personnel reductions that Walder was obliged to make because of the lack of public funds and steadily rising expenses, most but not all of which were uncontrollable. How many years should one devote to serving people who think you are doing a lousy job, when in fact you are doing a very competent job at an obviously thankless task?

One could tell that many of the disgruntled callers were transit employees or union activists. Even so, there were precious few callers who admired the service they received from the MTA or its departing chairman. If there were an attempt to jam the switchboard, it succeeded. If there were not, the negative sentiment was more authentic. Of course, no one likes waiting for a train on a hot platform, being squeezed or crushed inside a car, or being delayed for an indefinite period, whether by "the dispatcher" or by "train traffic ahead."

The underlying fact is that the transit system is in a financial bind comparable to that which faces the United States, except that it cannot run up fourteen trillion dollars in deficits and then ask for more. Sooner or later, probably sooner, fares will rise and interest on the MTA's indebtedness will increase. The state and city, traditional sources of additional funding, are, as we know, undergoing severe fiscal problems and highly unlikely to substantially increase transit subsidies, if indeed they are willing to retain them. One cannot mention state aid without recalling with sorrow the disgraceful decision of the New York State Assembly to eliminate the commuter tax on May 17, 1999, a date which will live in infamy in mass transit history. How long should Walder remain at the helm of a ship which takes on more water each year?

We believe that Jay Walder is, by and large, a decent, honorable, hardworking and competent bureaucrat, who will be missed after he is gone. He is not an inspirational figure, nor did he attempt to be one. Nicole Gelinas, giving Walder a mixed review, asks today in the Post: "Can the next MTA chief be a fighter?" One answer to that question is that the MTA chief is an appointed, rather than an elected official. Major funding decisions are made by the elected, and it is the job of the appointed to do the best they can with the resources that they have been given.

Of course, they can and should demand more; that is what Commissioner Pete Grannis (who was from 1974 to 2005 an elected official, given to expressing his own opinions) did in October 2010, for which he was summarily politically beheaded in what appears to be a pre-election housecleaning. Fortunately, Grannis has found a new job in what appears to be a more congenial setting, so his public service can continue and his pension clock can keep running.

"Speak truth to power" is a noble slogan, but truth is better spoken by those with no power than by those with some. People with intermediate degrees of power are likely to lose what little they have if they engage in unappreciated candor. Those outside the Beltway (or its local equivalent) are less subject to the whims of the authorities.

We wish Walder the best in his new adventure, which we hope will be excellent, for the sake of the millions of Chinese and others who will benefit from his services. The search for a successor should begin at once. It will be a real challenge to the governor and the MTA to find someone as knowledgeable and professionally skilled as Walder. But once such a person is hired, s/he must be given the appropriation that is needed for the MTA to do the job right.

P.S. It is ironic that people now go from New York to Hong Kong in order to triple their wages.