Paterson's pick for MTA chief faces tough hearing

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Gov. David A. Paterson's pick to head the embattled Metropolitan Transportation Authority faced some tough questions Thursday from state lawmakers representing Long Island districts, who urged him to make the Island's transit needs a top priority.

Jay Walder, a former financial executive for the MTA and more recently for London's transit system, fielded questions at a Mineola public hearing from a bipartisan panel of legislators representing the State Senate's committees on finance, transportation and corporations, authorities and commissions.

The entire Senate is expected to vote next week on whether to confirm Walder as the new chief executive, executive director and chairman of the MTA. Former MTA chief executive Elliot Sander resigned in May.

Among the topics that the legislators pressed Walder on were improved bus service on Long Island - particularly along its north-south corridors; expanding the Long Island Rail Road; and how he intended to rebuild the MTA's trust with riders after years of what finance committee chairman Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) called "cloak-and-dagger operations" that included hiding its assets from the state.

Walder, a Queens native, avoided details on how he would address several of MTA's specific problems and said he still has "a lot of catching up to do" after being away from New York for 14 years. But he cited his record as Transport For London's managing director of finance and planning as a hint of what he could do at the MTA.

He listed his top accomplishments there as putting together the city's largest capital investment plan in transit in recent history; expanding bus service; developing an innovative and cost-reducing fare collection system; and putting together the transportation plan that helped London secure the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Walder agreed that the MTA needs to become more credible and accountable and rebuild its relationship with policy-makers and customers, and show that the ever-increasing cost of operating the agency is being put to good use.

"Simply put, the MTA has the responsibility to present information that matters and present it in a way that people can understand," he said.

While most of the lawmakers and public speakers suggested that Walder was the man for the job, Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) said he was disappointed with what he heard from Walder, especially his support for a recently imposed payroll tax for employers - the foundation for the state's bailout of the MTA, which faced a $1.8-billion deficit this year. Walder called the tax "absolutely essential" for keeping the MTA running.

"If I had to vote today, I tell you right now, my vote would be no," said Marcellino, who called the tax a "job killer."

But Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, a group that aims to improve the quality of life in the tristate area, said the region is lucky to have Walder accept the offer to lead the MTA. He said Walder's experience with the agency will help quickly address its pressing issues, including how to fund its new $28-billion, five-year capital budget.

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