10 Needed Changes To The MTA’s Business Practices

This is the third 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, in the final segment of this series, I give a rundown of the much-needed, common sense changes — from planning to priorities, and buses to bias-elimination — that the MTA needs to make in order to operate more efficiently and effectively.

1. The planning process needs to be transparent so decisions made by the planners can be questioned, and possible mistakes in analyses could be easily identified and corrected.

2. Before making any additional service cuts — and I am not speaking of routine service adjustments, only ones that result in an overall reduction of service — the MTA must first make sure that it has eliminated every inefficiency they can, as well as strive to revise union regulations to permit further efficiencies. They owe that much to the riding public.

Instead, when funding is scarce or when there is a downturn in the economy, the MTA first looks to cut service rather than eliminate waste such as by improving logistics so that track workers do not have to wait around two hours for materials to be delivered in order to begin work.

3. The viewing of communities, the unions, and elected officials as enemies must end. They should be treated instead as allies who want to improve our mass transit system. No amount of money will solve that one — only a major change in attitude. You don’t make friends by ignoring them, lying to them or misleading them, as the MTA frequently does.

Case in Point – I am now waiting eight months for a reply from the MTA’s Director of Operations Planning (after numerous reminders to him and his superiors) regarding his promise to investigate moving the new B4 bus terminal at Coney Island Hospital middays and weekends so that passengers can transfer between the B4 and B68 in both directions instead of only one. The MTA must be more responsive to its passengers and be more honest with them. When you are talking about walking distances, for example, you do not measure them “as the crow flies” to minimize the impacts of service cuts, as the MTA did last year.

There are many who are not familiar with the inner workings of the MTA, who believe that all the MTA’s problems will be solved if only they received enough funding. Yes, funding is important, but it is by no means the MTA’s only major problem.

4. Misplaced priorities are another. As part of Jay Walder’s push for technology, Mr. Walder is now considering expanding the number of countdown time clocks and retrofitting 20-year-old subway cars with new electronic signage as exists in the newer cars. This new equipment will only have to be maintained by in-house forces once the manufacturers’ warranties wears out.

Is this truly more important than painting station ceilings or repairing broken subway tile? Many stations have not seen a paint job in a generation or more. Or how about repairing age-old drainage problems, which pour water from the subway station ceilings? More permanent solutions than placing a bucket under a drip need to be found. When was the last time the lack of an electronic sign discouraged you from taking a train or bus? But I bet a scary looking or poorly maintained subway station or underpass did.

5. The MTA’s bias against buses must end. The MTA tries to force people into subways even if it means longer walks and longer trips for some, like taking two or three trains, changing in Downtown Brooklyn and then a bus, as opposed to taking one direct bus (the B4) from Bay Ridge to Sheepshead Bay, for example. They did this by eliminating B4 service in Sheepshead Bay one year ago.

The MTA wants to provide as little bus service as possible because trains are cheaper to operate when you don’t consider the long-term capital costs to maintain the system. The only upkeep with buses are the buses themselves, and the depots. The subway system, on the other hand, requires upkeep of an entire infrastructure. When all costs are considered, are trains really cheaper? Buses have their place and need to be treated with the same dignity as subways, not as a stepchild.

While the MTA expands new technology in the subways, what are the chances that the GPS pilot study on the B63 will be declared a success and expanded system-wide so that the 70-year old problem of bus bunching can finally be controlled?  Or will the MTA simply conclude that the money just isn’t there? After 30 years of studying GPS and other tracking devices and spending tens of millions of dollars, their track record on this one is not good.

6. New York City Transit (NYCT) and MTA Bus need to be better integrated. Last year’s service cuts resulted in the elimination of several New York City Transit express bus lines, which performed much better than MTA Bus Express Bus routes that were retained. This was due to subsidies available for MTA Bus, which could not be applied to NYCT. Perhaps this needs to be revisited so that, when cuts are made, all routes are on the same level playing field. Better integration would also permit efficiencies such as merging the B2 and B100 operating a block apart for a portion of their routes and reassigning buses to closer depots. (A merger, however, would also require alteration of other routes like the B9 or B41 so as not to create longer walking distances for those wanting to transfer to the Brighton Line.)

7. The MTA should not be allowed to change its Service Planning Guidelines whenever it wants to. State legislative approval should be required. They need to be made public on the MTA’s Transparency tab on its website.

8. The MTA’s intolerance for diverging opinions that do not conform with the party line must end. Was it coincidence that the most outspoken MTA board member, Norman Seabrook, who voted against making last year’s service cuts, did not have his term as board member renewed when it expired?

Was it coincidence that the MTA supervisor, who promised me she would request additional service for the B1 bus, would be investigated a few months later for time fraud? MTA insiders know when the MTA wants to get rid of someone — the first thing they do is to look for irregularities with your time.

Was it coincidence that the only top MTA employee, who would honestly respond to every one of my emails (about 20) the very same day he received them, would resign a month later with the rumor being that he was forced to resign?

Okay, maybe I am getting a little paranoid, but there seems to be a pattern here of punishing those who are not following the MTA’s agenda of providing the least amount of service they can get away with politically. Their agenda should be how to best serve the public.

9. Restructure bus schedules to allow for adequate amounts of running time. Delays caused by heavy passenger loadings, as well as wheelchair passengers, must also be considered in addition to traffic congestion. A bus driver is much more likely to display his “Next Bus Please” sign if picking you up means he has to sacrifice part of his lunch break.

MTA dispatchers also need to take more corrective action to get buses closer to schedule. This may require bus drivers with one or two passengers asking them to switch buses when two buses are running together. Years ago, late B1 buses would turn around at Corbin Place when there was little passenger traffic at Kingsborough Community College, saving them about six minutes, so instead of you having to wait 20 minutes for a late bus, you would only wait 14 minutes. That’s a big saving.

10. Finally, why is it that most of the MTA’s voting board members are from the real estate and banking industries? Why are the most knowledgeable people about the system, the ones who use it, not the ones who make the decisions? If those responsible for running the system actually used it more than taking only one bus or subway line, if that much, they would understand much more and would not be so willing to cut service.

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).