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New York Post

 

MTA Madness: The Politicians Haven't Helped

December 19, 2008

By Nicole Gelinas

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THE MTA was subjected to a wave of rage from the public and politicians at this week's public hearing. The average citizen has a legitimate gripe—but our political "leaders" have been a big part of the problem, and still are.

We should have used the biggest boom New York has ever seen to build a 21st-century transit system—investing in real, physical assets such as more and faster express tracks to the boroughs. Instead, we're stuck talking about alleged shoe throwers, billion-dollar deficits and aged subways in danger of deterioration.

But Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Paterson can keep this painful embarrassment from turning into a tragedy.

Wednesday, a slew of elected officials berated an MTA budget that includes 23 percent- plus fare hikes and service cuts for next year.

Comptroller Bill Thompson (one of the calmer speakers) and various other politicos talked a lot about how the MTA should avoid "unacceptable fare hikes" and the like. They also made lots of promises to help the MTA get more cash (up to $2 billion a year) from taxpayers and bridge-crossers.

Yes, the MTA needs more money, both to allow for a more reasonable fare hike and for higher capital spending. But one reason transit is in dire straits is that city and state leaders have given it a low priority.

Since 2003, the city's budget for education, for example, has grown 42 percent faster than the MTA's budget—even though public-school enrollment shrank while train and bus ridership soared. The city has also lavished money and political attention on things like subsidies for sports stadiums—when better subway rides could have helped millions.

Yet the MTA's bigger problems are ones that the politicians fear to touch—starting with the Tranport Workers Union.

Consider: The MTA's costs for pensions, health care and other benefits are up 51 percent since 2003. The agency now spends more on those outlays than on the debt costs that fund its capital plan.

Sure, the MTA can do more to streamline management and find other non-union savings. And it must do far more to detail its back-office spending to a deeply skeptical public.

But the MTA can't solve its problem in the back office. "Administrative" workers (the bulk of the white-collar staff, other than the engineering force) make up only about 7 percent of the agency's 70,000-odd workers. And these admin workers will shoulder 16 percent of expected job cuts next year, or double their theoretical "fair share."

The MTA is also taking other reasonable, if modest, cost-cutting measures, like trimming out some layers of management and restructuring over-expensive contracts for disabled service (which have soared in recent years).

That general approach is sound: Cut disproportionately in areas that should be invisible to the rider.

But elected officials must insist publicly that the MTA do the same thing with its outdated labor costs - which are set to soar in the next few years, because the agency will have to replenish pension funds that have plummeted with the Wall Street crash.

The simple math dictates that MTA must get its workers to pay higher contributions for their health care, and it must significantly change pension benefits for new workers—reforms that have to add up to at least a couple of hundred million dollars a year over time.

Paterson and Bloomberg need to be publicly clear on these minimum goals before the TWU contract comes up next month—and clear that the public can't and won't dedicate new funds to the MTA until labor gives something back.

They should also be clear that it's not a matter of punishing hard-working people. It's a matter of nodding to modern reality—where most people can't afford to retire before they're eligible for Medicare, and where a guaranteed pension is so immensely valuable that it has to come at a much higher cost than TWU workers now pay.

But just as important is introducing flexibility into the labor force. As the MTA prepares to cut bus lines, for example, it should see (but can't, thanks to the TWU) if it can contract out some express services to companies like Bolt and Mega Bus—which do an excellent job, cheaply, on the Boston-to-New-York route with union and non-union workers.

It took years for the politicians to create the cost mess in which the MTA finds itself; it will take more time to solve it. We're going to have to find new money for it, in tandem with labor reform—we can't afford to let the subways sink into decay just to make a point.

Of course, elected officials should question what the MTA does with its money, including new money. But they also need to realize that the fault doesn't lie totally within the MTA—they've got to start doing their jobs, too.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/12192008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/mta_madness_144877.htm

 

 
 
 

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