MTA Audit A Disappointment, But Not Entirely

THE COMMUTE: It’s been a busy news week for commuters.

The Port Authority has proposed to increase PATH fares from $1.75 to $2.75 and peak-hour round-trip bridge and tunnel tolls for non-E-ZPass users to $15 from the current $8.00.  A new entrance was opened at the Fulton Street transit complex.  The MTA announced they lost $31 million last year to fare evasion. The New York Times revealed more insight into the reasons MTA Chairman Jay Walder resigned his position, effective in October; it appears that he received a cool reception from Governor Cuomo.

However the most noteworthy development of the past two weeks was the release of a joint audit of the MTA from the State and City Comptrollers, their first joint audit in 10 years. The subject of the audit is Subway Service Diversions for Maintenance and Capital Projects, which are necessary and yet so annoying.

The report has received much criticism. Called pointless by Ben Kabak in, and misguided and petty by the Daily News, I thought I would take a look for myself.

Some of the recommendations are totally off base, such as the MTA needs to advertise its subway diversions more in the newspapers. The report never asks the question if newspapers are the best way to get the information out today. It is not, with increasing numbers of people relying on smartphones and the Internet. It is also more economical for the MTA to send out email alerts as it has been doing and publicizing all diversions on its website. Of course, signage is provided on the stations as well. The report could have analyzed the clarity and sufficiency of the signage, but it chose to only criticize the MTA for not providing enough signs.

As justification for its conclusion regarding newspaper ads, the report cites the fact that the LIRR spends more in newspaper ads than New York City Transit, despite having fewer riders. Instead, it should be asking the question if the LIRR is being wasteful by spending too much on newspaper advertising. Perhaps New York City Transit is making the correct decision by being more frugal. The report does not make any connection between the infrequency of newspaper ads and its effect on riders not being aware of the service changes. So the recommendation is quite useless.

The MTA is also criticized for posting signs only in English at the 39 stations visited. Most stations were in or near Manhattan. In Midtown Manhattan, English is all that is necessary since the MTA could never accommodate the hundreds of languages spoken by tourists.  Perhaps the stations in East Harlem could have benefitted from a translation into Spanish, but those stations only accounted for three of the 39 stations studied.  If there were no signs in Chinese or Korean in Flushing, or no signs in Russian in Brighton Beach, that would indeed be a problem. However, no stations in those neighborhoods were studied.

It is one thing to criticize, but the criticism must be justified. In this case, much of it is not. If the MTA spent more than the LIRR on newspaper ads and translated every sign into a half dozen languages, Comptrollers Liu and Napoli would be the first to criticize the MTA for wasting taxpayer money.

Another recommendation that hinders rather than helps is the one that suggests the MTA is spending too much money on shuttle buses when there are subway service outages. The recommendation is based on a single observation at 96th Street, where there were only about five passengers aboard these buses. The report assumes that the lack of patronage is due to outdated ridership estimates.

Most likely, the lack of passengers was the result of poor coordination with an incoming train and not a result of excess service. Subway shuttles are usually crowded and more are usually needed, not less. See two of the comments in this Sheepshead Bites article. There have also been complaints of shuttle buses not arriving for 30 minutes after a diversion starts, or buses being bunched in one location.  If one member of the audit team was familiar with the subway system, they would have been able to ascertain why the buses were not full. In the MTA’s eagerness to cut service, they responded that in the future they will reduce subway shuttles by 10 percent.  When they are criticized for doing this, they can always cite the audit report – and they will.

In one instance the MTA is criticized for not resuming service when work was completed about 10 hours early. It does not address the logistical problems of calling up work crews in the middle of the night. Crews do not magically materialize, and since the public was not expecting service to resume early anyway, this really isn’t a problem.

The report mentions that Transit could not provide all the necessary documentation requested, and highlights the need for greater accountability for each service diversion.  The MTA recognizes the need for greater accountability and is taking steps to correct this.

The MTA is criticized for going over budget performing work on four of the 12 diversions studied. It states that these four contracts cost $83 million – $26 million over the estimate of $56 million. In their response, the MTA points out that the total costs also included costs for support activities such as flagmen, work trains and inspections of completed work – not only the costs of diversions.  So we do not know the actual amount that it was over budget.

A key finding is that 10 to 27 percent of the work time during repairs is unproductive. The MTA responded that a certain amount of unproductive time is necessary for safety reasons such as the time needed to cut power. The auditors would have known that if any were familiar with transit operations and should have taken this into account to determine how much unproductive time was truly not necessary.

Still the report cannot be dismissed entirely. It recommends that a savings of $10 million could be achieved if unproductive time could be reduced from 27 percent in some locations to 10 percent – not an unreasonable suggestion. However it needs to be noted that there were over 3,300 diversions during the two-year study period. A savings of $10 million averages out to a savings of only $3,000 per diversion, so there doesn’t appear to be massive amounts of waste.

However if $10 million were saved, added to the $31 million saved if fare evasion could be eliminated entirely, you start to talk about real money – enough so that two-thirds of the bus service reductions last year could have been avoided.

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).