The Will of the People – Part 3

Road to Nowhere: The still-under-construction Second Avenue Subway tunnel. Source: Flickr/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

THE COMMUTE: In the first two parts, I discussed the role of the public in transit decision-making and how well the MTA responds to the public, and who is to blame for the state transit is in today. Today we look at why more money alone is not the answer, the need for change and how to get those changes to take place.

Lessons From History

You can institute congestion pricing but that does not mean the monies will go towards transit or that they will in the amounts that you expect. The city could apply the revenue toward street maintenance or reconstruction, which would have been funded through the general fund with most of the remainder going toward program administration. The MTA could get only a pittance and the city could immediately seek to raise a $16 congestion fee to $25 or $30. They would then continue to raise it every few years, as the MTA currently does with fares and tolls, while we see little improvement to our mass transit system.

Remember how the lottery was supposed to benefit education by providing additional funds for education? Did that happen? No. The State merely replaced the general fund money it had used to fund education with lottery money.

Turning over the bridges and tunnels to MTA control was supposed to have provided the MTA with a new steady stream of revenue, forever ending their financial problems. Did that happen? No. And who warned us that tolls would rise from 25 cents to $6.50 in a little over 40 years when they had not risen at all in the previous 40 years? We thought that doubling the tolls to 50 cents was all that would be required with perhaps some minor increases in the following decades, but certainly not an increase in tolls of more than tenfold without improving the MTA’s financial picture.

Passing two transportation bond issues was supposed to get us a full length, four-track Second Avenue subway and a Utica Avenue and Nostrand Avenue line among others. Did that happen? No. Time and time again we were lied to by the politicians and the MTA; now we should just trust them on congestion pricing, that this measure would improve mass transit to a significant degree? Luckily, the proposal is dead until the next time it is revived.

Is Transit Money Wisely Spent?

You can flood the MTA with money, but does that mean it will be spent wisely? The East Side Access Project was initially intended just to bring the LIRR into Grand Central Station, shortening commutes by about 30 minutes. Since its inception, the project’s scope and cost has continually increased with the opening date postponed several times. Now we are building an underground city featuring 23,000 square feet of new retail space, 46 escalators and 13 elevators costing $7.3 billion, and the project has taken decades to complete and will not be ready until 2016, if that date is not changed again.

Do we really need a Moynihan Station to replace Penn Station and a number 7 line extension? Also, why are all the major projects in Manhattan when jobs are growing faster outside Manhattan, as shown by Behind the Curb? Aren’t there four other boroughs that need major mass transit expansion?

Couldn’t monies be more efficiently spent by reactivating underutilized or abandoned rail lines, such as the Bay Ridge Line, Staten Island’s North Shore Line and the unused Rockaway Line, where the right-of-ways already exist? Couldn’t we use a new cross-Brooklyn mass transit line that could also serve JFK by hooking up with Airtrain at Jamaica?

What is preventing the MTA from using new operating funding for managerial increases instead of restoring or improving service? Absolutely nothing. The MTA can spend monies it receives as it sees fit, except co-intermingling capital and operating funds. That is not to say that managers do not deserve a raise. They have not had any in four years. But why does it have to always be a percentage increase rather than a flat amount?

Do MTA employees earning $150,000 a year deserve three times the salary increase as someone earning $50,000? Do they work three times as hard? It was my experience in the 25 years I worked for the MTA that as my salary and pay grade rose, less was expected of me, not more. A percentage increase only assures that the rich get richer and that is in the best interests of upper management who make that decision. A little like Congress voting themselves pay raises. The governor is trying to end the practice of employees working exorbitant hours of overtime during their last three years of service to greatly inflate their pension. Every little bit helps.

The Need For Change

Clearly something needs to change. At one end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that if only the MTA had new sources of funding, such as congestion pricing, we could fund all sorts of transit improvements, and that the obstacles are the politicians, the unions and the NIMBYs, while the MTA is just mainly an innocent victim.

At the other end, we have people such as Dr. John Rozankowski, who believes the answer is to abolish the MTA altogether and return control to the city. He has written a series of eloquent articles on that subject. Whatever changes we see, if any, will result from the will of the people.

We can accept the status-quo and just continue to complain that the MTA sucks, or we can make sure our elected officials hear our voice: that mass transit needs adequate funding to continue current operations, as well as funding for the future to enable major system expansion. We cannot merely continue to borrow at the rate we have been in the past to make capital improvements shifting the financial burden to future generations. We need new sources of revenue directly allocated to specific projects and more federal aid.

The needs of the public must not be the missing entity in union / management negotiations. Their voice needs to be heard. There must be more than one person on the MTA Board to represent the public’s interest, and they need voting power. Marty Markowitz has long proposed that each of the borough presidents be given a seat on the board. While not perfect, it makes more sense than the seats being filled by real estate interests and bankers.

The MTA must fulfill the job for which it was created: to provide an adequate and integrated regional transportation system that meets the people’s needs. That means more than producing system maps. It means better integrating the LIRR and Metro-North into the bus and subway network. One way to do this is through the fare structure, and that has not been done. MetroCards still cannot be used on the LIRR and it is very costly for Queens residents to use the LIRR for intra-city trips. The fare charged for intra-city LIRR trips should not exceed the cost of an express bus trip and that change could allow a reduction in costly express bus service, which is second only to paratransit in terms of operating cost subsidy.

Instead of working toward the goal of better coordinating regional transit, the MTA is moving in the opposite direction by splitting off Long Island Bus for Nassau County to operate, although they had little choice in that matter because Nassau County would not provide its fair share of funding. Now transit-dependent Nassau County residents will suffer, as service is sure to decline. The MTA must also become more responsive and not continue to ignore the will of the people due to their arrogance.

Just as each branch of government is supposed to work together and check one another, the same must occur with mass transit. Management, the unions, elected officials and the public must all work together to improve mass transit. Each must be equally powerful. Right now, the MTA is at the mercy of the politicians for funding and the public is at the mercy of the MTA, which disregards their opinions to a very large extent. Management and the unions are at odds. There are no common goals and no one is working together to enable meaningful change.

What Must Be Done

Elected officials must recognize the worth to our city of a well-functioning efficient mass transit system that is extensive and affordable enough to get everyone to their destinations in a reasonable time. The highway system or the private sector must fill in where densities are too low to make mass transit economical for government to operate and both mass transit and highways must be adequately funded and maintained.

The MTA and the unions must be willing to work together. The MTA must make necessary changes and the public needs to play a larger role in decision-making, but NIMBY’s must not be allowed rule by preventing a larger public good. Whatever organizational or legislative changes needed to make that happen must take place. The playing field needs to be leveled. No single player should be holding all the cards in any situation.

The only way we can ensure that our mass transit system will be able to adequately serve current and future needs is if people become more involved. They must exert a greater influence over our elected officials who must become more interested in mass transit and properly fund mass transit.

The MTA must see that its money is well spent for current services and future needs, as well as showing a greater interest in serving the public by being willing to invest more in the services it provides and listen more. Instead we have an MTA that insists any service improvements be accompanied by service decreases so that service levels will always remain stagnant, regardless of the need to increase service either because of increasing ridership, or because of new land uses that demand improved transit service.

We must set our sights high and not be satisfied with second best. Select Bus Service is no replacement for new transit routes. Meaningful change will only occur if it is the will of the people.

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).