How’s MTA Chairman Joe Lhota Doing?

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota. Source: Flickr | Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

THE COMMUTE: When MTA Chairman Joe Lhota took the helm at the MTA from Jay Walder at the beginning of this year, I asked the question: New ideas or same old politics? Last week I stated that Lhota has begun to turn the MTA in the right direction by announcing service restorations, such as the B4. Prior to Lhota, the MTA was purely in cutback mode. Has the MTA really changed? Have they reversed their trend of reducing service?

I don’t think so. The service restorations represent only one-third of the service that was lost. Transportation Alternatives is not satisfied. They want all lost service returned and for Governor Andrew Cuomo to stop the fare hike. All it takes is the failure of one assumption in the MTA’s Financial Plan for the MTA to announce additional service reductions in the future, which they will claim they have been forced into.

The MTA issued a press release last week discussing this plan. It is an important one and should be read in its entirety. Here are a few excerpts:

MTA Presents Financial Plan Update
Budget Remains Balanced, But Long-Term Challenges Persist
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) today released its 2013 Preliminary Budget and July Financial Plan for 2013-2016. The plan builds on cost cutting initiatives begun in 2010 — the most aggressive series of cost cutting efforts in the MTA’s history — to help achieve a balanced budget in 2013 and reduce deficits in the years ahead. Those cost cutting efforts generated $686 million in annual recurring savings in 2011; that figure is projected to grow to $745 million in 2012, $870 million in 2013, and $1.13 billion by 2016.
The plan released today describes a fragile stability for the MTA budget, and it assumes that four key components will meet current expectations: continued receipt of dedicated taxes as projected, continued success of the MTA’s savings initiatives, three years of net zero labor cost increases, and continuation of biennial fare and toll increases.
[…]
The budget assumes that MTA cost control initiatives will save $870 million in 2013, and the public will be contributing nearly $382 million in increased fare and toll revenue. The budget depends on the MTA’s partners in labor contributing as well, by agreeing to three years of net zero labor cost increases, which will contribute $227 million toward the MTA’s bottom line in the 2013 budget. Raises would still be possible for unionized employees, but they would need to be offset by changes to costly work rules or increases to employee health care contributions.

The MTA continues by listing all the measures it has taken to control costs and new steps it is taking. They make it appear that the MTA is doing everything possible to operate more efficiently and the rest is up to the unions, the government and the public.

How The MTA Is Not Being Honest

The first sign is that the MTA refers to its restoration of one-third of the 2010 service cutbacks by calling them “Service Investments” not service restorations. They are trying to make it appear that additional service is being added. While this may be true for a few routes the MTA has hinted at creating, it is not true for the vast number of “investments” which are not investments at all.

The second sign is that the MTA does not mention any areas where more efficiency is needed, such as the need to reduce the costs of paratransit. Most paratransit users use it as a last resort. I really doubt the offering of free rides on regular transit will reduce paratransit demand in any great numbers. Why is it that the MTA switched from private automobiles to vans and most vans still carry single occupants rather than multiple riders? Couldn’t paratransit trips be scheduled more efficiently with more combining of trips? The MTA makes it appear that they are currently doing everything possible to improve efficiency. But are they?

As I have written many times, bus bunching on virtually every route, which involves more than 30 percent of all buses, needs to be brought under control through better scheduling and dispatching. A near empty bus following an overcrowded one highlights the inefficiency of the bus service being provided. Can’t more steps be taken to avoid this? Buses should not arrive and leave their terminals bunched. The MTA continues to blame traffic as the entire cause of bunching and the press release does not recognize the MTA’s role in controlling it or if it plans to use Bus Time, scheduled to be implemented in Brooklyn by the end of 2013, to greatly reduce bunching.

If the MTA could control bus bunching, perhaps up to 25 percent of bus service could be reallocated to service underserved areas where many rely on car services. That would provide additional revenue to the MTA, making it more efficient.

The MTA assumes the union will agree to a zero cost increase for three years, which is very unlikely. They state that non-represented wages have been frozen since 2008. They do not state that as soon as the fare increase goes into effect, that will no longer be the case, that MTA non-represented employees will be rewarded, probably with three, four or five percent increases as has been the case prior to 2008.

Conclusion

Former MTA Chairman Jay Walder was the first MTA chairman to admit that the MTA is inefficient. Hr took the first steps to correct that by cutting managerial positions. He was forced into doing that and cutting service because of reduced state funding. Lhota took a first small step in the right direction by announcing some service restorations. Omitted from the press release is what the MTA still needs to do to better serve the public. Improving customer service, being more honest and responsive and improving service to underserved areas head that list.

What is so difficult in announcing which train will depart first when two trains going to the same destination arrive on different tracks? Watch this video embedded in this New York Times article. This is a situation that need never occur if the MTA cared about its passengers, and one that doesn’t cost money to change.

Demand exists for bus service in underserved areas and to destinations not adequately served currently and at affordable fares. This is evidenced by the demand created by recently discontinued bus service to Chinatown. The MTA is now first hinting that there is demand not currently served. When the MTA recognizes all the areas not adequately served, and takes steps to correct that situation by restructuring the entire bus system, not merely making band-aid changes, they then will have truly turned around. Joe Lhota, are you reading this?

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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