Walder Visit Brings Mixed Message
The 59-year-old CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had just come from giving the commencement address at his alma-mater, Beach Channel High School, and was now sitting in an office at The Wave, the newspaper where his father, Bernie Walder, was once the editor.
In between visits, he took a ride to look at the Arverne home where he grew up and the subway station that he once used daily to commute from Rockaway to Manhattan, where he toiled as an analyst for the MTA.
“This is just great,” he said. “Like a memory tour.”
Walder was at The Wave to talk about Rockaway, his father, and how his agency impacts the lives of Rockaway residents.
In a wide-ranging interview, Walder spoke of his time at Beach Channel High School, how he came to the MTA, the A Line, express buses and the Cross Bay Bridge.
Talking about taking the top job at the MTA after his years running the London (England) transit system and as an international consultant on transportation infrastructure, Walder admitted, “My timing stinks,” because he inherited an agency that was bleeding money at the same time that subsidies were dropping like a toppled tree.
The state had just cut his agency by $143 million, the payroll tax money dedicated to fund his agency went down by $460 million and real estate taxes fell by $800 million.
He jokes that he came home one day and his wife asked him how his day went.
He replied that it was hectic.
“Did you lose another million today?” his wife asked.
“That’s how my days went,” he laughed.
He says, however, that despite the massive budget shortfall and the fact that residents will soon be losing their rebate program for the Cross Bay Bridge, “Rockaway is not being left behind.”
“We’re fixing all of the stations, with the exception of Beach 116 Street, which has already been done,” Walder said. “That’s costing $100 million. I even went to look at the station I used to go to at Beach 67 Street, and it was closed for renovation.”
“We are also starting work on the concrete [structure] between stations,” he added. “Things are not perfect, but we’re working on the line and spending a lot of money doing it.”
“There are some pragmatic realities in running the system,” he said. “We have to make sure the system works, that it is clean and well-repaired. We have to make sure the system is reliable.”
He added that those things take a lot of money.
“When I first worked for the MTA, in 1983, the system was in crisis, a real sign of urban decay,” Walder said. “The system was starved for money and we started to put money into it. We decided that we would eliminate graffiti from the system, something that nobody thought we could do. We worked on one train at a time. We would not put a train in service if it had graffiti. It worked, and ridership improved.”
He sees improving technology as the new priority.
“We have been slow to move to new technologies,” he said. “We are experimenting with swipe cards that are like credit cards rather than the present MetroCards. We are moving away from cash.”
As to using the new technology for communication, he said, “We have the capability of sending a message to your cell phone or computer to tell you, in real time, when a bus is coming. Not the scheduled time, but the real time that it will be at the bus stop.”
“We are going to be able to do the same thing on the subway,” he added. “Riders will no longer have to stick their head over the platform and look for the train’s headlight. There will be signs at each of our 468 stations that tell riders when the next train will be there.”
That’s the good news.
There is also bad news for Rockaway.
The unlimited use of the Cross Bay Bridge rebate program for Rockaway and Broad Channel residents is effectively dead — at least for now. The compromise, in which residents will pay for their first two rides of the day over the bridge and then all subsequent rides will be rebated, will begin sometime this month.
“The bridge issue is difficult,” Walder says. “It has to be seen in the context of terrible financial times.”
“There is no magic bullet for the Cross Bay Bridge tolls,” he added. “There are many communities impacted by bus and subway cuts. Every one of them has a case. We have to make difficult choices.”
Those choices, he says, meant laying off workers, cutting service and reducing costs across the board.
“Personally, I wish that none of it [the cuts] had to happen, but we can’t let the ’70s, where the system was allowed to deteriorate, happen again.”
Walder was asked about other things on the Rockaway wish list, such as a “Super-A Train,” off-rush hour express bus service and the restoration of the White Pot Junction line.
Walder says that the Super-A concept, which would effectively be an express train from Rockaway to Manhattan, is “interesting,” but not really fiscally sound.
“The A-Line has only two tracks until it hits Euclid Avenue,” he said. “There is really no room to run an express train.”
As to the off-hour express bus service, Walder said, “The express bus is not a volume service, and at a fare of $5.50, the MTA is losing tons of money. The service, particularly in Rockaway, has been gaining favor and ridership, but I doubt that there are the numbers to run that service off rush hour and not lose a lot of money.”
Regarding the restoration of the White Pot Junction line, which the Long Island Railroad used at one time to get Rockaway passengers to Manhattan in 35 minutes, Walder says that he never heard of it.
“I’ll have to look into it,” he said. “Nobody has ever brought it to my attention.”
“I can’t do everything that everybody wants from the MTA,” he said. “All I can do is show people that we are making every dollar we get count and run a service that is reliable and affordable. I can’t do more than that.”