Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Credit: Ed Betz

When Jay Walder announced he would leave as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he set the stage for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to reveal a different and important aspect of his leadership style. What sort of people will he appoint to positions of power? Sometimes they go to those known mostly for their connections, but they're probably best filled by appointees with technical and managerial skills, as well as political prowess.

The question isn't pertinent only to the MTA. New York Power Authority president and chief executive Richard Kessel has announced he is stepping down, and insiders say Port Authority of New York and New Jersey head Christopher Ward will be departing later this year.

Selecting the right leaders for these authorities is crucial to the state's future: Transportation and power are two of the fundamental drivers of employment. Cuomo's governorship will be judged, in part, on whether he can improve the job market and business climate.

The MTA is at a crossroads. About $9 billion in funding for ongoing projects, including East Side Access for the Long Island Rail Road, has not been raised, and the completion of this project has the potential to drive employment gains for decades, particularly on Long Island.

At the same time, the MTA faces accusations of bloat and inefficiency and continues to project operating-budget shortfalls, even with the hated payroll tax in place. Given the complexity of the issues, he or she must be a transit professional, savvy about politics but not driven by it.

At the Port Authority, the 10-year capital plan totals $33 billion. Half of that stems from construction and security costs for the World Trade Center. But other major projects, like renovations to the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel and building a bus garage in Manhattan, will also cost billions. A set of massive suggested bridge and tunnel toll and train fare hikes was released last week as a plan to deal with these huge construction costs, and the outcry from the public emphasizes the tough job ahead for the next Port Authority leader, who will be chosen by Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Then there is NYPA, the largest state-owned power agency in the nation. No entity is more important to restoring the economy of upstate and western New York, or to spurring the use of wind and solar power statewide. There is also a planned $850-million underwater cable to bring power from New Jersey to Manhattan on NYPA's plate. So its next leader really ought to be an energy professional, and those in the governor's office say that's what they're looking for.

That's heartening, as was the announcement this week of a committee to seek the next MTA head. It includes Richard Ravitch, the former lieutenant governor and MTA chief who burnished his reputation rebuilding New York's subway and rail services in the 1980s, and former MTA executive director Mortimer Downey, along with other transit professionals and advocates. It's a highly able collection of people told to search for a well-qualified MTA leader. And if Cuomo chooses one, it will bode well for his intention to give priority to the state's well-being over the politics of power and payback.