Monday, June 29, 2009

Who's to Blame for the MTA Mess? Everyone

While the Doomsday budget was avoided thanks to yet another bailout (this one coming from New York in the form of, among other things, a payroll tax), that doesn't mean that service cuts and fare hikes were not going to happen. Today the single-ride fare for buses and subways went from $2.00 to $2.25 and the monthly went from $81 to $89. It's OK, though, because this is an economic boom time and people have money to burn. Oh, wait...

So who is to blame? Some will blame Albany for not stepping in to completely alleviate the MTA's budgetary issues, others will blame the MTA for allowing things like pensions and other costs get out of control. I, however, will take the middle road and say it is both parties' faults.

First up: Albany. Let's go back to early last year when the buzz phrase was "congestion pricing." Charge a fee to take your car into the most congested areas of Manhattan (below 60th Street) between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. It made sense; if you want the luxury of driving in Manhattan you pay for it. Let's not forget that driving is not a right, it's a privilege. The money generated from said congestion pricing (around $491 million a year) would go to mass transit improvements which are desperately needed, despite it being a great system already). But those in the city and in Albany could not muster the political stones to put it to a vote in the capital, and *POOF* it disappeared like the governor of South Carolina.

Then Albany could not pass a measure as simple and common sense-laden as tolls on East River and Harlem River bridges. Every other bridge and tunnel in the city is tolled, why should these be any different? They could not even pass a measure making it a $2 toll (the same as a MetroCard single ride). Who was one of the "gang of three" (as the Daily News dubbed them)? Pedro freakin' Espada. You can't make this stuff up.

Now onto the MTA. One thing that we hear a lot about now is pensions. Work in a public outfit (police, fire, mass transit) retire in 20 years with a fat pension. The only problem with that is that the contributions workers put into those pension programs do not equal what they receive in the end (with the latter being much more than the former). So who pays for that money? States and municipalities via (you guessed it) your taxes. Pension payments have the ability to bankrupt state and local governments - and that nightmare could become reality if something is not done about it (see California). Massachusetts recognizes the danger that an out-of-control pension system can create and has taken the beginning steps to reign it in.

So what happens when the MTA tries to reel in pension costs by (gasp) asking the future recipients of said pensions to contribute more to their future pensions (akin to a 401k)? The workers strike. Here is the one time that the MTA stood up to the unions, the unions reacted negatively, and the MTA ended up putting its tail between its legs and wetting itself. Then-chairman of the troubled authority, Peter Kalikow, later publicly admitted that it was a mistake to ask workers to put more of their money into a system that gives them money later, saving the general public millions of dollars. Again, you cannot make this up.

So here we are, paying $2.25 a ride while getting service cut during the worst recession in recent memory. We had chances to forestall or maybe even avoid something like this (pension reform, congestion pricing, tolls on untolled bridges), but thanks to a smorgasbord of incompetence from everyone involved, the citizen is left holding the bag (in this case, a bag filled with ineptitude and others' debt). Some people are optimistic, though. Take Debbie Peiser, a hair and makeup artist from the Lower East Side: "It's not like it's an extra dollar each ride. If things are going to improve, then I don't mind it." Her biggest complaint? "I swiped it, and I was expecting a round number." Oh, to be young and naive.

MTA subway (junkyardparadise's flickr), Albany, where seemingly little gets done (Tyler McCall's flickr),

1 comment:

  1. And Mass. just rejected a pike toll increase and instead raised the sales tax...