The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is increasingly a shambles. Delays are routine, the bus system—with the slowest service in the U.S.—has lost 100 million passenger trips since 2008, and vital infrastructure projects run billions of dollars over budget or stall for lack of funding. A recent state comptroller report forecasts that by 2021, the MTA will spend more than $3 billion each year on debt service, on top of the $21.6 billion that the agency budgets for operations. Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for funding the MTA through a toll on cars entering the most crowded parts of Manhattan, but even the estimated $1 billion annually that such congestion pricing would bring in would be consumed by projected cost increases within three years.
Cuomo’s authority to nominate MTA board members essentially puts the agency under his control, but he has dodged accusations of mismanagement. When his GOP gubernatorial challenger Marc Molinaro pressed him on the MTA’s wasteful spending in a debate, Cuomo admitted that the MTA had some “waste and abuse,” but not enough that cutting it would cover its capital needs. The MTA could not be improved, Cuomo claimed, without new revenue.
Molinaro has it right, however: the MTA is, if anything, overfunded. It spends far more than other large transit agencies and wastes several times the amount that congestion pricing would raise. The MTA’s budget has soared over the last decade, though it has scarcely expanded service. In 2007, the MTA spent $12.8 billion in operating expenses and an additional $1.7 billion in debt service. In 2017, it spent $19.1 billion in operating costs—a 58 percent increase, far outstripping the same period’s 18 percent inflation—and $2.5 billion in debt service. By 2022, according to the MTA’s July 2018 financial plan, operating costs will reach $22.2 billion. The increase stems largely from labor costs, which swelled from $7.3 billion in 2007 to $11.2 billion in 2017, and which will reach $12.9 billion by 2022.
Other large cities’ transit systems operate far more efficiently. The London Underground, for example, outspans the New York subway—at 250 miles to New York’s 234—and offers more frequent service, with most lines running a train every three or four minutes, even during midday. Transport for London, the agency that runs the Underground, also operates bus service, with 9,549 buses—twice as many as the 4,451 vehicles owned by the MTA’s New York City Transit division. In fiscal year 2017–18, Transport for London spent £4.75 billion, or roughly $6.2 billion, to operate its subways and buses; New York City Transit spent $9.5 billion in 2017. Transportation writer Alon Levy calculates that New York spends $15.10 to move a subway car one mile, compared with London’s $9.30 and Paris’s $9.60.
The MTA’s inefficiency stems mainly from poor use of labor. In 2017, for example, the agency paid $1.2 billion in overtime, over one-tenth of its total labor expenses. Overtime payments have almost doubled since 2010, when the state comptroller warned that, during the previous year, the MTA’s “culture of acceptance” of excessive overtime had let 3,269 employees rack up overtime payments amounting to at least half their salary.
More significantly, the MTA is overstaffed. Few subway systems other than New York City’s, for example, employ both drivers and conductors. Most subways manage with just one worker on board, or even none—Paris and Copenhagen, among other cities, have fully automated some subway lines. And New York has made few attempts to reduce subway labor expenses. In 2005, the MTA tried to remove conductors from the L train after technology upgrades enabled one-person train operation, but the state Supreme Court ruled that the agency had violated its labor contract and ordered the obsolete conductors reinstated.
Overstaffing is worse on the MTA’s commuter railroads. Many suburban railroads in Europe have eliminated conductors in favor of a system called proof-of-payment, in which plainclothes fare-inspectors check riders’ tickets at random; the MTA’s Select Bus Service uses a similar system. Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road could save large sums by adopting proof-of-payment. In 2017, for example, the LIRR paid its 1,055 conductors $124.9 million, or slightly under $120,000 each. (Their average total compensation, including benefits, is probably closer to $200,000.) The LIRR’s conductors, along with its 281 assistant or special-duty conductors, constitute more than half of its train-operations staff.
Pointless work rules, especially on the LIRR, also waste money. According to transit activist Patrick O’Hara, for example, the LIRR’s labor contracts require full staffing at one maintenance facility even when the manpower is not needed, letting some mechanics earn triple their base salaries through overtime. LIRR train drivers also earn double pay on every day that they operate both a diesel train and an electric train, though these trains have nearly identical controls.
New York’s commuter railroads are as a result several times more expensive than those of their counterparts in other cities. In 2017, fares on the LIRR and Metro North covered, respectively, 32.1 percent and 39.5 percent of their operating expenses. Paris’s mass-transit agencies logged a comparable 37.7 percent. But fares in New York are much higher: a monthly LIRR ticket from Penn Station to Hicksville, for instance, costs $297, and a monthly Metro-North ticket from Grand Central to White Plains $268, while an unlimited monthly pass for almost every bus, subway, and railroad in the Paris region costs only 73.20 euros, about $86.
Cuomo has passed up several opportunities for MTA reform. In 2011, both the Manhattan borough president and the head of MTA Capital Construction publicly acknowledged the agency’s high capital costs, but the state government in Albany never investigated the root causes of these high costs, even in comptroller’s reports on MTA finances. And though Cuomo claimed in last week’s debate that, thanks to his anti-waste efforts, certain unions “have been mad at me for seven years,” he has accommodated the MTA’s unions. In the summer of 2014, LIRR workers, already the best-paid railway workers in the U.S., and two years removed from a massive disability-fraud scandal, threatened a strike unless they could get their 17 percent raise spread over just six years, rather than seven. A labor stoppage could have offered an opportunity to pare back the LIRR’s byzantine work rules, but Cuomo intervened at the last minute, forcing a compromise that left the work rules intact. It’s hard to believe that transit unions are mad at Cuomo when, during his primary battle with Cynthia Nixon, the Transit Workers’ Union campaigned for him.
The costs of traffic congestion in Manhattan—$20 billion per year, by one estimate—are so severe that congestion pricing would be worthwhile even if the money it raised was burned. But unless the MTA makes a clear public commitment to reform, its service and infrastructure will continue to decline, regardless of how much money it raises. New Yorkers might be better off reconciling themselves to inferior subway service and putting the money to less futile uses, such as lowering the city’s high taxes. Without reform, no amount of extra MTA funding will solve things.
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