Friday, July 22, 2011

MTA Chief's Walk Gives NYC Fare Warning

Jay Walder is moving to Hong Kong.

"So what," you ask?

"And.. who's Jay Walder, anyway?"

OK, so maybe Mr. Walder's move from New York City to Hong Kong doesn't mean anything to you. But it should if you live in the Big Apple, where he's leaving his post as head of the city's transit authority after only two years on the job.

Considered by many to be the world's preeminent mass transit executive, Walder has been wooed to Hong Kong with a pricey salary package to lead a commuter transportation company with operations across Asia. He does so at a time when New York's transportation authority, the MTA, has come under fire on several fronts.

City officials had hoped Walder's stellar credentials could work wonders for their crucial yet ossified transit programs. Plus, he's a native New Yorker who is not unfamiliar with the unique challenges of getting things done in the congested, contentious metropolis.

Instead of working wonders, however, Walder ended up presiding over a fare hike and drastic service cuts due to funding shortfalls for the world's most heavily-used subway system, as well as America's largest bus and commuter rail systems. And he's had to fight tooth-and-nail to keep his multi-billion-dollar budgets from suffering further setbacks as subsidies from local, state, and federal governments get hijacked in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Not only was there never a honeymoon after being hired, but Walder's tenure was under siege from practically his first day on the job. Considering how eminently-qualified he is, one wonders if perhaps the fare hikes and schedule cuts would have been worse under somebody else with less credibility. Unfortunately, brusque New Yorkers rarely give their leaders much benefit of the doubt.

Riding the Rails Outta Town

Indeed, it's easy for those watching such things to quickly lambaste Walder for giving up too quickly for easier money half-way around the world. Or to lash out at New York's intransigent unions for driving star performers like Walder from Gotham with archaic work rules and salary structures that hobble innovation at the MTA.

Not that both assumptions don't have merit. Trebling one's salary in one step would be extraordinarily tempting for just about anybody. And everybody - except unions and their sympathizers - knows that New York is dying a slow death from strangulation by union irrationality.

However, as they point to gleaming subways in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, and elsewhere in Asia, New York's detractors fail to appreciate it's a lot easier to build public transit facilities in homogeneous cultures than in the Capital of the World, New York City. Even European subway systems run smoother, cleaner, and safer than New York's because their cultural stew is far less spicy and chunky than Gotham's.

Yes, part of the reason New York's subways and buses tend to be less appealing than their Asian and European counterparts involve thick layers of MTA bureaucracy where progress usually dies in committee. Customer service can be striking by its absence as union workers hide behind labor protections and milk the system's many loopholes.

In how many other large cities, however, can you board a subway car and find yourself crammed next to people from across the globe? Of wildly diverse income levels? With divergent political views, religious affiliations, and ethnic customs?

Especially if it's as efficiently-run as NYC's transit usually is, considering it's in a country where publicly-funded transit programs never flourish to their full potential because of the constant pressure to keep taxes in check?

Bus Boy

Designing, implementing, and managing a public transit system for a relatively homogeneous society will always look - and smell - differently than when lots of different people with lots of different expectations and standards all try to use the same aging infrastructure.

After all, New York's subway stations are some of the oldest in the world, and the real estate under which they sit is some of the most expensive in the world. Plus, as sociopolitically liberal as New York City is, it's still a bastion of capitalistic democracy, where both residents and business leaders can battle out development projects and hammer compromises with which both sides can agree. These compromises seldom result in spectacular public works projects precisely because space and funding are almost always limited. Even when residents feel like they've lost an argument, like many Brooklynites feel about the current Atlantic Yards project involving a new transit hub underneath a controversial arena, everybody knows not to expect perfection.

Perfection isn't common in a city or a country interested in the messy business of people more than the prestige of projects.

And that's the difference, isn't it, between the United States and Asia?

In Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and elsewhere, Asians by and large assume that massive public works projects deserve massive entitlements because governments know best, and people should acquiesce to them. Here in the United States, we know better.

We've already gone through the days when eminent domain could wrench land from its owners with hardly any argument. We've seen how much money our local, state, and federal governments can lavish on transportation projects, and we've gotten much more vocal and circumspect regarding costs and benefits.

It's the same reason most of the world's tallest skyscrapers are now being built in nations with autocratic rule. It's why Rem Koolhaas' undeniably ultra-cool CCTV tower got constructed in China, instead of a democracy. Even Japan, with its uber-homogenized society, lets market forces determine infrastructure development better than its dictatorial Asian neighbors.

Has the Train Left the Station?

So what does any of this have to do with Jay Walder and New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority?

To a certain extent, Walder is taking the easy way out by going to Hong Kong. There, he will deal with a culture and a government that more cavalierly debases the public than ours do here in the democratic West. Can people in Hong Kong and most of Asia complain like New Yorkers, Londoners, and even Muscovites about transit plans and how they affect neighborhoods, taxes, and fares? True, Walder is said to have experienced a measure of success when he was the head of London's subways, but remember, England is still far more homogeneous than the United States, with a different transit culture than the car-crazy United States.

Not that Walder is a fool, either. I can understand why he doesn't want to suffer the indignities and corruption of New York's entrenched unions anymore. I can understand his frustration at not being able to control crime in New York's notorious transit system. And if I had to fight with my state capital for money to install basic technological upgrades, I'd get burned-out quickly, too.

If New York's leaders use Walder's exit as a wake-up call, they still have a chance at modernizing the city's essential mass transit system. After all, his exit doesn't spell the demise of New York, but neither are the reasons for it an aberration. Yes, the city's been able to serve as a modestly successful incubator of information technology start-ups, it's managed to staunch its hemorrhaging of corporate headquarters, and plenty of people are still willing to pay what it costs to live there.

But other cities around the United States and around the world are doing all that, too, and more. They're developing state-of-the-art infrastructure, flaunting their lower taxes and costs-of-doing-business, and increasing their productivity by independence from unions.  These are cities with safer parks, cheaper housing, more reputable public schools, and modern commuter options.

Few of these economically-robust business centers will ever be able to construct the sleek, expensive transit systems and eye-popping architectural bling that are being thrown up all over the developing world. And obviously, the savvy Walder knew that going in to the New York job.

For the rest of his job's reality to sap his enthusiasm after such a short time, however, probably says more negative things about New York than it does him.

That's a cost-of-doing-business the city needs to drastically reduce.
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