Southern Brooklyn

Demanding Transit Accountability: Can Someone Please Explain How $358 Million Can Turn Into $20 Million?

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“This MTA budget not only lacks accountability, but is also most certainly not elementary, my dear Dr. Watson!” Source: The Gentleman Blog

THE COMMUTE: This can only happen in government. Governor Andrew Cuomo announces that he is making $358 million more available for the MTA in next year’s operating budget. The following week, the MTA announces it is deciding how to spend the new $40 million it will be receiving, while other analysts are claiming the amount is closer to $20 million. Just as the governor’s “new” money can disappear in only one week, so can the additional monies raised by a fare increase. Is it any wonder why transit riders and taxpayers are so frustrated?

Former MTA Chairman Jay Walder claimed that the MTA is entering a new era of transparency. Well, someone is not being transparent and it is either the governor or the MTA. This is a perfect example of how government is not supposed to run. I am not a finance expert or an accountant and never claimed to be, but I can tell when someone is stealing from me. I would like to know why the media is more interested in telling us how Justin Bieber is combing his hair this week than even mentioning, heaven forbid investigate, what the story is behind this discrepancy? Are the MTA’s finances that complicated that no one even understands them? How can $338 million just vanish into thin air without anyone, besides me, even caring to ask what is going on? I guess it doesn’t really matter when we can just soak transit riders for higher fares every two years. I wish I had some answers here.

“Why, this budget makes no sense at all!” Source: Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Frank Wiley for “The Valley of Fear,” from The Strand Magazine, September, 1914 / Toronto Public Library

Future (for lack of a better term) MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast recently directed his staff to investigate which services discontinued in 2010 could be restored. The obvious choice is to return the subway service guidelines to what they were prior to the cuts so as not to plan for standees during non-peak hours. Next would be to restore more bus service cuts. I discussed other ways of spending the money here. But why bother when the surplus will probably turn to a deficit before we can even figure out how to spend it?

What we need is transparency and accountability. Both Cuomo and the MTA have some explaining to do here and the media and our elected officials must ensure they do that. If not, they are shirking their responsibilities by keeping silent. The simple story is that the MTA already budgeted the new money the governor recently announced. However, that explanation is not good enough. It is not even clear if this new money is replacing funding from last year when Cuomo partially eliminated the payroll tax. That is muddled in the difference between payroll tax transfers and normal tax receipt transfers.

How Do We Get More Transit Accountability?

Some of the mayoral candidates believe the problem lies with Albany and if the City operated the subways which it presently owns and leases to the MTA to operate for $1 a year, our accountability problems would diminish. But would it? I mentioned that idea here and will not discuss the pros and cons right now. I will only make the same point that Prendergast made that with the responsibility comes the financing.

Most of the mayoral candidates realize this with the exception of so-called front runner (by the media) Christine Quinn who is in favor of not only the city taking over its subways and buses, but the entire MTA, which also operates Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road outside the city as well. While it may make some sense for Metro-North to add stops in the Bronx, is takeover the way to accomplish that and how likely are the suburbs to go along with that idea? Many think she is being unrealistic or irresponsible, yet the media will not say anything negative about her while continuing to focus on John Liu’s past campaign financing problems.

What Is Transparency And Accountability?

Transparency is not advertising a public hearing link that is broken for two weeks prior to the hearing and is fixed just a day or two before or announcing that video testimony will be postponed due to Hurricane Sandy, then only changing the location but not the time.

Transparency is not stating seven different start dates for the beginning of a new service.

Transparency is not advertising 10 corridors on page 29 (or 37 online [PDF]) as potential candidates for the second phase of Select Bus Service, then choosing an 11th one to fast track, which one Queens city councilman states could be implemented within a year.

Transparency is not burying important information in documents, hundreds of pages long, on a page entitled “Board and Committee Materials,” in which you have to scan through innumerable links and documents for the exact date of the information you are searching for and when it was archived, without the information you are seeking always showing up in a search.

Transparency is not presenting survey results without disclosing the survey methodology, as was the case when stating on page 19 that 99 percent of SBS riders were satisfied or very satisfied with the M15 SBS.

Transparency and accountability are more meaningful breakdowns as to where the MTA funding comes from and how it is spent. This information should be in an easy to find link on the MTA’s website. Presently, to obtain financial information, you have to go to MTA Home, then Transparency, then Budget and Financial Statements, and finally MTA 2013 Adopted Budget. On page 11 of the 377-page document, you will find some pie charts relating to MTA funding. For more detailed information you have to sift through the 377 pages. Showing the planning service guidelines is also a must so that planning is not shrouded in mystery.

Conclusion

This disappearing money has raised questions regarding responsibility and the media: Why is the media ignoring this question completely and why are they are not saying anything negative about mayoral candidate Christine Quinn? There was a demonstration last week against Quinn led by the people you would least expect to demonstrate against her: gays and lesbians. The only coverage was provided in a You Tube video made by the group leading the protest. Their website is also worth checking out.

It should not require 377 pages to explain how the MTA receives and spends its money. MTA funding needs to be simplified so that a steady stream of direct revenue is provided with less shifting of funds that allow politicians to play games so that no one can understand or clearly explain what is happening. The media and elected officials must also ask the right questions. There should be an easy to find link that simply shows how the MTA receives and spends its money using categories that are more meaningful to riders, such as comparing the amounts spent on different types of services provided, (local bus, express bus, subways, paratransit, etc.) and how much is spent on items such as service, maintenance, fuel, etc.

Otherwise, the governor will be able to continue to steal precious MTA funds and the MTA will continue to remain unaccountable. Transparency must be more than a slogan. What happened to the $358 million is far more important than this week’s top transit story, that additional subway stations will soon be receiving Wi-Fi.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA / NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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