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Eye on the Island: January 22, 2010

MTA Chief’s Challenge

Baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel said the key to managing is keeping the players who hate you away from the ones who are undecided.

Jay Walder, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) chairman and CEO since October 2009, can relate to Stengel’s sentiment. Walder’s pledge to reassess the MTA’s cost structure and improve its services cannot be winning applause among the Transport Workers Union (TWU) of America’s leadership team. The TWU’s illegal strike shut down the city’s subway system in December 2005, yet the TWU’s MTA employees have little to complain about these days. Thanks to a friendly arbitrator, the TWU’s MTA employees are in the midst of a three-year contract, which will raise their salaries 11 percent, even as MTA ridership drops amid the most severe economic downturn in decades.

The TWU and the arbitrator who loves them (TWU employee health benefit contributions were reduced in the current contract, too) won a battle, not the war.

The general public is pushing back. Suburban state lawmakers who voted in favor of May 2009’s MTA bailout package, which included the new payroll tax, are on the run as last year’s threatened MTA service reductions take effect anyway. Even urban state lawmakers have trouble explaining why the new MTA payroll tax’s imposition was quickly followed by calls for an end to discounted student MetroCards.

Recognizing the current political climate, the MTA’s less militant unions and its non-union employees may read the MTA’s just-released Making Every Dollar Count with a more open mind about their new manager. The document is Walder’s candid look at the MTA after his first 100 days on the job. His findings were also presented in a speech last Friday to the Association for a Better New York (ABNY).

The MTA has an annual operating budget of $11.8 billion, and 90 percent of its employees are focused on service delivery, according to Making Every Dollar Count. The study argues that many of these services are delivered inefficiently, with too much money expended on overtime wages, antiquated work rules, and excessive bureaucracy.

“While there’s a common nameplate on the doors, the MTA is really a collection of two dozen formerly independent operations that were merged over the past 40 years,” Walder told the ABNY. “You all know that in your business, when companies merge, they streamline operations and reduce redundancies.” The MTA has gone through plenty of mergers but it has never done the management part, he noted.

Walder said this failure to consolidate operations explained how the MTA ended up today with 92 different phone numbers for service information, or to report a problem. These facilities are housed in five separate call centers.

Almost all of the transportation services provided by the MTA have a sizable audience. But in a sign that positive change may be coming to the MTA, Walder pointed specifically in his ABNY speech to non-essential routes such as the X25 express bus, which travels to Wall Street from Grand Central Station. “A grand total of 20 people take this bus every day, and it costs the MTA $80 per person to run this service. I can assure you we won’t be running the X25 much longer,” Wadler stated.