Keeping top transit chiefs in tough times

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. A far cry, maybe, from how Billy Ocean intended it, but this old English proverb loosely describes the state of transit management in North America’s two largest systems.

Just over a week ago, New York’s MTA Chairman and CEO Jay Walder announced to everyone’s surprise that he would be departing two years into his six-year term for private transit operator MTR Corp. in Hong Kong. Although first seen as simply the obvious career move for an ambitious transit leader, recently reports hint at a poor relationship with a Governer disinterested in transit and difficult labor negotiations looming without the hope of new government revenues contributing to Walder’s decision.

This new twist strikes a curious parallel to the TTC’s Gary Webster, who recently found himself in the crosshairs of the Brothers Ford. With support now rushing to his side, it seems less likely he’ll follow Walder overseas — at least in the short term — but could you blame him if he did? The challenging state of transit funding in much of the continent has both attracted and cultivated top talent, who have transformed some of the most cash-strapped agencies into extremely efficient organizations. But for how much longer they’ll stick around with booming systems in Asia looking for top talent is anyone’s guess.