THE COMMUTE: In New York, MTA means Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In the 1970s and 80s, critics claimed it really meant “More Trouble Ahead” with frequent announcements of projects coming in over budget and behind schedule. In the years since, little has changed. More recently, we have been plagued with: fare and toll hikes, service cutbacks, and the state stealing money from the MTA.
In The Commute, I have highlighted where the MTA has not spent its limited funds wisely:
- Emphasizing technology over service and redoing work more than once, such as replacing recently installed barriers and replacing Bx 12 Select Bus Service (SBS) fare machines after only three years of operation because they were originally installed without weather protection.
- Replacing benches that could have been maintained to last many more years, and
- Questionable real estate deals
Expensive projects, such as East Side Access and the Fulton Transit Center, have also had its critics wondering if the work scope could be narrowed, thus enabling the work completed to be quicker and at lower costs. Former MTA Chairman Jay Walder was the first to admit that perhaps the MTA is not as efficient as it can be. He took steps to streamline administrative expenses instead of merely looking toward the fare, more borrowing and service cuts to plug the MTA’s budget problems. His motto was “making every dollar count.” He also pledged more accountability. Current MTA Chairman Joe Lhota claims to be continuing where Walder left off when he broke his contract last year, and hastily departed for more lucrative employment in the Far East.
Now the New York Daily News revealed another way in which taxpayers have been ripped off. Since 2005, the MTA has lost $16 million as they and Visa quibbled about expanding an upgrade at MetroCard vending machines to thwart credit card fraudsters. Neither the MTA nor Visa considered the amounts of money lost significant enough to be concerned about. The logic was that the amounts, with the exception of the LIRR, did not exceed one percent of annual sales revenue, the industry standard to determine if there is indeed a problem.
“Money Thrown Away”
Now with contract negotiations underway, TWU Local 100 is challenging MTA’s claims that it is trying its best to be efficient. The union claims MTA really stands for “Money Thrown Away.” On their website of the same name, they make a case for the MTA to break its lease at its 2 Broadway headquarters, which the MTA spent $100 million $845 million to renovate [corrected]. Instead, they should renovate their current headquarters on Madison Avenue, which it owns and plans to sell. They also propose the MTA reuse and renovate 370 Jay Street, which it leases from the city for $1 a year and abandoned years ago. Those moves would save the MTA $63 million per year in leasing costs for 2 Broadway, according to the union.
Local 100 believes the vast amount of money the MTA poured into 2 Broadway was unnecessary and an example of MTA waste. Let’s not be fooled, their motives are to show that if the MTA would be spending its money more efficiently, there would be more money for a better contract deal. Likewise they have also recently suggested the MTA rehire platform conductors to make crowded platforms safer. Is their prime concern really passenger safety or is it jobs availability for their members? Nevertheless, some of their arguments regarding office space are worth looking into further. They also insist that more work could be performed in-house at a lower cost rather than being contracted out.
The union also states the MTA can place more offices underground on unused subway mezzanines, offices they have been abandoning. It is difficult to determine if they are correct without talking about actual square footage available at each location, and hearing the MTA’s side. There are also other considerations. For example, would moving offices underground increase labor costs if frequent trips to headquarters are required? That was one of the reasons I criticized the location of the Howard Building. It required frequent travel to and from 370 Jay Street, wasting countless millions of dollars in labor costs during the 10 years that the building was leased, when a closer location — 345 Adams Street — was available.
Their argument regarding the need for a new MTA central revenue facility in Maspeth, at a cost of $300 million to build, neglects to mention that the facility is not only the revenue facility for the subways and buses but also for the MTA’s E-Z Pass. Again, we are not hearing the complete story or the MTA’s side. The shift from tokens and coins to credit and paper currency may have reduced the feasibility of continuing to collect revenue using money trains or there may be other factors whereby one central MTA facility is more efficient.
The Fate Of 370 Jay
The real estate issues now are:
- What will be the fate of 370 Jay Street and the current headquarters on Madison Avenue and
- If the properties are disposed of, will the deals made be in the best interests of the public. Or will the real estate industry, which the MTA has close ties with, benefit the most from the sales?
Will the public get screwed again, as many think happened when the MTA disposed of its air rights over Atlantic and Hudson Yards? Will the city give away 370 Jay Street to a privately owned NYU, as Mayor Bloomberg is contemplating? There is also talk of the MTA using the site for a combined MTA Business Service Center to handle all payroll for all MTA agencies. If so, would that function utilize all 13 floors? Remember that was the entire space New York City Transit Authority occupied for 15 years (excluding field offices) prior to the creation of the MTA.
Next week: My personal observations of waste at the MTA.
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).
Correction (2:34 p.m.): The original version of this article originally stated that the MTA spent $100 million to renovate its 2 Broadway headquarters. The actual amount spent was $845 million. We regret any confusion this may have caused.