MTA: No More Cuts Please!

This is the first in a three-part series by Allan Rosen, examining why cuts are bad, how ineffective planning hurts the system, and how the MTA can deliver better results.

THE COMMUTE: Today is June 27, which marks exactly one year since the MTA implemented the most devastating bus service cuts in New York City history. It is one of the reasons why bus ridership continues to decline while subway ridership is rising. My extensive criticism of these cuts months before they were actually made when few realized how devastating they would be was also is the first time Sheepshead Bites mentioned my name.

Many may have not agreed with the actual cuts that were made, but it was also widely acknowledged that due to the MTA’s budget situation some cuts were unavoidable. That was due to Albany raiding funds that were dedicated for mass transit. The Transit Lockbox Act was passed by the Senate and the Assembly last week to make it much more difficult for Albany to continue this practice in the future. It would be good news, but the wild card is Governor Cuomo. While being an outright proponent for gay marriage, which he signed into law this past week, there are no indications that he will do the same for the Transit Lockbox Act.

Why Transit Cuts are Bad

Transit cuts historically have been a bad thing because they make travel more difficult and take longer, increase crowding, slow down buses and trains, discourage ridership, reduce revenue, cause the transit fares to rise, encourage automobile use, increase air pollution and health risks, and result in fewer jobs – thus hurting the economy by lowering tax revenue. Worst of all, it leads to additional transit cuts so that the cycle starts all over again. Now you would think Governor Cuomo would realize this as Albany finally has.

The MTA needs all the money it can get, but it also needs to get its house in order. When I asked State Senator Colton last year why he voted for transferring dedicated MTA funding to the general fund to help balance the budget, he told me “because no matter how much money we give the MTA, they only waste it.” After years of the MTA coming to Albany with their hands outstretched asking for more money each year, and Albany obliging, they finally said “No more. Enough is enough.” It would be similar to your child asking you for a higher allowance each year when he only spends the extra money on buying more video games instead of what you would consider useful.

For years the MTA has been criticized for wasting money and spending it inefficiently. They have always insisted that they are doing the best they can with the limited resources they have. That was until Jay Walder became Chairman. To his credit, he was the first MTA Chairman to admit that yes, the MTA can do a much better job in managing its finances, and vowed to reduce waste and has indeed done some of that. He has also promised no more massive service cuts in the future because he has seen their effect after attending a few of the public hearings. Of course, if he or others in charge would ride a bus once in a while, they would know first hand what the rest of us go through each day, but they don’t. All they know is that buses are slow and there is a lot of traffic. That is only the tip of the iceberg. We know the rest.

Routine Service Adjustments

Although service cuts are bad, something else the MTA does every three months, called “routine service adjustments,” is a good thing. This is what is called matching service to demand based on MTA “service planning guidelines.” Where ridership falls below these guidelines, service is decreased, and when it rises so that buses become too crowded, extra buses are added. Before this practice started in the mid-1980s, service rarely matched demand outside of rush hours. Beach service was so overcrowded that non-beach goers had to wait hours at certain stops for a bus to pick them up. That’s right I said “hours” like from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Of course most would just give up and go home or walk a longer distance to a train if possible.

In 1982, while doing planning at the MTA, I studied a half dozen crosstown Manhattan bus routes and determined that although ridership was only one third in the midday of what it was during the rush hour, the same level of service operated all day long. I recommended reduced service during middays so the savings could be applied where the buses were overcrowded. That is the theory behind matching service to demand.

Unlike major service cuts, these routine service adjustments do not require any public hearings, and they should not. Public hearings would tie the MTA’s hands, preventing them from implementing any type of service efficiencies. Now here is the problem. Unless the cuts are being implemented due to a budget necessity such as was the case last year, the net effect of making these routine service adjustments should be a zero change to the MTA’s operating costs. That is, even if the total ridership drops by say 1 percent, total service should remain the same because every time you reduce overall service, you just further erode ridership.

Manhattan’s Bus Service Adjustments

The MTA recently announced routine service adjustments in Manhattan. Most routes will see service decreases; just a few will have service levels increased. Although NYCT President Thomas Prendergast stated that the purpose of the changes are not to improve the MTA’s budget, these adjustments will still save the MTA $900,000. The fallacy with this statement is that this amount of money will only be saved if it does not result in a single lost passenger trip, which history has shown time and time again is just not true. People will walk for short trips if the wait is too long. In fact, the MTA may only save half of that amount or actually even lose money by not factoring lower transit revenues into the equation. The MTA must stop treating operating costs and revenues as if they are unrelated.

Tomorrow: Why MTA’s Operations Planning is All Screwed Up

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).